The Thing about Them

I. Introducing them

(This may be information you already know, if you’ve been using non-binary pronouns for a while. If you’re not looking for a long read, you might skip down to section II.)

Singular they has been declared the Word of the Year by the American Dialect Society. That’s when you use they to mean just one person, of unspecified gender: “If someone shows up, tell them I’ll be back in just a minute.” Depending on how close a friend you are with they, and how prescriptive you like your grammar, your reaction to that declaration could be anywhere from “That’s a travesty against English grammar and practically against all logic!” to “About damn time we had a pronoun that doesn’t force everyone to decide whether they’re all-or-nothing female xor male!” to “Whatever, so I guess that means now I can use that instead of ‘he or she’?”

The acceptance of they is actually a big deal for a lot of people. The last ten years or so of gender politics have been very full of progress. Within the last generation, more or less, our societal attitude (at least in most of the Global North) toward people who aren’t straight, gender-conforming, “normal” people has gone from “Those freaks had better keep it in San Francisco and not try to come near my good American community” to “Fine by me if people get married to any adult they want; they’re not hurting anyone and they’re just ordinary people.” Within that context, this last decade or so, people who aren’t straight and/or gender-conforming have felt a quickly growing courage to explore the huge variety of ways to be human outside those lines. And a lot of them have found that, when they really take a deep look at their own gender, the thought of choosing one of the exactly two classic options feels plain-and-simple wrong. It can feel wrong in a lot of different ways, probably as many ways as there are people who experience them, or even more—but in the end it comes down to the same thing: “I don’t feel like a man, and I don’t feel like a woman. I’m someone else. Myself.”

(Before I go much further, I should mention that I myself am a cisman, which, as I heard it excellently explained once, means that when I came out, the doctors said, ‘It’s a boy!’ and I’ve been pretty fine with that assessment ever since. Being a cisman means that I’ve never experienced first-hand a lot of the things I’m going to talk about here. That means, functionally, that I have to stay somewhere behind the front lines of any cultural shift on gender issues; I can’t demand, I can only suggest. Those more extreme might say that a cisman should refrain from trying to say anything about gender, because society’s heard enough from cismen. I disagree: I may not be the most directly affected by gender issues, but with a sizeable number of close friends who are on those front lines, I’m still indirectly affected, which makes me think a lot about these things, and as long as I’m respectful and avoid trying to dictate anything or thinking I’m more right than anyone, I believe my thoughts can matter.)

Lately this idea, the simple idea that a person can exist outside the binary, has snowballed through our culture into a critical mass. It’s following the trajectory that any change in the consciousness of the culture does, starting as a weird idea on the fringes, and then, because the moment is right and society is ready for it, going from unheard-of to inevitable. Every new idea needs time to percolate out to where everyone knows it, and this one has only recently come to a boil, but it’s on track to go, in its time, the same way as LGBT rights, women’s equality, or the theory of evolution.

That’s why the rise of they is a story for right now, the Word of the Year. Once you decide that what your identity feels like is neither male nor female, it becomes very awkward when someone uses the word he or she for you. Imagine, if you will, that you’ve just moved to a new city and you find that everyone there consistently uses the wrong pronoun when they’re talking about you. “This is my new roommate Maria—he just moved here last month.” Or: “That sandwich is for Jason. She ordered the vegetarian option.” You would feel adrift, misunderstood, not fully seen, maybe constantly insulted. And now imagine that there’s not even a pronoun that you can ask people to use for you, because neither standard option feels better. What could you do?

A few years ago I remember seeing a fair amount of discussion on alternative pronouns. Groups that included people who needed a new pronoun started hashing out brand new ones to use. The ones I remember seeing most were: ze, or variations on it—spelled xe, zie, or sie but generally pronounced /zee/, and usually declined as zir–zirself or hirhirself (/heer/, /heer·self/); and e or ey, declined as em–eir–emself.

Then, last year, after being away from much discussion on the issue for a while, I went to a gathering in Colorado where it was high on everyone’s minds, and discovered that apparently, while I wasn’t looking, a sort of consensus had been reached. There were quite a few people there who didn’t identify with either of the she/he dichotomous options, and those who expressed that in use of a neutral pronoun nearly all used they. And so, over the course of the week I was there, I got used to using they to refer to a single person: “Where’s Charlie? I wanted to ask them a question.” It’s jarring at first, but you get more used to it. Later, back at home, first a housemate, then a friend, then my sweetheart, stepped up to ask their friends for the same thing: Please use gender-neutral pronouns for me. And I do. It’s a matter, I think, of respect.

