Singular 'They' Pronoun Is the Wave Of The Present

09/22/2016 08:28 pm ET Updated Sep 28, 2016
Jeffrey Marsh

Call me ‘they,’ as in ‘they are awesome.’

I know some people think alternative pronouns are very “special snowflake.” I get it. I agree that we’ve got much bigger problems in this world. We need to deal with terrorism, racial inequality, the pay gap. This is why I rarely demand that people say the right words around me. At the same time, it is psychologically important for people to use respectful language that matches (my LGBTQ) identity. In everyday speech, we must adopt they/them to refer to gender-fluid people like me.

‘They’ is appropriate.

I do not identify as “man” or “woman,” and language should reflect that. Since “they” is already in our language, it has the best chance of broad adoption as a queer alternative to he or she. But wait! It’s plural! Step back armchair grammarians. Yes, we clearly use they for groups (”They formed a coven!”), but we also already use they to refer to a single person. “Someone left their umbrella here. I hope they come back and get it.” See, singular... Sure, the traditional phraseology is “Someone left his or her umbrella here” but no one says that anymore. And remember, the absolutely traditional way was “Someone left his [yuckily implying his covers everyone] umbrella here.” We thankfully got way over that. If you are a traditionalist at heart though, don’t worry. The American Dialectic Society has you covered. The ADS made gender-neutral they the 2015 Word of the Year: “The use of singular they builds on centuries of usage, appearing in the work of writers such as Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Jane Austen.”

Currently, when we speak about someone whose gender is unclear or unknown (because the person’s identity is unknown) we use they. I’m just asking you to use it for me even though...I’m known. The term gender-fluid was recently added to the Oxford English Dictionary with this note: “’they’ has been adopted in the gender-fluid community as an easy-to-understand gender-neutral pronoun.” They is easy, and when people insist that it is incorrect, I suspect an underlying or unconscious bigotry (as opposed to a new-found adamant loyalty to preserving the English language). This is why, by the way, they is not a “preferred” pronoun. I don’t prefer it over he like someone might prefer vanilla over chocolate. They is my pronoun, period.

‘They’ is respectful.

Yes. I get it. Using “they” feels awkward. It seems so...weird...so hard to do. And it’s hard to remember! But awkwardness of usage has never trumped English’s march toward inclusivity. ‘Ms.’ was awkward at first. ‘Mx.’ is still awkward for a lot of people. And, I bet that the switch from thou to you was also awkward at times. What I can offer thou today is sympathy, and the clarity that awkward and difficult are not good reasons to avoid doing something vital to people who deserve your respect.

Plus, It’s already happening. Sorry! No matter how we all feel about it, a linguistic change is underway that expresses what is impossible to express with he and she. It might be scary. It might seem weird. You might hate it and disagree, but the change is already happening. Our gendered binary-bonanza language is fraying. So, why not pull threads? Come on along. Impress your new co-worker by asking what pronoun they use. Be on the cutting linguistic edge.

‘They’ is human(e).

Here are some final thoughts on the change itself. Two points ― some context for this kind of language change:

  1. People resist language changes especially when those changes relate to identity and gender. As I hinted at before, when “Ms.” was introduced, people complained that it was ugly ― they said Ms. was clunky and wrong. With time, people got over their initial reactions. People got over needing to know a woman’s marital status from her honorific. People got over the desire to equate grammatical stability with their own personal security.

  2. Again, this isn’t the first time we’ve made a linguistic transition like this. Thee’s and thou’s were once part of everyday speech. You was used as a plural-only term, just like they. You referred to a group of two or more people. Thou was the singular form (and thy was used for your). Eventually, you morphed into a casual usage that also refers to a single person. We can do the same with they.

Don't forget compassion, compassion for you and compassion for the gender-fluid among us. We need teamwork and communication as we learn to speak in a new way. We don't need feeling bad or blame or shame or guilt. I want you to use they for one person and I don't want you to feel bad if that's hard. I want you to tell your family to use they for you if that's right, and I don't want you to make anyone feel guilty if they resist. This is a big change and together we can decide how to go through it. I wish you respect. I wish her respect. I wish him respect. I wish them respect. I wish us all respect.

Ask Jeffrey to speak to your school or group, buy their book How To Be You, and connect: jeffreymarsh.com

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