The Singular “They” Is Grammatically Correct, Dammit

Hello!

I just read your identity pronoun piece on Medium and I would like to converse with you about a few questions I have.

My child is currently identifying as non-binary. My only issue is from a grammar stand point. I struggle with referring to an individual in a plural way due to years of grammar education. I truly feel that I (and possibly others) may catch on quicker if it didn’t seem like we were being incorrect with the grammar by being correct in addressing the person.

I truly ask this with an open heart and mind. Do you think due to the creation of the subset — or acknowledgement as it were- that it may be easier for those outside the set to be mindful and those in the set to become recognized?

I look forward to your commentary.

Regards,
Renee’


This is a real email that I received, though I did edit it to be shorter. 

Here is my reply.


Hi Renee’,

I hear ya with the kind intention of this question. You’re not alone in asking it — many, many people do not like the use of the “singular they” as a nonbinary pronoun.

Here are a few resources for you.

Other options for third person pronouns:

Many transgender, gender non-confirming (GNC), and nonbinary folks in the US have been using pronouns aside from he or she for decades. Ze, hir, zir, xie, ey, and per are just a few that some of my community has used over the years. Here is a table of many of the different third-person gender pronouns used in English.

In GNC communities, people choose which pronoun they feel best fits them and resonates for them. The use of the singular they was always one of many, but it is only recently that it has become widely accepted in the mainstream English speaking / US environment.

Why singular they is okay:

Singular they was declared the word of the year by the American Dialect Society in 2015.

It has been in consistent use as a third person singular pronoun since the 1300s. Shakespeare, Chaucer, and Emily Dickinson all use it in their work. The wikipedia entry on it breaks it down quite well. Here is another longer history of the usage of the singular they.

Whether or not you realize it, most people already use the singular they. It is just used more generically, rather than individually. Teen Vogue has a good write-up of the common questions asked about nonbinary pronouns.

Because singular they has been used for so long, it is generally the easiest third person nonbinary pronoun for people to grasp.

Which do you think is easier to say?

  • they went to the store
  • ze went to the store
  • pe went to the store

On changing language:

I get that it’s hard to change the use of something that has always been one way. But language changes all the time. Here’s a list of TED talks that discuss how language is fluid and changes.

Language is solidified by those in power. Those who have been in power have been (are) cisgender people. But language is more of a living thing that both reflects and shapes cultural norms. Changing the language changes the oppression of marginalized people.

Using singular ‘they’ also helps with another major feminist linguistic issue: the way we default to using he/him pronouns as general examples in English. Using they/them solves that problem, and is much less awkward than using “s/he” or “she or he,” and challenges the use of maleness as the norm.

Here are two books for you:

A Quick & Easy Guide to
They/Them Pronouns
The Gender Book


Perhaps this part is the most important:

It takes uncomfortable change to be inclusive and supportive of marginalized people.

Yes, it can be uncomfortable to use the singular they. Yes, it means you will probably mess up as you are getting used to it, and perhaps hurt some people’s feelings, and perhaps have to apologize and learn and do better, and that is uncomfortable. But it is essential to try in order to make a world that can be more welcoming, inclusive, and celebratory of marginalized and oppressed folks.

This is a very clear, very concrete way that nonbinary people are asking to be supportive. Please do it.

Last, but not least:

Please consider doing your own Google research before asking nonbinary people, such as myself, to do research and explain things to you. This has taken an hour of my time that I could be otherwise working for money, being with my friends, or creating my own art.

I decided to do this for you because I am going to use this as my next article and make it public. But next time, please use Google — or a librarian, whose job it is to help you find information! — and educate yourself. There are thousands and thousands of articles, videos, and offerings online that already explain the things you’re asking me.

Things you could Google for additional research:

  • how to use the singular they
  • why use singular they
  • history of singular they
  • is singular they grammatically correct
  • how to be supportive of nonbinary people
  • alternative third person pronouns
  • use of singular they in literature
  • changing language over time

Asking nonbinary people to do work to educate cis people is a form of emotional labor that costs us time, effort, and energy. It is incredibly common for nonbinary people to be asked to educate cis people, and it is exhausting.

Next time you ask for labor like this, at least offer to compensate. I do coach people on gender, sexuality, and relationship issues, and I would be happy to consider coach you further. Contact me if you wish to pursue that.

In conclusion: 

If you agree with me, great. Please share this.

Perhaps you do not agree with me, and you’re one of those people who only uses “cool” to describe temperature. But if you insist on prioritizing grammar rules above honoring nonbinary people, I insist on thinking you’re a jerk.