II: The thing is

But there’s still always been something bugging me about the de facto choice of they as the winning gender neutral pronoun. When I’ve used it for friends, it’s never really felt right to me; it can feel vaguely like I’m insulting them, even. Now, I know that I’m not the one we’re trying to make comfortable with gender-neutral pronouns. This new word usage exists for the sake of people who are gender-neutral themselves, so they can feel like themselves. But if it doesn’t feel quite right to me, I wonder if there are other people, people more directly affected, who feel the same way and haven’t been able to put their fingers on it. On the chance that there are, I’m going to try to get at the root of it and point toward something that might work better and feel better. And I’m going to do it with the help of an imaginary person who’s non-binary and proud to use they pronouns. Let’s see where we can get.

Q: So what’s your issue with they? Is it a grammatical thing—are you one of the people who says that they is a somehow inherently plural sequence of sounds, and must never be allowed to bleed over into the singular, or else English will inevitably collapse into a mishmash of confused muttering and grunting?
A: No, I’m well aware that people have been using they in a singular way pretty much since there’s been an English language. Like Chaucer in the “Pardoner’s Prologue”:

And whoso fyndeth hym out of swich blame,
They wol come up and offre in Goddes name,
And I assoille hem by the auctoritee [hem is an old form of them]
Which that by bulle ygraunted was to me.

Shakespeare, Jane Austen, C.S. Lewis, and plenty other big names have used it similarly, and English has yet to disintegrate from that.

But on the other hand, I do have to say that these writers were almost always using it in a fairly different situation than your own they pronouns. Let me illustrate with that sentence from earlier: “If someone shows up, tell them I’ll be back in just a minute.” The two big differences are: (1) This sentence’s they refers to someone of unknown gender—could be male, female, genderqueer, anything, because the person who’s the antecedent here is completely hypothetical so far. (2) It’s also used in conjunction with a clearly singular word, someone. As soon as you see the word someone, you’re primed for this them to be singular. The first one is emotionally weird to me, and the second one leads to confusion.

Q: Emotionally weird, and confusing? How so?
A: The emotional weirdness comes because when I refer to you as they, I have that unknown-gender use in mind, and it feels like I’m saying you have no knowable gender identity, or I don’t know who you are. There’s another weird feeling less related to grammar: we also use they to talk about huge faceless entities like the FBI and Monsanto, and sometimes unknown horrors. They’re out to get me. They’re coming. I don’t want to associate that with my friends.

The confusion is this: when you use they on its own, with nothing to mark it as singular, it gets disorienting. If I say, “They’re going to get here in about half an hour,” the people who hear me don’t have much to go on to figure out whether I mean one person or a few. It’s pretty easy to clear it up, but if you use they a lot, you end up doing a lot of clarifying.

Q: Let’s tackle those one at a time. The first one: You could get over the emotional weirdness.
A: You’re right. That one is pretty minor. It’s not a far leap from “unknown gender” to “non-binary gender”, and I’m already fairly used to that.

Q: And we could reclaim them from the horror movie monsters and government agencies.
A: Hang on with the word reclaim—I’m all for groups reclaiming words that have been used to oppress them, like queer and even nigga, but I’ve got to point out that they isn’t really one of those oppressing words. It’s usually been pretty much as neutral as a word can get.

Q: Well anyhow, let’s move on to the second point, about being confusing. Isn’t that singular-plural ambiguity the same thing we have already with you, which is singular and plural at the same time? People don’t get confused about that, and I don’t see anyone trying to go back to the days of distinguishing thou and ye. Eventually, singular they would be more understood and people would get the hang of figuring out the grammatical number from context given earlier in the conversation.
A: Well, one minor point: people are distinguishing singular and plural you more and more, lately, with words like y’all and you guys. But your point stands, because that’s somewhat recent and English chugged along for a long time without much use of those. I think they has a little more potential for confusion than you, because it shares more semantic territory:

I you he she they it
we they

It has to share with the plural not just of itself but also of all the other first-person singular pronouns. Clearly, that doesn’t make it impossible to use. A lot of people get by with it day by day.

However, let’s look at what would happen if they got carried through to its logical endpoint and victory: it supplants both he and she (and who knows, maybe it too), so that it’s the only third-person singular pronoun for people, like the Hungarian word ő, which subsumes our he and she. Then we could live in a world inhabited not by men and women but by just people, and you wouldn’t have to make any assumptions about someone from what they look like and how they dress, and you wouldn’t have to ask anyone their pronouns because we’d use the same ones for everyone. I know some people who already use they like this, not quite to the exclusion of he and she, but at least as a frequent replacement. If it took over completely, then the chart above would look like this:

I you they it
we they

Or maybe even:

I you they
we

I can’t actually guarantee it, but I have a gut feeling that they in this situation would be way more confusing than you is now. Now, of course, languages are organic systems, and if English’s pronoun system got too confusing for its speakers, a new pronoun would evolve to fill the gap. But I don’t think we’d get that far. I think they would get stalled on the way to this egalitarian future by a resistance on the part of English speakers to use it in so many situations, and it would be permanently relegated to a minority usage, with much less potential to erase boundaries.

