Spivak pronoun

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The Spivak pronouns are a set of gender-neutral pronouns in English promulgated on the virtual community LambdaMOO based on pronouns used in a book by American mathematician Michael Spivak. Though not in widespread use, they have been employed in writing for gender-neutral language by those who wish to avoid the standard terms he, she, or singular they.


The precise history of the Spivak pronouns is unclear, since they appear to have been independently created multiple times.

The first recorded[1] use of the pronouns was in a January 1890 editorial by James Rogers, who derives e, es, and em from he and them in response to the proposed thon.[2] Coincidentally, Scottish author David Lindsay used the similar forms ae and aer in his novel A Voyage to Arcturus, to refer to non-terrestrial beings "unmistakably of a third positive sex".

In 1975, Christine M. Elverson of Skokie, Illinois, won a contest by the Chicago Association of Business Communicators to find replacements for "she and he", "him and her", and "his and hers". Her "transgender pronouns" ey, em, and eir were formed by dropping the "th" from they, them, and their.[3] (See 'em.) The article that first reported the pronouns treated them as something of a joke, concluding with the line, "A contestant from California entered the word 'uh' because 'if it isn't a he or a she, it's uh, something else.' So much of eir humor."[4]

Writing in 1977, poet, playwright, and linguist Lillian Carlton submitted a letter to the journal American Speech reporting (and arguing against) the invention by "an American professor" (likely Donald MacKay[5]) of pronouns based on "the long sound of the vowel e i".[6] Although her primary argument against the proposed word is her assertion that English "already [has] a perfectly good... word that refers to either sex", namely "one", she also raises the observations that "spoken fast, it comes uncomfortably close to the illiterate hisself... [Furthermore], ee sounds too much like he and would therefore be confusing."[6] Similar arguments, along with the desire to distance themselves from the male-centric singular he and derivatives, are still a primary factor in the proliferation of constructed pronouns.[citation needed]

Also in 1977, Jeffery J. Smith, Emeritus Professor of Philosophy and Humanities at Stanford University, writing under the pen name "Tintajl jefry", proposed "Em" as "a personal noun-pronoun which in itself gives no indication of sex, age, or number, though these may be shown by its context."[7] He proposes a vast number of possible uses for "em", including but not limited to the replacement of "the formal Dear, because em is a thou word, a term of respect for all people, bar none... Dear Em Doe is redundant. Em Doe is enough, and, since it is brief; it makes room for given names: Em John Doe, Em Mary and John Doe, or, better, Em Doe John, Em Doe John and Mary."

The May 1980 issue of American Psychologist reported on another study by MacKay, testing rates at which subjects miscomprehended the gender of a subject in textbook paragraphs when written with he meaning he or she compared with three epicene pronoun sets: E, E, Es, Eself; e, e, es, eself; and tey, tem, ter, temself.[8]

In 1983, mathematician Michael Spivak wrote the AMS-TeX manual The Joy of TEX: A Gourmet Guide to Typesetting with the AMS-TEX Macro Package (1986) using E, Em, and Eir. His set was similar to Elverson's, but capitalized like one of MacKay's sets.

In May 1991, a MOO programmer, Roger Crew, added "spivak" as a gender setting for players on LambdaMOO, causing the game to refer to such players with the pronouns e, em, eir, eirs, emself. The setting was added along with several other "fake genders" in order to test changes to the software's pronoun code, and was left in place as a novelty. To Crew's surprise, the Spivak setting caught on among the game's players, while the other gender settings were mostly ignored.[9][10]

Other writers applied Elverson's original "th"-dropping rule and revived ey, such as Eric Klein in his legal code for a planned micronation called Oceania.[11] John Williams's Gender-neutral Pronoun FAQ (2004) promoted the original Elverson set (via Klein) as preferable to other major contenders popular on Usenet (singular they, sie/hir/hir/hirs/hirself, and zie/zir/zir/zirs/zirself).[12]


Three variants of the Spivak pronouns are in use,[clarification needed] Rogers (1890), Elverson (1975), and LambdaMOO (1991), highlighted in the declension table below. The pronoun set used by Lindsay (1920) is also in use,[13] although generally not in the context of Spivak pronouns.

Declension table for Spivak pronoun variants
Variant Subject Object Possessive adjective Possessive pronoun Reflexive
Masculine he laughs I hugged him his heart warmed that is his he loves himself
Feminine she laughs I hugged her her heart warmed that is hers she loves herself
Singular they they laugh I hugged them their heart warmed that is theirs they love themself
Rogers (1890)[2] e laughs I hugged em es heart warmed
Lindsay (1920) ae laughs I hugged aer aer heart warmed that is *aers ae loves *aerself
Elverson (1975)[4] ey laughs I hugged em eir heart warmed that is eirs ey loves emself
"anti-Carlton" (1977)[6] ee laughs *ees heart warmed that is *ees ee loves eeself
Tintajl (1977)[7] em laughs I hugged em ems heart warmed that is ems em loves emself
MacKay (1980) E laughs I hugged E Es heart warmed
Spivak (1983)[a] E laughs I hugged Em Eir heart warmed
LambdaMOO "spivak" (1991)[14][15] e laughs I hugged em eir heart warmed that is eirs e loves emself

The original ey has been argued to be preferable to e, because the latter would be pronounced the same as he in those contexts where he, him, his loses its h sound.[16]


Spivak is one of the allowable genders on many multi-user dungeons (MUDs) and MOOs (MUD object-oriented). Others might include some selection of: masculine, feminine, neuter, either, both, "splat", plural, egotistical, royal, and second. The selected gender determines how the game engine refers to a player.[citation needed]

