About a year ago, I squared off with somebody on Facebook over the prospect of “singular they” as a preferred personal pronoun. Except I was not arguing on the side you may hope I would have been.
When I learnt in the spring of 2015 that some people who are outside the gender binary actually identify as they, I knew that it would not bode well for me and my penchant for immaculate grammar.
My initial thoughts were, “How did we, as a society, screw up so royally that these people had no recourse but to hijack the third-person plural pronouns to suit their singular needs? Surely the English language has a fail-safe, a provision for a situation like this.”
Historically, the pronoun he was always used to refer to a person whose gender is unknown or to refer to a member of a mixed group, as in the sentence, “Any in favour should raise his right hand.” Many popular adages begin with the words, “He who…” without regard for the subject’s gender.
This usage of the masculine third-person singular pronoun is analogous to the usage of man in certain contexts. When one speaks of “when man first walked the earth,” he means the human species — not men or women specifically. Similarly, when Neil Armstrong proclaimed as he set foot on the moon (or a film set) the words, “…one giant leap for mankind,” he wasn’t referring to the male half only.
With these facts in my utility belt, I jumped into the aforementioned argument on Facebook. My goal was to convince the other party that, for people who identify outside the binary, using gender-neutral he is just as, if not more viable than using singular they. The former is more historically supported and is arguably less clumsy. My argument was never about potential ambiguity in writing — let me be clear on that.
The debate ended amicably, I’m happy to state. But it got me questioning my stance on the matter more than ever. It’s become increasingly clear that my linguistic rhetoric is irrelevant when feelings are in play.
Reflection And Potential Solutions
I wouldn’t classify my former self with bigoted assholes who refuse to adopt “singular they” for the sake of quashing the non-binary cause. I always counted myself among the more sympathetic, those seeking alternative solutions through the application of logic and reasoning. To the oppressed, however, there is hardly a difference between the two groups.
The unoppressed telling the oppressed that they shouldn’t feel a certain way because of “X, Y and Z” is about as effective as telling someone who suffers from depression to “cheer up” or someone with anxiety to “just relax.”
As a cisgender (meaning my gender aligns with my birth sex) man, no, I do not and will not ever understand the dysphoria that some people experience when they are misgendered. I do understand the discomfort of being misaddressed, however. I refer to myself as Joseph and nothing else. I have never gone by Joe, and it genuinely hurts when people call me that. It also hurts when people use the wrong surname to refer to me. I can only imagine the pain of those who are denied their preferred personal pronouns.
Honestly, though, the whole notion of being attached to a certain pronoun is foolish to me. Personal pronouns, by nature, are not personal; they are, paradoxically, quite the opposite. Their primary function is to play substitute for your name — your true identity. They make sentences im-personal. But I suppose all that’s easy for me to say because I have no qualms with being referred to as a he. Maybe I don’t get to make that call.
And, because it is unrealistic to do away with third-person pronouns altogether, we need to work with what we have.
Contrived pronouns such as ze/xe and zir/xem simply will not do. I admire the effort put forth by wordsmiths within the gender-queer community, and I appreciate that they are proposing solutions that would please everybody, but I sincerely doubt that their inventions will catch on.
I’m aware that Sweden recently (1960s) coined the gender-neutral pronoun hen to exist alongside han (he) and hon (she). It might work in a country of that size and with a population that small speaking Swedish, but English is an anomaly. There are so many varieties in so many regions with hundreds of millions of speakers worldwide. Thanks a lot, Great Britain. The sun never sets on your empire, right?
The pronoun one does not work when referring to a specified individual, as in the sentence, “Taylor tied one’s shoes.”
So, we come back to they.
Proponents often point to uses throughout history by prolific writers. Jane Austen was known to use “singular they” rather frequently. Even the Bard himself used it on occasion.
There’s not a man I meet but doth salute me
As if I were their well-acquainted friend
— Antipholus, The Comedy of Errors, Act IV, Scene iii
Moreover, rhetoric like that featured in the following image has been employed recently to illustrate that we already use “singular they” in casual conversation:
These are pretty compelling arguments. One problem, though. These usages of “singular they” are not the same as the usage of referring to a known, specified person.
I will do my best to articulate exactly what I mean here without sounding too abstract.
In the above example, Person 1 says, “Oh no, someone left their cell phone.” In his mind, this “someone” could be ANY PERSON — male, female, gender-nonconforming, whatever. Anybody can lose a phone. The image in his brain is of MULTIPLE PEOPLE, that is, a pool of options, if you will. Therefore, this group of potential persons logically requires they. We do this all the time.
Now, let’s say we’re dealing with someone named Taylor. (I don’t know why I keep using the name Taylor — it’s just the first unisex name that came to mind.) Taylor prefers the pronoun they and is known personally by the people in the following exchange. Taylor is not some hypothetical human within a group of possible candidates. Taylor is real, definite and specified. Here’s how the exchange might sound:
“Hey, I saw Taylor hop in their car. Where are they going?“
“I think they have to go to work.“
In those sentences, someone less acquainted with Taylor would have, without hesitation, used “his/her,” “is he/is she” and “he has/she has.” This is because Taylor was understood to be a certain individual. In a less-acquainted person’s mind, Taylor is one person and therefore logically requires a singular pronoun like he or she.
Furthermore, someone listening to this exchange who is not familiar with Taylor’s pronoun preference would have been baffled by the grammatical inconsistency, having heard the explicit name Taylor. Had the sentence been, “I saw SOMEONE hop in their car,” nobody would have batted an eye because the pronoun someone evokes the “pool of options” mental image of multiple people I described earlier. Hearing a singular, definite name changes the logic inside the mind of the listener.
I hope that this accurately illustrates the reluctance of well-meaning people to use “singular they” the way non-binary persons wish — even when they might do it all the time in conversation anyway. I know that this is how it works in my mind. I might be totally wrong about others, but I’m pretty sure I’m at least on the right track.
But… a year of rumination on the subject has shown me that my mild discomfort in this novel usage of “singular they” does not compare to the distress and cognitive dissonance suffered by those less fortunate than I — those who are not content with English’s admittedly flawed gender system. These people should not need to change to accommodate something that humans crafted; our craft should change to accommodate them.
And it has in the past.
The Old English words for “he” and “she” were he and heo/hio. By the 13th century, natural phonetic evolution made the pronunciations of he and heo/hio converge. Apparently to avoid confusion, the word seo/sio (used in Old English to mean “the”) soon supplanted heo/hio. This replacement evolved in pronunciation as well and became she. Parallel developments occurred in German and Dutch with their pronouns sie and zij, respectively. Also note that we say her, as opposed to “sher” — her represents the survival of the original H-form from Old English (hire).
She, an integral word in our language, was re-purposed and became the dominant feminine singular third-person pronoun through persistent use. Circumstances demanded it. And now we have circumstances that require that we find a new word for the genderless singular third person. It is with great regret that I say I fear that it may be too late for English, as a whole, to adopt a new word. But our best shot is they.
And, if it makes them happy, I’ll use it.