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 hir–hirself (/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
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:
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:
Or maybe even:
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
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
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
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.