Q: Alright, interesting theory. But we both know that trying to foretell the future of anything as complicated as humans and language is a recipe for embarrassment. Forty years ago no one could have predicted that they would be getting used the way it is now; they’d probably call it an insane idea—and yet, here we are. If we stick to the present, it sounds like you have a lot of minor quibbles that don’t add up to a reason to change anything.
A: Fair point. Well, maybe none of them on their own are major issues. But taken together, they make they feel like a second-class pronoun. And I think that’s what my reluctance about it boils down to: Using they feels like a compromise, like settling for what the English-speaking community is willing to kick down to you. It feels like you demanded, “We need a pronoun that shows us respect!” and the English language said, “Well … we’ve got this pronoun that we use already for something kinda like what you’re talking about. … Tell you what, you can have that—and you’d better like it, because that’s as far as we’re willing to go.” Both the mainstream genders get their own pronoun, but you have to share yours with other concepts, and just put up with all the ambiguity.

Q: So what do you propose?
A: I think something along the lines of the ze or ey pronouns I mentioned earlier would do the job with more dignity.

Q: We tried that.
A: And it didn’t fail. People are still using those new pronouns in big sections of the genderqueer community. When I was in Colorado at the gathering I mentioned, some people introduced themselves with, “My name is My-Name-Here, and I use ze–zir–zey or they–them–their pronouns.” I’ve heard similar things in a few places.

Q: Yeah, but they is much more widely used than any of those.
A: There doesn’t have to be just one winner that takes all. Unmaking the global patriarchal hegemony, which is a goal that I have to guess you’re on board with, is going to involve a lot of re-localizing and strengthening small communities; local networks of friends are the most effective (and probably the only) way to create alternatives to the top-down, centralized kind of culture we get from mass media and marketing. Each pocket of people can have its own norms and its own ways of speaking, and when they get together, they can work things out between them; we’ll end up with a patchwork of different places with different words, the same way that the word for crawdad or soda-pop seems to change every few states already. That’s dissensus, and it’s how dialects—and diversity in general—arise.

Q: So you’re in favor of people not just defaulting to they, but giving ze another shot instead?
A: Sure, although I want to toss in something here that’s decidedly an opinion. I personally don’t like the words ze or ey.

In the case of ey (or e) it’s because it’s awkward and too close to words that already exist. I believe a really good pronoun to fill this gap should be easy to tell apart in speech from he, she, and they. I’ve tried using e in real life and the first thing I noticed is that we hardly ever say he and him when we actually talk—we say ’e and ’im, and also ’em for them. The forms of e/ey sound like he or them and that’s no good, because we want something that’s unequivocally different.

For ze, I just don’t think it feels enough like an English word. It originated in German with sie, and the addition of a sci-fi-esque z didn’t help it any. Its declension hir is the most awkward of all the widespread gender-neutral words, because it looks like it should just be pronounced /her/, and the approved pronunciation /heer/ can’t be casually slurred like pronouns always are in real conversations. Zir (/zer/) is a vast improvement but still feels like it’s from a ’70s sci-fi novel.

Q: So what pronoun do you like?
A: Someone named “Shino”, the basically anonymous author of the Gender Neutral Pronoun Blog (which has exactly one post), has collected some good information on shots people have taken at creating a new one, including a link to this long digest of calls for a gender-neutral pronoun dating back to the early 1800s. A lot have been proposed, like thon (/thən/, contracted from that one), co–cos–coself (created and still used in the intentional community Twin Oaks, in Virginia), and a 1912 schoolteacher’s awkward he’er. Shino singles out a few good ones to rate and comment on. I like the one that comes out on top, ne–nem–nir–nemself, for most of the same reasons Shino does—see the post for more, but: It’s reasonably distinct from the existing pronouns; it sounds pretty close to halfway between them instead of listing toward one or the other; it sounds singular (by virtue of sounding like the other singular pronouns); it uses some of the most common sounds in the English language, which makes it sound natural; and as a bonus the n can evoke the word neutral. (If it sounds goofy to you, keep in mind that practically any unfamiliar pronoun would, because pronouns are so deeply ingrained into our mental language pathways that it’s very noticeable when something seems askew. And anyway, try saying her over and over with a straight face.) This is one that I’d like to try, and I’ll probably use it on this blog if and when a situation arises.

