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In Defense of the Singular “They”: A Guide On The Gender-Neutral Pronoun

Gender Fluid, Continuing EducationKC Clements
Image by Rebecca Lieberman

Image by Rebecca Lieberman

By KC Clements

For those of us who don’t identify as men or women, pronouns can be a tricky subject. In the past few decades, transgender, non-conforming and non-binary folks have developed a number of solutions to the pronoun predicament, including avoiding pronouns all together and inventing new ones.

Others like myself have chosen to adopt the singular they/them/their as our preferred pronouns. Doing so allows us to skirt the issue of constantly being misgendered as he or she, while using a pronoun that already exists in the English language.

Still, for many people, making the adjustment to using the singular they can be a challenge, especially in a world where we’ve been told since grade school that it is grammatically incorrect.

So, here are a few pieces of advice for folks on how to be a good ally to your they/them friends:

1. Get acquainted with the arguments in favor of the use of the singular they.

The use of the singular they dates back to the 14th century and can be found in works by authors including Geoffrey Chaucer and Jane Austen. It was only in the 19th century when people began to question its use, opting for the clunky “him or her” to refer to a person whose gender is unknown.

Though many people have been arguing its validity for years, recently the singular they has begun to gain widespread acceptance. In 2015, The Washington Post added the singular they to their style guide and the American Dialect Society, a group of professional linguists, voted the singular they as the word of the year. Recently, the folks at Merriam Webster argued in favor of the singular they in this awesome Twitter exchange.  

But, aside from arguments about strict grammar, the singular they is part of our everyday use of language. Think about how often you use they/them to refer to a person whose gender you don’t know (For example: “Someone just called. They want to know if the manager is here.”) Using the singular they is not only something we’re accustomed to doing, but it’s also a simple repurposing of language that is already available to us.

2. Focus on supporting your friend, not on your own feelings and reservations.

Regardless of whether or not the singular they is grammatically sound, the use of they is here to stay. It may seem like pointing out arguments to the contrary is helpful, but ultimately it does more harm than good.

Sure, making the change might be difficult for you. But, think about the challenges your friend is facing, and try not to take up too much space with your own feelings. After all, language is malleable and so are you! Changing your perspective will help to create safe and nurturing environments for your trans and non-binary friends.

3. Use your friend’s pronouns in all situations, not just when they’re around.

It can be easy to slip out of using the singular they when you’re around people who aren’t used to doing it. But, it’s important that you set the right example. Often we pick up on a person’s pronoun use based on how other people refer to them, so if you’re using the wrong pronouns other people will too. If you slip up, just correct yourself and move on.

4. Respect your friend’s wishes with respect to their pronouns.

For some folks, preferred pronouns can vary based on the given situation. Often trans and non-binary folks’ safety can be on the line in situations where there are people who are hostile to our existence. As such, some folks may prefer that you use the singular they for them in some situations, and another pronoun in others. In some situations, a person’s choice to opt for he or she as a pronoun, even if they is their preferred pronoun, can help prevent misgendering and ease dysphoria.

Many people choose only to use the singular they around folks who they feel comfortable with and who they know won’t misgender them. The best bet is to ask your friend what they prefer and follow their lead!

5. Be prepared to do some educating.

Just as you may have had a hard time making the adjustment to using the singular they, other folks you come into contact with may as well. For those of us who use the singular they, the work of educating about our pronouns and our identity is an exhausting and ongoing task. Use your privilege to educate others and to take some of the burden off of your trans and non-binary friends.

6. Recognize that people who use they/them pronouns look and identify in many different ways.

There are many different ways to be trans, non-binary, genderqueer, or gender non-conforming. Some people express their non-binary identity in a visible way. And though others may not express their non-binary identity outwardly, they may still experience their gender as falling outside of the binary. Still others may identify as non-binary, but for reasons of comfort and safety may present themselves in ways that you might read as falling within the binary.  Lastly, you may also encounter people who you read as gender non-conforming but use he or she as a pronoun; defaulting to they can sometimes be hurtful to folks who do identify within the binary.

Ultimately, the best approach is to ask if you’re unsure of someone’s pronouns. In fact, it’s always a good bet to ask pronouns for all new people you meet!

Here are a few additional resources that you can check out and share with your friends!

  • Riley J. Dennis breaks down the linguistic side of using the singular they
  • The Worriers rock the singular they in this awesome song They/Them/Theirs
  • This Feministing article by Davey Shlasko and this Huffington Post article by Maddie Crum show how using the singular they is helping to make a better and safer world for trans and non-binary folks
  • An argument on Wear Your Voice Magazine questioning the use of they/them by Ashleigh Shackelford, a non-binary black femme
  • nonbinary.org’s useful wiki on gender neutral pronouns in other languages

KC is a queer, non-binary, white, able-bodied writer based in Brooklyn, NY. They hold an M.A. in Gender Politics from New York University. You can follow their writing at aminotfemme.wordpress.com.