|number||person||part of speech||word(s)|
|Second||subject pronoun||thou1 you|
|object pronoun||thee1 ye2 you|
|possessive pronoun||thine1 yours|
|reflexive pronoun||thyself1 yourself|
|pronominal adjective||thy1 your|
|reflexive pronoun3||xyrself xemself||hisself himself||herself||itself|
|object pronoun||ye2 you|
|reflexive pronoun3||theirselves themselves|
You've come to this page because you've asked a question such as
What is this "xe"/"xem"/"xyr" business?
This is the Frequently Given Answer to such questions.
They are sex-neutral third-person pronouns and adjectives.
For a long time, there was a hole in the pronoun system of the English language. The first-person and second-person pronouns do not imply sex. However, the third-person singular pronouns all implied sex, and there was no third-person pronoun that did not either imply a specific sex or imply a specific lack of a sex. Although the pronoun "one" implies nothing with regard to sex, it is an impersonal, rather than a third-person, pronoun.
This hole becomes particularly apparent when referring in the third person to people only known by pseudonyms that do not reveal their sex, a common occurrence on Usenet.
However, the existence of this hole is far from a new thing, and it has been acknowledged for many years. As pointed out by Henry Churchyard, Otto Jesperson in 1894 wrote that "it is at times a great inconvenience to be obliged to specify the sex of the person spoken about. […] if a personal pronoun of common gender was substituted for he in such a proposition as this: 'It would be interesting if each of the leading poets would tell us what he considers his best work', ladies would be spared the disparaging implication that the leading poets were all men.".
"Xe", "xyr", and "xem" fill this hole. They are sex-neutral third-person singular pronouns, that unlike the other third-person pronouns (but like the first-person and second-person pronouns) imply nothing about the sex of their antecedents. With them, the pronouns in the English language are as in the table.
Using "they"/"them"/"theirs" as if they were singular pronouns does not fill this hole, as it leads to contradictions in number and ambiguities about antecendents, and cannot be used reflexively:
"The members of the board saw <firstname.lastname@example.org>'s most recent new clients and decided that he is valuable to the company." — Consider the use of singular "they" to eliminate the implied sex of "he": "The members of the board saw <email@example.com>'s most recent new clients and decided that they are valuable to the company." — Using singular "they" has lead to ambiguity. Who is valuable to the company, the members of the board, <firstname.lastname@example.org>, or the clients? With the sex-neutral third-person pronouns this can be made unambiguous once again: "The members of the board saw <email@example.com>'s most recent new clients and decided that xe is valuable to the company." — <firstname.lastname@example.org> is valuable to the company.
"<email@example.com> is very proud of themself." — "Themself" is not recognized as a reflexive pronoun, "theirself" is a contradiction in number, and both "theirselves" and "themselves" simply do not fit at all. However: "<firstname.lastname@example.org> is very proud of xyrself."
"I would like to know if <email@example.com> thinks that they are going to be as successful next year." — Most people read this as a pronoun with no antecedent. Who are going to be as successful next year? Using "he", "she", or even "it" assumes facts not in evidence about the sex of <firstname.lastname@example.org>, and using "they is" instead of "they are" as a form of clarification is a disagreement in number between subject and verb. However: "I would like to know if <email@example.com> thinks that xe is going to be as successful next year."
There have been numerous attempts to fill this hole over the years, dating back as far as 1850. The most common modern alternatives to "xe"/"xem"/"xyr" are:
the "Spivak" pronouns: "e"/"em"/"eirs"
Unfortunately, these are ambiguous, and problematic for the same reason that we have a "she" pronoun in the first place. We have "she" because the original subject case third-person singular female pronoun, "heo", became indistinguishable in certain dialects from "he" in the 12th century. The "Spivak" pronoun "e" is already indistinguishable from the Cockney pronunciation of "he".
Unfortunately, these have a history of being sex-specific pronouns. "hir" is the form of "her" from Chaucerian times. "sie" is German for (amongst other things) "she".
"thou", "thee", "thine", and "thy" are considered archaic by many U.S. English speakers, although they are still in common use in some dialects of U.K. English.
The original object pronoun "ye" is considered archaic by many U.S. English and U.K. English speakers, who use "you" instead, but it is still in common use by Republic of Ireland English speakers.
For first and second person reflexive pronouns, the pronouns are formed by appending "-self" to the pronominal adjective. However, there are two schools of thought on the formation of third person reflexive pronouns:
The first school follows the original etymology from Middle English (such as "himselfum"→"himself") and uses an irregular formation: forming the female and explicit no-sex pronouns by appending "-self" to the pronominal adjective, whilst forming the male pronoun by appending "-self" to the object pronoun.
The second school regularizes the formation, appending "-self" to the pronominal adjective in all cases.
Thus the first school uses "himself" and "themselves", whilst the second school uses "hisself" and "theirselves".
There is no settled formation for the reflexive sex-neutral pronoun, which could be either "xemself" or "xyrself", following either school. The latter, using the regular formation from the pronominal adjective in all cases, is the more popular, however.