Q: And you think that might catch on?
A: It’s worth a try. Any new pronoun is going to face a huge uphill battle, because pronouns are what linguists call a closed lexical class, a set of words that’s small, very conservative to change, and very hard to add to. That’s why they has gotten popular—it’s already in that exclusive club, so the battle there is won, but only via the path of least resistance (which, I should make sure to point out, still involved a lot of resistance). New pronouns have caught on before (if in a limited scope), like the ones I mentioned in the last answer, so it’s obviously not an impossibility. It just requires hard work and persistence. But I believe it’s worth it.

But: since I’m cisgender, I’m not going to be asking people to use ne or any of the others for myself, and I’m not going to try to impose a specific one on anyone who does use non-binary pronouns. All I can really ethically do is bring up the issue and suggest that we take another look at some of the possibilities we’ve sort of abandoned. And that’s what I’ve done here.

I’m well aware that this is a contentious issue and that pronouns are an intensely personal matter for a lot of people. I’ve tried hard not to set myself up as the Pronoun Authority here, and not to impose my ideas on people who have a much greater stake in this than I do.

And I’m really curious to know what you think about all this stuff I just said. I have a few specific questions:

  • Have you used they as a non-binary pronoun like this? To what extent?
  • Does it make you uneasy in any of the ways I mentioned it does for me (or in any other ways)?
  • If it does, does it seem like a different neutral pronoun would be any better on those accounts?
  • If you couldn’t use they (or he or she), what pronoun would you use?
  • Should I mind my own cisgendered business?

I’m really interested in the comments on this. If you’ve never been to this blog before, there’s a comment form below that you can use without signing up for anything or even leaving a name. (The comments are delayed in publishing because they have to get approved manually by me, but that’s only for technical reasons, and I publish everything that isn’t automated spam.)

I’ve said my bit for now—let’s talk.

File under: gender, language


Anonymous

History

Very very interesting entry. I myself identify as a woman, very happily so, I guess ciswoman, or cisgender? Something like that. I have always been very content and never felt uncomfortable with "she" for me. I love being female. Being pregnant with you and your brother definitely reinforced that for me. Loved feeling a baby move in me. Loved feeding you with food my body made. It is an absolute joy to be a female. That said, I realize some people (you know the person) are not comfortable with being the gender their body was born as. The person we both know prefers to be a "he" and likes men still so in his mind he is a gay male. However, I saw him grow up as her and I still remember "feminine" features, he still has a XX body in an XY brain…it's all so confusing. But I don't give it as much thought as you have. I was going to say some other things but thought you probably would not publish this if I did. Anywho, please use "she" for me from here on out. That's one issue that has never plagued me myself. I love being a female. I am a female spirit in a female body. Does it matter to me personally if someone identifies as ze, zie, hir, them, or anything else? Not particularly though it may behoove me to keep it all straight in my brain while using casual conversation. -Mom

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Russell McGavock

History

Examined purely on the level of language, it’s perfectly logical that if one’s gender is hazy then the language used to refer to them should communicate that haziness.
However, I doubt most people’s usage of the non-gender defining pronoun is based on comprehensible communication and accurate understanding of the language. The usage is deliberate, one has to make a little brain contortion to get to “them” instead of “he”. This kind of contortion is unfortunately idiosyncratic of ‘you and others’ (yes, I’m putting you in a box but it’s a box with no name, no top, bottom or sides, a nebulous box, you’re not confined to this box but your debate regarding “them” exists only inside the box and is floating around in there with you, if you try to take the debate outside the box it gets blown out of your grasp in the wind currents created by mostly everyone vigorously shaking their heads in despair, clear?).
It’s a curious contradiction that the alleged free-thinkers and outliers of America – those who say what they think and do what they want, those who feel estranged from the mainstream current and foster a philosophy of radical change at their core – should so willingly present their balls to be constricted in the vice of political correctness (I realise this term has been appropriated by ‘the right’ in America to moan at lefties but it retains its impartiality in the wider world). It conjures the image of the snake devouring its own tail. Self- flagellation of the open-minded: “we want to change the world… in our very own insular way that feints to make great strides of progress on all fronts – equality, peace, fairness, environmental protection, animal welfare, agrarian diversification… and so on – yet stutters halfway through every stride as we’re distracted by the slightest peripheral flicker.” This is what bothers me about your opinion piece, it’s a divergence and you’re only one of many who’ve wandered down this aimless divergence. From what I know of your philosophy, it’s to beat against the flow not get stuck in whirlpools. Don’t be that raggedy flag of the left that does nothing more than flap around in the wind shouting anti-capitalist slogans that are so hackneyed they’re hollow. Knock on this topic of “them” and it will reply with that hollow reverb. I only make a point of saying this because you’ve ostensibly been courting a philosophy of change (however amorphous) for a while now and if even someone with an independent mind like you cannot filter out the self-made, accumulated dross that smothers the left and movements for a different kind of society, then it doesn’t speak well of the health of societal progress (I only say ‘left’ because it’s easy, not that it accurately describes your position).
Really alls I’m saying is you could and should put your (somewhat athletic) mind to something more effectual. For example, get to the land, farm it, and write about it already.

