Natalie Summers, 11/30/18
From an early age, the pronouns they and them have been taught to be used when referring to more than one person. Prescriptive grammarians are going to insist that the only acceptable use of they or them is in this form. However, over the last decade, they and them are words that are often used to refer to a singular person as individuals buck the trend of using the traditional, he or she, pronouns. As psychology has advanced, it has become recognized that gender is a spectrum that can allow people to identify across the spectrum and for some individuals, gender can be fluid allowing for pronouns to be used interchangeably.
In 2015, the American Dialect Society named the singular they as the word of the year. Marriott Marquis reported the events on the American Dialect Society’s website. According to Marquis (2015), “Word of the Year is interpreted in its broader sense as a “vocabulary item”- not just words but phrases. The words or phrases do not have to be brand-new, but they have to be newly prominent or notable in the past year.” The society has the longest running vote for Word of the Year and they was selected, in part, because it is already in the English language.
This movement to use more neutral pronouns is mostly attributed to today’s youth as they are no longer feeling bound to one part of the spectrum. The vocabulary for gender has expanded considerably over the past few years. Fifteen years ago, transgender was barely a term taught through society and was often recognized as a mental disorder. Now, not only is it not characterized as a disorder, but states like New York have put out list of gender terms. The original list that New York released in 2016 contained thirty-one genders. The list is still expanding and there are resources for individuals to find various pronouns for individuals to look at as they attempt to find the correct pronouns for themselves.
Recently I had a conversation with a woman from Canada where we were attempting to identify a way to normalize chosen gender pronouns. It was her belief that when introducing herself to someone new, a person should always say their preferred pronouns to prevent any confusion and to keep people comfortable. The context for this conversation came from reading, as I was reading a novel for her and she has a character that prefers the use of they/them pronouns, but the conversation is very relevant in today’s changing society. It was my argument that, when reading, authors could simply use the desired pronouns without the conversation as it can be a bit tedious to read. However, to her point, to normalize that conversation in books could help to normalize it in everyday interactions to prevent any kind of misunderstanding or hurt feelings. The conversation would go along these lines:
“Hi, I’m Brittany. I prefer they or them pronouns. How about you?”
“Hi Brittany. I’m Natalie and I prefer she or her. Thanks for asking.”
In agreeance with this person’s argument, Time magazine had an article by Jacob Tobia asking people to verify pronouns with new individuals. Tobia specifically addresses the awkwardness of this conversation. Tobia states (2016), “Meeting new people is always awkward. But using the wrong pronoun to refer to someone is more awkward because pronouns are about respect.” Tobia asked Nick Adams of GLAAD’s transgender media program who they (Tobia uses gender neutral pronouns) quoted, “By using the right pronoun, you can show that you see and respect their identity.”
I have always had a strong desire to ensure that everyone is comfortable around me and studying to be a teacher, it is of the utmost importance to me to use language that my students are comfortable with when being identified. Prior to the last six weeks, not once in my life, have I ever been asked, what pronouns do I prefer? When I was recently asked, it was natural and easy to explain my pronouns. Specifically, I was asked if I preferred, they or them pronouns. After responding that I prefer she/her, the conversation was able to advance and we were both able to relax. It is a courtesy, like saying hi, for someone to use the correct pronouns when addressing an individual.
Gender specific pronouns for individuals can be a source of much anxiety for someone who does not fit into the traditional two fields of male or female. Someone who is transgender or agender may prefer they or them as it is more fitting to who they are. Across many mainstream media guides, the singular they has been accepted in recent years as psychologist and counselors have gained more of an understanding of the gender spectrum. The current political climate can be viewed as toxic in terms of how accepting people are of this reinvented use of old words.
