In which Pooh tries a nonbinary pronoun

In 1929, a year after a new voting law extended suffrage to all women in England, Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin delivered a radio address on education in which he referred to children—boys and girls—as he. This prompted the well-known suffragist, Lady Annette Matthews, to write a letter to the Times complaining that Baldwin’s gaffe demonstrated “the need for a bi-sex pronoun, which would remove from the newly enfranchised woman elector the absurd position of being left to the imagination, or appearing as an afterthought in parenthesis.”

Generic he leaves women out. Matthews’ call for a nonbinary pronoun to replace it prompted men with names like Col. Tusker Mountebank, MBE, Major-General Havenot à Clue, or the Rev. L’Otherfoot, to write to the Times championing the invented pronouns vey, su, tu, oo, heshe, un, hes, lu, heoshe, and hesh. And one woman, Agnes Carter, defended singular they. Carter reasoned that, if plural you can function as a singular, then why not they as well?

Another writer, Lonely in Leeds, felt compelled to mansplain to those readers who might have missed the whole suffrage thing that a new pronoun would placate “what is known as the woman’s movement,” despite the fact that the phrase the woman’s movement had been around for about 80 years, adding his own expert opinion that “the English tongue was framed in days when women were of less account.” Having failed in their attempt to keep women from voting, men like Lonely insisted that any new pronouns should be women’s work, since the need for a new pronoun was clearly women’s fault.


Then, in 1930, A. A. Milne, the creator of Winnie the Pooh, addressed the pronoun issue in his introduction to The Christopher Robin Birthday Book. According to Milne, in a perfect world English speakers would say heesh:

You notice that I say ‘he or she’. If the English Language had been properly organized by a Business Man or Member of Parliament, instead of living from hand to mouth on almost anybody who happened to be about with a pencil, then there would be a word which meant both ‘he’ and ‘she’, and I could write, ‘If John or Mary comes, heesh will want to play tennis’, which would save a lot of trouble. Also I could have made a much better thing of this Birthday Book. As it is, most of the quotations refer definitely to one sex, and more often to ‘he’ than to ‘she’. But you must not let this worry you. If Aunt Emily’s birthday is on July 2nd— well no, let us hope it isn’t; but if it were on April 2nd—no, that’s wrong. Well, what I mean is that the motto for May 11th, ‘He’ll know what to do’, can be read, if necessary, as ‘She’ll know what to do’, and so on and so forth, and vice versa and otherwise. I hope that’s clear. [The Christopher Robin Birthday Book, London, 1930; rpt. New York: Dutton, 1931, pp. vi-vii.]

The Birthday Book presents a quote or motto from one of Milne’s books for each day of the year. The motto for July 2 is “He just happened to hiccup While signing his name” (Now We are Six). Women like the imaginary Aunt Emily, Milne seems to suggest, don’t hiccup in public. April 2 reads, “If John were Me, and I were John, I shouldn’t have these trousers on” (Now We are Six). Here Milne implies that he can’t mean she on April 2 because women don’t wear trousers. And the May 11 motto, the one that Milne suggests could be read for either sex without seeming rude, is “He’ll know what to do” (The House at Pooh Corner).


Christopher Robin going down the stairs with Pooh, from Winnie the Pooh, 1926

A. A. Milne was not the first person to offer nonbinary heesh.The pronoun appears earlier, around 1865, and again in 1900, and it is re-invented or revived from time to time from 1930 to the present. The related hesh was coined as early as 1875 and it too reappears frequently, as does heer, another pronoun formed by blending masculine and feminine forms.

Most coiners of nonbinary pronouns toiled in obscurity, but Milne was a well-known literary figure, and today, discussions of nonbinary pronouns often repeat a truncated version of his comments from The Birthday Book because everybody knows Winnie the Pooh.

What most people miss, however, is the fact that Milne shrugs off heesh as soon as he mentions it in favor of generic he. And despite what Milne says about how to achieve a perfect language, neither the business types nor the MPs of the day were particularly versed in designing language, which really does belong to anyone with a pencil or a voice. Milne’s subtext is that no one really listens to a pronoun coiner. Even more telling is the fact that, in the absence of any real commitment to heesh, Milne concludes that he can be read as she, not always, to be sure—not in mottoes about hiccups or trousers—but certainly on May 11th and at some other times of the year as well.

That’s the problem with generic masculines: he just can’t be counted on to be generic. That was certainly the case with suffrage. In 1850, the MPs made a rare attempt to design language when they passed the Act of Interpretation, a law providing that when words denoting males appeared in statutes, they included women as well. The U. S. Congress passed a similar law in 1871. These he-means-she laws, drafted by men, some of whom actually supported women’s right to vote, prompted suffragists to argue that he in the voting laws gave women the vote. But English and American courts disagreed, ruling repeatedly that yes, he meant she when it came to obligations like paying taxes or punishments like going to jail. But when it came to privileges like voting, holding elected office, or entering a boys-club profession like law or medicine, he always meant “no women allowed.”