Sincerely,
Sinclair

Pronouns: they/them

PS: If you appreciate the time I put into this article, please consider supporting me on Patreon or making a PayPal donation to my email address, [email protected]

Dear (Cis) People Who Put Your Pronouns On Your “Hello My Name Is” Name Tag

Dear cis people who put your pronouns on your “hello my name is” name tags:

Thank you.

When you do that, I feel more comfortable putting my pronouns — they/them. I feel more comfortable being visibly out as nonbinary. I feel more comfortable asking people to use the pronouns that feel most like me, that make me feel most seen and whole, instead of just resolving to be mis-gendered and mis-represented and whatever who cares anyway.

(Maybe I do, somewhere, a little.)

When we’re doing the socializing part of whatever event we’re at, and we are introduced, I automatically feel warmer toward you — regardless of your gender or presentation. I feel much more comfortable talking to you, because you already tell me you know a little about gender.

Thank you.

It is an ongoing cultural struggle right now to break our eyes open to more than the two binary gender roles. We are all still learning. Nonbinary and trans folks are still evolving the language and culture, and educators are still figuring out the best ways to communicate the theory and compassion. It’s a challenge to undo the cultural systems that have been normalized all our lives.

And yet, we must. If we want to support everyone to live their best lives, we must. If we want to be honoring of everyone, we must.

Other great places to include your pronouns:

  • Your email signature. Example: “Sinclair Sexsmith¶ Pronouns: they, them, theirs, themself¶ [email protected] | @mrsexsmith | Facebook | Patreon”
  • Social media bio, on Twitter or Facebook or etc. Example: “Writer. White non-binary butch feminist dominant. They/them.” You could also periodically put a post up on your social media, “Just for the record, I use they/them pronouns. Also, I grew up in Alaska, my favorite flower is red gerbera daisies and my favorite number is 12.”
  • Regular bio, if you’re a performer, writer, teacher of some sort and you have a bio you send around, include them there! Example: “Sinclair Sexsmith (they/them) is a writer and queer nonbinary butch dominant.”
  • Introductions at a meeting or workshop, if they say “Go around & say your names.” They don’t have to invite you to include your pronoun in your intro in order to include it! Example: “I’m Sinclair, I use they/them pronouns.”
  • Any time you’re speaking in front of a group! Example: “Hi! I’m excited to have you at this poetry reading today, thanks for coming to the Bluestockings Bookstore. I’m Sinclair, I use they/them pronouns — but you probably already know that, since you’re here!”
  • Can you think of other places I haven’t listed here? I’m sure there are others. Leave ’em in the comments!

If you don’t know someone’s pronouns, ask!

This is an important skill to cultivate. We have probably all heard this, but there are plenty of times we — all of us, myself included — feel awkward asking, and so we don’t. But it’s never too late — ask at any point during the conversation.

It’s not a faux pas if you have to stop in the middle of a sentence, just ask.

“Sorry, what are your pronouns?”

“Oh I didn’t get your pronouns, what are they?”

“Will you remind me your pronouns please?”

If you mess up, no big deal. We all do.

You’re not a bad person if you mess it up. You’re not a bad ally, or a bad person. You’re practicing. Maybe you got the wrong info, or maybe that person just changed their pronouns.

Just start again.

The #1 thing to remember: don’t make it about you. Apologize, move on, try again.

“The other day, she — “
“They use they pronouns.”
“Oh, they. Okay. The other day, they …”

That thing where people say, “Omigod, I’m SO sorry! I really care about pronouns! I’m trying so hard! I’m not used to it! Forgive me!!!!” — that makes it such a bigger deal than it is. Treat it like mispronouncing someone’s name — it’s a little disrespectful, so be sure to be sensitive, but it’s ultimately no big deal.

Just acknowledge, apologize, have a redo, and do better in the future.

It gets easier with practice & time.

You’ll get it. Keep at it. Practice saying and expressing your pronouns whenever you can. Practice asking. The more cis people can ask and practice with each other, the more of the burden it takes off of trans and nonbinary folks to do the education work themselves.

There’s one more thing I want you to know:

It feels so good when people get it right.

It can make my whole day brighter when I hear someone use they/them pronouns.

Honestly, I rarely hear it myself, because if I’m standing there, it’s the least likely place for someone to refer to me in the third person. But sometimes it happens in an introduction, or a story. And it still surprises me sometimes.

I feel vulnerable, and cared for, and seen.