Last year, Grammarly polled our social audiences to see if they supported gender-neutral pronoun usage. The results were a bit surprising: more than half of the audience polled felt that the idea of gender-neutral pronouns was a nonstarter.
With this knowledge, I’d like to make an appeal to our audience: consider the singular they. Language has changed a lot in the last year, with the singular they being voted the most important word of the year, and numerous dictionaries adding gender-neutral usage notes. Merriam-Webster even introduced the gender-neutral honorific Mx. to their unabridged dictionary this year, forever ending the question of what to call someone whose gender is nonbinary (i.e., not male or female).
It’s about time we talked about they in particular and gender-neutral pronouns as a whole, and it’s time we discussed why they’re important to binary and nonbinary folks alike.
First, Some Terminology
Since it’s Pride Month, we’d like to start by defining a few key terms in this discussion, with some help from our friends at the Gay, Lesbian, & Straight Education Network (GLSEN). Here are four gender-related terms that you should know:
Gender: A set of cultural identities, expressions, and roles—traditionally categorized as feminine or masculine—that are assigned to people based on the interpretation of their bodies, and more specifically, their sexual and reproductive anatomy. Since gender is a social construction, it is possible for people to reject or modify the assignments given to them and develop something that feels truer and more just to themselves.
Gender binary: A socially constructed system of viewing gender as male or female, in which no other possibilities for gender are believed to exist. The gender binary is inaccurate because it does not take into account the diversity of gender identities and gender expressions among all people. The gender binary is oppressive to anyone who does not conform to dominant societal gender norms.
Nonbinary: Adjective describing a person who identifies as neither male nor female.
Of course, these three terms are just the beginning of a discussion about gender, but for the purposes of talking about gender-neutral or third-gender pronouns, they’re a great start. If you have more questions about gender or sexuality, I’d highly recommend GLSEN’s resources on the subject.
Now, to return to pronouns . . .
One of the great lies about the English language is that it remains static. Grammar pedants and trolls generally operate under a series of assumptions about language, which may or may not reflect current usage and accepted norms. In the linguistics community, there is actually a term for this view of language—prescriptivism.
Unfortunately for prescriptivists, English is constantly changing—and always has been. Some words that grammar pedants scoff at as obnoxious neologisms were in fact coined as long ago as the nineteenth century. Take “dude” for example. Reviled by grammar trolls the world over, this term has provoked the ire of multiple generations of fuddy-duddies. But did you know that it has its roots in late nineteenth-century British dandyism? Although the term originally described a cultural trend in England, it eventually came to mean “clueless city-dweller” to American cowboys and ranchers (as Mental Floss notes, this is also the origin of the “dude ranch”). However, by WWI, “dude” had flip-flopped again to its current meaning—a cool guy.
Even if we adhere to certain rules to make communication easier for people across regions, dialects, and levels of writing proficiency, the language will eventually evolve. The singular they is simply another way English is changing for the shorter, the more empathetic, the better. As we’ve mentioned before, the singular they is not even a new phenomenon. Merriam-Webster includes usage examples of the singular they dating back to Shakespeare, with notable additions from the likes of Jane Austen and even the traditionalist W. H. Auden. The singular they is nothing new, but in making our language more inclusive of people of a myriad of genders, this simple word is becoming more and more important.
LGBTQ Harassment and Personal Gender Pronouns
According to a 2013 GLSEN study, more than 64.5 percent of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer students hear homophobic remarks at school. Of these students, 33.1 percent have heard harassing remarks specifically targeting transgender students. For transgender, genderqueer, genderfluid, and other nonbinary students, this can have extreme consequences, from lower GPAs to missed classes to suicide.
Clearly, language matters, and it’s especially important to people whose gender does not match cultural assumptions. That’s why we support and respect the use of whichever personal gender pronouns a person or group may choose to describe themselves. What’s a personal gender pronoun, you ask? GLSEN defines personal gender pronouns (PGPs for short) as “The pronoun or set of pronouns that a person would like to be called by when their proper name is not being used.” For people who identify as male or female, this is generally he or she, but trans, nonbinary, or gender nonconforming folks may use a variety of pronouns. They could use the singular gender-neutral “they,” but they could also use one of these options:
Although we won’t touch on all the pronoun options listed here, you can see that there are many. So how do you know which one to use? Ask! Asking someone their personal gender pronoun is easy. Just say something like “What pronouns do you use?” or “Is this pronoun right for you?” Most people will be happy to inform or correct you, especially when you ask them early on in your relationship.
Since we’re focusing on the singular gender-neutral they here, it’s important to note that many people at different points of the gender spectrum use “they.” When you’re using it in a sentence, you can say something like this:
“They is a talented artist. I really enjoyed their painting of a flower in art class yesterday.”
But Wait, “They” Is Useful for Everyone!
Now that we’ve talked briefly about how to use they for people who have chosen it as their PGP, let’s talk about how it can help people who identify as he or she. Merriam-Webster sums up the situation well in their usage note for they:
They, their, them, themselves: English lacks a common-gender third person singular pronoun that can be used to refer to indefinite pronouns (as everyone, anyone, someone).
Although English has many great qualities, it’s never been great with indefinite pronouns. Traditionally, he was the default pronoun for a person whose gender you didn’t know, as in this quote from Thomas Huxley:
“Suppose the life and fortune of every one of us would depend on his winning or losing a game of chess.”— Thomas Huxley
But, as many have pointed out, gendering all unknown people as male is sexist and inaccurate. That’s why Merriam-Webster, the Oxford English Dictionary, and the American Heritage Dictionary have recently added notes supporting the use of the singular they for a person whose gender you don’t know. “The trend, then, is clear. Writers who choose to use they with a singular antecedent should rest assured that they are in good company—even if a fair number of traditionalists still wince at the usage,” says the American Heritage Dictionary, in their usage note on the subject.
Admittedly, using the singular they in a formal context may still cause some raised eyebrows, so be careful if you’re submitting a paper to a particularly traditional teacher or professor. But the tides are turning, and English will soon be more efficient because of usages like this:
If Sally or George got a cold, I would have sympathy for them.
Note that, if we did not use the singular they, that sentence would read:
If Sally or George got a cold, I would have sympathy for him.
Or, if we tried to make some awkward amalgam of current language norms, we might write:
If Sally or George got a cold, I would have sympathy for him/her.
Furthermore, if Sally or George identified as a gender other than male or female, even the above Frankenstein-ed sentence would be incorrect. After all, your name does not determine your gender or your preferred gender pronouns.
There must be a better way!
Luckily, using the singular they makes English a more efficient language, and it helps us to avoid awkward sentence constructions. More importantly, though, it allows you to avoid making assumptions about the gender of a person you don’t know.
Their Pronoun, Themself
Of course, not everyone will agree that it’s time to formally accept the singular gender-neutral they. GLSEN’s research reminds us that people who would use they as their preferred gender pronoun have long been the subjects of harassment and discrimination, although things are changing. Grammarly supports the individual choice of pronouns and is using the hashtag #theyisok this week to start a dialogue about PGPs, gender neutral pronouns, and the singular they.
What do you think about the gender-neutral use of they? Leave a comment below, or tweet your experience with personal gender pronouns.