Women did get the vote—a 1918 law enfranchised English women who met certain property and residence requirements, and a 1928 law gave the vote to all women—as well as to men—regardless of their net worth. American women got the vote in 1920 with the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment. But the politically-charged pronoun he remained a sore point. In 1922, the San Antonio Evening News shrugged off the suggestion that Edith Wilmans would not be allowed to serve as the first woman elected to the Texas state assembly because the law referred to Texas legislators as he. According to the News, the faux-generic he does even worse damage: “That’s nothing. The same pronoun stands between many women and their liberty.”


A. A. Milne may have floated the idea of nonbinary heesh to get away from the damage that gendered pronouns do. But he was no social radical, at least so far as grammar was concerned, and Milne had no problem fitting generic he into the primarily boys-club world of Christopher Robin, Winnie the Pooh, and their companions in the Hundred Acre Wood.


Another family of bears weighs in on the gender issue


A brief history of singular ‘they’

Singular they has become the pronoun of choice to replace he and she in cases where the gender of the antecedent—the word the pronoun refers to—is unknown, irrelevant, or nonbinary, or where gender needs to be concealed. It’s the word we use for sentences like Everyone loves their mother.

But that’s nothing new. The Oxford English Dictionary traces singular they back to 1375, where it appears in the medieval romance William and the Werewolf. Except for the old-style language of that poem, its use of singular they to refer to an unnamed person seems very modern.

Here’s the Middle English version:

Hastely hiȝed eche  . . . þei neyȝþed so neiȝh . . . þere william & his worþi lef were liand i-fere.

In modern English, that’s,

Each man hurried . . . till they drew near . . . where William and his darling were lying together.

Since forms may exist in speech long before they’re written down, it’s likely that singular they was common even before the late fourteenth century. That makes an old form even older.

In the eighteenth century, grammarians began warning that singular they was an error because a plural pronoun can’t take a singular antecedent. They clearly forgot that singular you was a plural pronoun that had become singular as well.

You functioned as a polite singular for centuries, but in the seventeenth century singular you replaced thou, thee, and thy, except for some dialect use. That change met with some resistance. In 1660, George Fox, the founder of Quakerism, wrote a whole book labeling anyone who used singular you an idiot or a fool. And eighteenth-century grammarians like Robert Lowth and Lindley Murray regularly tested students on thou as singular, you as plural, despite the fact that students used singular you when their teachers weren’t looking. It’s a sure bet that teachers used singular you when their students weren’t lookingAnyone who said thou and thee was seen as a fool and an idiot, or a Quaker, or at least hopelessly out of date.


In 1795, Lindley Murray’s popular grammar textbook still insisted
that thou was singular, you, plural.

Singular you has become normal and unremarkable. Also unremarkable are the royal we and, in countries without a monarchy, the editorial we: first-person plurals used regularly as singulars and nobody calling anyone an idiot and a fool.

Singular they is well on its way to being normal and unremarkable as well. Toward the end of the twentieth century, language authorities began to approve the formThe New Oxford Dictionary of English (1998) not only accepts singular they, they also use the form in their definitions. And the New Oxford American Dictionary (3e, 2010) calls singular they “generally accepted” with indefinites, and “now common but less widely accepted” with definite nouns, especially in formal contexts.

Not everyone is down with singular they. The well-respected Chicago Manual of Style still rejects singular they for formal writing, and just the other day a teacher told me that he still corrects students who use everyone . . . their in their papers, though he probably uses singular they when his students aren’t looking.

In 2017 a transgender Florida school teacher was removed from their fifth-grade classroom for asking their students to refer to them with the gender-neutral singular they. And in 2015, after the Diversity Office at the University of Tennessee suggested that teachers ask their students, “What’s your pronoun?” because some students might prefer an invented nonbinary pronoun like zie or something more conventional, like singular they, the Tennessee state legislature passed a law banning the use of taxpayer dollars for gender-neutral pronouns, despite the fact that no one knows how much a pronoun actually costs.

It’s no surprise that Tennessee, the state that banned the teaching of evolution in 1925, also failed to stop the evolution of English one hundred years later, because the fight against singular they was already lost by the time eighteenth-century critics began objecting to it. In 1794, a contributor to the New Bedford Medley mansplains to three women that the singular they they used in an earlier essay in the newspaper was grammatically incorrect and does no “honor to themselves, or the female sex in general.” To which they honorably reply that they used singular they on purpose because ”we wished to conceal the gender,” and they challenge their critic to invent a new pronoun if their politically-charged use of singular they upsets him so much. Apparently all words and no action, the grammar pedant did not do so. More recently, a colleague who is otherwise conservative told me that they found singular they useful “when talking about what certain people in my field say about other people in my field as a way of concealing the identity of my source.”

R. W. Burchfield, in The New Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage (1996), dismisses objections to singular they as unsupported by the historical record. Burchfield observes that the construction is “passing unnoticed” by speakers of standard English as well as by copy editors, and he concludes that this trend is “irreversible.” People who want to be inclusive, or respectful of other people’s preferences, use singular they. And people who don’t want to be inclusive, or who don’t respect other people’s pronoun choices, use singular they as wellEven people who object to singular they as a grammatical error use it themselves when they’re not looking, a sure sign that anyone who objects to singular they is, if not a fool or an idiot, at least hopelessly out of date.