In many languages there are gender neutral pronouns or forms, such as German, which has the male der, the female die, and the neutral das. American English has spent much of its time ignoring this habit even though the gender neutral they has existed for some time. Writers such as Jane Austen and Charles Dickens have used the singular they in their writing. Geoff Nunberg of the National Public Radio points out that speaking the singular they has been accepted for some time such as when verbally asking Did they leave their purse behind? Prescriptive grammarians are more likely to attack the written word rather than a person speaking sentences like this. Nunberg states (2016), “But the Victorian grammarians made it a matter of schoolroom dogma that one could only say “Everybody has his failing,” with the understanding that “he” stood in for both sexes. As their slogan had it, “the masculine embraces the feminine.” Not only is this thinking ignoring a person’s desire, but it is also could be considered sexist, which Nunberg explains, was the reason why this was discredited in the 1970’s.
To his point, I grew up with individuals using the singular they regularly. One classmate would constantly refer to people by they instead of by name and she was constantly corrected by our teachers as it was not grammatically acceptable and could be construed as lazy. This is ignoring the fact that her grammar was easily understood and had a set of rules that descriptive grammarians would accept. Gasser notes, “In fact there is no evidence that people in some cultures speak in sloppier or more elegant or more monotonous ways than people in other cultures. And while languages do differ in striking ways, these different features seem to balance each other out. As far as we know, all languages are equally expressive, equally logical.” (qtd. in Kruse Ch. 1, p.8). This user was not being lazy, she was speaking with logic and was clear. They stole my pencil, is very clear when a teacher is breaking up a dispute between two students.
The media has been accepting of the singular they and them in recent years as several style guides and manuals have been updated to include these pronouns. As the American Dialect Society named the singular they as word of the year, the Washington Post added it to their style guide that same year. Bill Walsh, copy editor of the Post (2015), stated, “For many years, I’ve been rooting for — but stopping short of employing — what is known as the singular they as the only sensible solution to English’s lack of a gender-neutral third-person singular personal pronoun.” Now both the AP Stylebook and the Chicago Manual of Style have been updated to include the singular they, them, and their.
Even though these have become acceptable in media and outlets, one caution that Grammar Girl’s Mignon Fogarty states (2017), standard test still do not recognize the use of these pronouns, so studying for test, students still have to think of these singular uses as wrong. As language evolves, teachers often remain stuck on traditional prescriptive grammar because it is easier to explain to students these uses. For me, I want my students to understand that I will use their preferred pronouns, even if the test says they are wrong. I need my students to know that they can be themselves, but they need to understand that to succeed with the current rules in society, they will have to understand that it is wrong in this context. Fogarty does reassure teachers that this will probably change again in a couple of years.
Young people are extremely vulnerable due to changes in hormones and simply learning who they are that it is a kindness to be able to address them using their desired pronouns. It is common to see young people accidentally write the singular they on their homework as they attempt to tell a story. Teachers have often graded this as wrong, although there has been a movement as of late to correct this as we learn about family dynamics and home life. Parents who identify with they or them have reached out to teachers explaining the reasoning for the child’s mistake. In this case, mistake is used as a loose term.
Across the country, universities and schools alike are adapting gender neutral pronouns and are encouraging regular use of these pronouns rather than gender specific pronouns. Washington University in St. Louis released an article based on a report the University conducted on gender neutral pronouns. In the article, How and Why We Use Gender-Neutral Pronouns, it even asks people who find an opportunity to update pronouns, to contact the school with specific information such as the website to allow the school the opportunity to correct the pronouns to they or them. The report itself goes on to site that the gender spectrum has been accepted by various psychological and psychiatry organizations based on studies from around the country. Quoted within the article, the 2017 report “Use of Singular They in Academic Writing and Communications: Background and Recommendations for the Brown School” by Vanessa Fabbre and Peter Coogan states, “Accepting the use of singular they in academic and professional writing is the responsible choice for social work and public health programs because it recognizes the gender spectrum and aligns with the National Association of Social Workers’ (2008) core value of the “dignity and worth of the person” and the principle of treating “each person in a caring and respectful fashion, mindful of individual differences and cultural and ethnic diversity.”” Brown School is actively asking students and faculty to use the correct pronouns based on this report on everything including resumes that students are making for future jobs. This will overflow into employers as they will begin to see an influx of resumes and cover letters with pronouns that may not match the sex of an individual, making them use the correct pronouns in the hiring process and work force.