On LambdaMOO, they became standard practice for help texts ("The user may choose any description e likes"), referring to people of unknown gender ("Who was that guest yesterday, eir typing was terrible"), referring to people whose gender was known but without disclosing it ("Yes I've met Squiggle. E was nice."), or of course characters declaring themselves to be of gender Spivak. Since 2000 this usage has been declining.[citation needed]

Nomic games, especially on the Internet, often use Spivak pronouns in their rulesets, as a way to refer to indefinite players.[17]

Spivak pronouns and gender in virtual communities[edit]

In online anonymous situations, Spivak and other gender neutral pronouns can be motivated by avoiding gendered speech that would make divisions in the social group more likely and the group possibly less productive or enjoyable.[18] This contact with genderless pronouns in virtual communities is sometimes a person's first experience and experimentation with presenting their gender in a genderqueer or transgender manner.[19]

Publications employing Spivak pronouns[edit]

Elverson 1975 set (ey, em, eir)[edit]

  • Carter, CJ (2011-05-26). Que Será Serees: What Will Be, Serees?. CJCS Publishing. ISBN 978-0-615-48304-7.
  • Klein, Eric (1993). "Laws of Oceania". Oceania — The Atlantis Project.
  • O'Friel, Morgan (2007). Larkenia's Flaws: Volume 1. Grand Rapids: TheSpindle. ISBN 978-0-615-14753-6.
  • Edwards, RJ (2009–2014). "Riot Nrrd".

"Spivak" 1991 set (e, em, eir)[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b The Joy of TeX uses "E", "Em", and "Eir", always capitalized.


  1. ^ Baron, Dennis E. (1981). "The Epicene Pronoun: The Word That Failed". American Speech. 56 (2): 83–97. doi:10.2307/455007. JSTOR 455007.
  2. ^ a b Rogers, James "That Impersonal Pronoun." Editorial. Comp. William Henry Hills The Writer Boston. Jan. 1890, 4th ed.: 12-13. Google Books. Google. Web. Accessed 31 July 2014. [1].
  3. ^ Scanned clipping from Black, Judie (1975-08-23). "Ey has a word for it". Chicago Tribune. p. 12., published in Guest Blogger (2011-07-02). "The Rise of "Transgender"". The Bilerico Project. Archived from the original on 2011-11-25. Retrieved 2011-10-27.
  4. ^ a b Black, Judie. "Ey Has a Word for It." Chicago Tribune 23 Aug. 1975, sec. 1: 12.
  5. ^ Martyna, Wendy (1980). "Beyond the 'He/Man' Approach: The Case for Nonsexist Language". Signs. 5 (3): 492. doi:10.1086/493733. JSTOR 3173588. S2CID 144075372. Citing Donald G. MacKay, "Birth of a Word," manuscript, Department of Psychology, University of California at Los Angeles. However, if MacKay ever wrote this manuscript, it does not appear on his CV or anywhere else easily discernable.
  6. ^ a b c Carlton, Lillian E. (1979). "An Epicene Suggestion". American Speech. 54 (2): 156–57. doi:10.2307/455219. JSTOR 455219.
  7. ^ a b jefry [sic.], Tintajl. "Una: The Emerging Language of the World". (Em Institute 1997), pp. 1-4., cited in Lockheed, Marlaine E. Curriculum and Research for Equity: A Training Manual for Promoting Sex Equity in the Classroom. Rep. no. Classroom Guide. Washington, DC.: Women's Educational Equity Act Program (ED), 1982. pp. 110-113 [2]
  8. ^ MacKay, Donald G. (May 1980). "Psychology, Prescriptive Grammar, and the Pronoun Problem" (PDF). American Psychologist. 35 (5): 444–449. doi:10.1037/0003-066x.35.5.444.
  9. ^ Jones, Steve (1998-07-15). CyberSociety 2.0: revisiting computer-mediated communication and community. Sage Publications. ISBN 978-0-7619-1461-7.
  10. ^ Moomail from Rog to Lig, 2001-08-26, quoted in Thomas, Sue (March–April 2003). "Spivak". The Barcelona Review (35). Retrieved 2011-10-27.
  11. ^ Klein, Eric (1993). "Laws of Oceania". Oceania — The Atlantis Project.
  12. ^ Williams, John (2004). "Gender-neutral Pronoun FAQ". Archived from the original on February 9, 2014.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: unfit URL (link)
  13. ^ "My pronouns are: ae/aer". Pronouns.page. Retrieved 28 January 2024.
  14. ^ Anderson, Judy (1992-05-26). "Re: cross-gendered players". Newsgrouprec.games.mud. Usenet: 1992May26.192745.7155@lucid.com.
  15. ^ From 1998 through 2011, LambdaMOO's "help spivak" output described the spivak set as "E – subject", "Em – objective", "Eir – possessive (adjective)", "Eirs – possessive (noun)" and "Emself – reflexive".
  16. ^ "GNP FAQ - Technical". Archived from the original on 2014-02-02.
  17. ^ Martin, W. Eric. Meta-Gaming 101. Games. Issue 193 (Vol. 27, No. 7). Pg.7. September 2003.
  18. ^ Herring, Susan. "Gender Differences in Computer-Mediated Communication: Bringing Familiar Baggage to the New Frontier." Making the Net*Work: Is There a Z39.50 in Gender Communication? American Library Association Annual Convention, Miami. 27 June 1994. Web. 1 Aug. 2014. <http://urd.let.rug.nl/~welling/cc/gender-differences-communication.pdf>
  19. ^ Jones, Steven, Cybersociety 2.0: Revisiting Computer-Mediated Community and Technology, Sage Publications, Inc., United Kingdom, 1998
  20. ^ "Pronouns, Anglish". orionsarm.com. 2001-03-06. Retrieved 2017-07-26.

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