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Dad

History

If you are advocating for the usage of the plural pronoun they as a non-gender specific singular, they have been doing that in Kentucky for a long time. If you ask a Kentuckian if they is going to the theater they will say "Shore, they done gone there yesterday, too."

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Anonymous

History

You don't discuss what seems to me the obvious choice – the gender-neutral singular pronoun we already have – 'it.' Do we just reserve that for things of no gender?
From your confused auntie – who has been trying to encourage the use of 'niephews' to replace 'nieces and nephews'!

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david troxel

History

As Bill Clinton said, "it depends on what your definition of is is".

This is much ado about nothing. Existential naval gazing at it's best.

Gender confusion is nothing more than dysfunction seen through a prism of titillation, novelty, and PC voyeurism.
Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to that arrogant oligarchy who merely happen to be walking around.” – Orthodoxy, 1908 GK Chesterton.

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Chuck

History

Russell! I didn't know you ever ventured over to my crevice of the internet. How the hell are you doing?

So I gather that in your opinion the whole issue of gender-neutral pronouns is (1) not important and (2) distracting everyone from what is important. But when you list the issues that (what we'll agree to conventionally call) the left should be trying to make real progress on—“equality, peace, fairness, environmental protection . . .”, the first one on there is equality. I’d submit that recognizing people’s gender identities as identities that belong to real, valid people is as important a part of equality as validating people’s racial or ethnic or religious (etc.) identities. Which is to say, I don’t think the issue is a distraction. There’s not just one avenue to make progress on, and no culture (and no individual progressive) has to finish one before moving on to the next. That’s why I think about this stuff at the same time I’m planning on getting to the land.

But I know exactly what you mean about progressive movements getting bogged down and stalled out in mires of details. I think when that happens you’re looking at a classic hallmark of the problems you get from trying to change a culture from the top down. The social justice crusaders who want to change the behavior of everyone else (those dumb rubes), by policy or by the questionable tactic of “raising awareness”, are prone to oversimplifying, which often ends in simplifying a complex issue into one bugaboo (over here the environmental movement has chosen the Keystone XL Pipeline) and focusing all efforts on that. Bottom-up change is much more complex, diverse, genuine, and lasting, and for what it’s worth, that’s the kind of change I think this gender-neutral pronoun issue represents. It’s far from the only gender-related issue that people in these communities are talking about; it’s just the one I wanted to talk about, one detail in a large system of broad social change that’s groundswelling right now, at least where I am (I don’t know much about anything that’s going on in Scotland these days, last news I heard from over there was that you voted no on your referendum).

Rest assured, I haven’t stopped thinking about everything else, is what I’m saying.

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Chuck

History

Imagine someone referring to you as it and you’ll see why we don’t use that—it’s really dehumanizing. Neither one fits exactly right, but between calling someone more plural than they are and calling someone less human than they are, I’d definitely go with the first one. Having said that, you might be interested in Octavia Butler’s Xenogenesis trilogy, where there’s a race of aliens with a third sex that’s consistently referred to with it pronouns.

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Chuck

History

Tradition is great when it’s not as dysfunctional as ours. But our civilization has inherited a lot of dualistic, essentializing, inflexible thoughts from philosophers from Plato to Descartes to (being generous with the definition of philosophy) the Christian fundamentalist movement. If you look at cultures that are more egalitarian and in tune with their environment you find traditions that are vastly different. I believe we’re in a phase where we need to build new traditions. Look where our old ones have gotten us.

As for “gender confusion”, a lot of people you’d put under that umbrella are perfectly clear on what their gender is: “None of the above,” no confusion involved. Calling it a non-issue is a classic example of “It works for me, so it ought to work for everyone.” An attitude like that is what convinced the pioneers that Indians would totally be better off with private ownership of land—not to equate that with what you said, since it’s clearly tremendously different, just to point out that they come from the same origin and that origin often produces bad results. As long as we’re slinging old quotes, “There is more in Heaven and Earth than is dreamt of in your philosophy.”

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