For someone who identifies as something not on spectrum that society has accepted for so long, the use of correct pronouns for individuals is incredibly important. These moments I hear my correct pronouns result in a spark of hope for myself. The fact that the media and style guides have adapted to accept individuals on different spectrums is a major step for society to take forward. As President Trump moves to dismiss the needs of individuals that identify as gender neutral or transgender, language becomes more and more important. While people have used the singular they for a long time, the majority of these people have done so in a different format than the American Dialect Society intended, it should not be a stretch for the majority of society to adopt these new norms.
Science has told us that a gender spectrum is a very real thing. From brain scans to psychology, evidence points to this thinking as normal and that the brain is more closely related to the identified spectrum of that individual. For me, my counselor is always encouraging the use of my own pronouns. It is a new line of thinking. Fifteen years ago, even though I knew what I was labeled as was wrong, I couldn’t accept my own pronouns. Terms have evolved and psychology has accepted that gender and sex are different terms. There are people who will ignorantly argue against this despite what the scientific evidence states and those are the people who will never understand the purpose of the singular they or them, despite probably using the term in their own livelihood.
Prescriptive grammarians will disagree on the appropriateness of the singular they or them, even if being used as a preferred pronoun as an individual. They would deem it to be a lazy use even though descriptive grammarians and educators around the country would disagree as it has been accepted into grammar guides as society accepts different norms. This despite the fact that it has been used in conversation and in plays going back to William Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors. Should I be corrected by a prescriptive grammarian, I will refer them back to the likes of Chaucer or Jane Austen. In turn, should a student of mine ever question their ability to use their own gender-neutral pronoun, I’ll be able to point out that it has been used for centuries and would be accepted by descriptive grammarians as well as academic institutions around the world.
Someday. Someday I’ll use my preferred pronouns every day. Until then, I can accept any pronouns an individual prefers to use and do my best to teach the changing thinking of acceptability. Before this class, I had trouble accepting myself. This class has not changed me, but I started counseling for the second time in my life during this class for an issue that has changed drastically in today’s world. It was a thought of mine to use the singular they or them over the last few months, but it did not fit me. That does not mean that it doesn’t fit others. As NCLB continues to be repealed and teachers stop teaching to tests, teachers can start teaching to what is acceptable. Media and entertainment can continue to help normalize language that is more fitting to individuals across the gender spectrum which, in turn, will seep into everyday conversation. What foreign languages mastered eons ago, American English is only in the infancy stage of accepting. I’m hoping for a rapid maturation.
Marquis, M. (2016, January 09). 2015 Word of the Year is singular “they”. Retrieved from https://www.americandialect.org/2015-word-of-the-year-is-singular-they
Tobia, J. (2016, May12). Gender Neutral Pronouns: How to Use the Right Pronouns. Retrieved from http://time.com/4327915/gender-neutral-pronouns/
Nunberg, G. (2016, January 13). Everyone Uses Singular ‘They,’ Whether They Realize It Or Not. Retrieved from https://www.npr.org/2016/01/13/462906419/everone-uses-singular-they-whether-they-realize-it-or-not
Kruse, Martha. Short Course in Descriptive Linguistics. 2018.
Andrews, T.M. (2017, March 28). The singular, gender-neutral ‘they’ added to the Associated Press Stylebook. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2017/03/28/the-singular-gender-neutral-they-added-to-the-associated-press-stylebook/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.6b9f91fb46ea
Fogarty, M. (2018, October 05). Gender-Neutral Pronouns: Singular ‘They’. Retrieved from https://www.quickanddirtytips.com/education/grammar/gender-neutral-pronouns-singular-they
How and Why We Use Gender-Neutral Pronouns. (2018, January 30). Retrieved from https://brownschool.wustl.edu/News/Pages/How-and-Why-We-Use-Gender-Neutral-Pronouns-.aspx
Fabbre, V., & Coogan, P. (n.d.). Use of Singular They in Academic Writing and Communications: Background and Recommendations for the Brown School (Rep.). Retrieved from https://brownschool.wustl.edu/About/Documents/Web_Use of Singular They in Academic Writing and Communications.pdf.