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He said, she said, hu said

October 01, 2006

SOMETIMES AN EDITORIAL WRITER is his own worst enemy. This is a perfectly grammatical sentence, and it may even be true. But it ignores half the human race. Such are the vexing ways of the gender-specific third person singular pronoun. Now, however, the editorial writer has a new weapon in hu arsenal.

That is not a typo. Throughout most of the history of the English language, the pronoun "he" stood in for both genders. But in the last century a variety of more inclusive alternatives have been put forth: The cumbersome "he or she" ("sometimes an editorial writer is his or her own worst enemy"); the awkward "he/she" ("sometimes an editorial writer is his/her own worst enemy"); and the popular yet grammatically incorrect "they" or "their" ("sometimes an editorial writer is their own worst enemy).

A scholar named D. N. DeLuna wants to stop the madness. In the interests of brevity as well as political correctness, she has invented a new pronoun, hu (pronounced with a short "u," like "huh" or "duh.") An epicene (gender-neutral) pronoun that does the work of "he or she" with far less worry and effort, hu fits unobtrusively into almost any sentence and also accepts an apostrophe (hu's) or a suffix (huself).

The gender-neutrally named DeLuna is a writing instructor at Johns Hopkins University and the founder of the Archangul Foundation, which describes itself as "a philological organization committed to using learned discourse for the purposes of reforming the English language." She is christening her pronoun (dubbed "the Hopkins hu") in a book of essays she edited about the political historian J. G. A. Pocock. DeLuna found 17 opportunities among the eight essays to use hu. Such as: "The scholar may legitimately investigate the circumstances and background of the author and hu illocutionary designs in the text." Or: "The risk is that of unwittingly ventriloquizing a satirist's fictions and tropes, such as hu gloomy or shocking exaggerations of hu self-proclaimed role of ethical hero."

No one said hu would make prose more interesting or understandable. There's only so much a single pronoun can do. And for all its weirdness, hu makes its point, even when its user doesn't.

That's good news for academics and political speechwriters (and maybe editorial writers too). But what about normal people? Do the egalitarian principles of hu outweigh the fact that it looks like a Vulcan vocabulary word? Is sensitivity to feminists and grammarians reason enough to reprogram our spell-check programs? Only time will tell, and only the people can decide. Until then, to each hu own.

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