DAVIS: If you pay attention to the English language in enough nerdy detail, you’ll start to notice a few places where little ‘holes’ pop up. Tenses can get weird, so can plurals, and, oh, don’t even get me started on articles.
But there’s an interesting ‘hole’ out there that has been getting a lot of attention recently: the English language’s need for a third person, singular, gender-neutral pronoun.
If we want to refer to someone when we don’t know their gender, or we want to make our language generic, we can either refer to someone with the pronoun, “it,” which, I mean… good luck with that… or we have to get creative. Either way, we end up with a solution which is not nearly as elegant as if we just had a gender-neutral pronoun in the first place.
Now, it’s not as if we haven’t tried to fix this before. A longstanding convention, at least in print, is to use the generic “he,” in those situations. It’s a solution to the pronoun problem dreamed up in the seventeenth century by a few a aristocrats who–through the authority they derived solely from owning a bit of land–wrote out some grammar guides for the masses.
LAL ZIMMAN: “So a lot of things that people think of as grammar rules were actually just invented by some of these authors of grammar guides. And those guides were often very explicitly misogynistic.”
DAVIS: That’s Dr. Lal Zimman, a linguist at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
LAL ZIMMAN: “So they would say for instance that you should list men first, you should say men and women rather than women and men because men are the superior gender.”
DAVIS: It sounds shocking now, but that’s pretty much how these things worked in the seventeenth century. But we are, of course, not in the seventeenth century, and there are many out there who want to rein in some of our language conventions that put us in sexist territory.
In 2015 the American Dialect Society voted singular “they” as the word of the year. It’s a solution to that same pronoun problem we were talking about earlier. Instead of the generic “he,” we can instead use “they,” like, “they need to see a doctor,” even if we’re only referring to one person.
Singular “they” has roots throughout the history of the English language. There is evidence of the pronoun being used colloquially from hundreds of years and into the present moment, and many writers–like Shakespeare, Dickens, and Austen–used this singular form of “they.”
Of course, lots of people object to this usage. Most commonly, you’ll hear that singular “they” is just too ambiguous, that there is no way to know who, or how many, people we’re talking about when we use it.
ZIMMAN: “It’s important to remember that pronouns are inherently ambiguous, that’s how they work.”
DAVIS: If you say something like, “Susan told me that she and her mother were coming to the party, and she’s bringing the food” you don’t necessarily know who “she” is, the person could be either Susan herself or maybe her mother. The point here is that the meaning of pronouns isn’t always so cut and dried, the way we talk about the world is full of little ambiguities. Lal thinks it’s pretty clear–singular “they” holds up grammatically.
ZIMMAN: “None of the reasons I’ve heard that have been put forth as linguistic arguments have any kind of real linguistic grounding to them–they’re all pretty easy to disprove as a linguist. So I think it’s important to get people to see to begin with that their objections to singular they are in fact grounded in social issues rather than linguistic issues.”
DAVIS: One of those social issues is the fact that there’s a growing number of people using “they” as their personal pronoun. Instead of asking to go by “he” or “she” in conversation, some people prefer to be referred to as “they” all of the time–not just when someone doesn’t know their gender. Let’s say your friend Juan doesn’t feel comfortable being referred to as “he” or “she.” Juan may ask you to instead use “they” when talking about them. For example: “Juan said they were feeling ill, so they went home.”
LEE AIRTON: “So instead of using singular they for a stranger, we ask folks to use it for someone they know. Me. Me and other folks who use singular they.”
DAVIS: That’s Dr. Lee Airton. They run a blog called “They is My Pronoun” and they just recently started a consulting business which helps companies understand gender as it relates to the company’s mission. Lee says gender is often used as a sort of “cheat sheet” for how we interact with the world, but sometimes, that doesn’t play out for everyone in the same way.
LEE AIRTON: “So the most I would say common reason why a person would have ‘they‘ as their prefered gender pronoun is because something about being categorized in an ‘M’ box where you’d probably use he or him or an ‘F’ box where you would use she or her, something about that doesn’t feel right for the person.”
DAVIS: Singular “they” helps to open up our language so it’s a bit more inclusive of people who don’t identify with traditional conceptions of gender. Of course, this can make speaking and writing feel a little more difficult if you’re not used to it. Learning to call someone by a different pronoun isn’t easy, and being scared not to misgender someone may trip you up, but singular “they” offers a great way to be more inclusive in the way we communicate.
AIRTON: “I think what the singular ‘they’ movement asks us to do is to stop and to pause and to gather all the available information we have and reflect on whether this is a moment when I want to use some type of gendered language based on what I know, and maybe I’ll get it wrong, but it’s an invitation to not just use it because it will always work out, because that’s simply not the case anymore.”
DAVIS: For some, singular “they” is partially a tool to fix a gap in the English language, but for others it’s an invitation to express their identity more authentically. It’s also a great way to think about how gender conventions interact with the way we communicate, and I’d love to explore that theme a bit more. If you have any thoughts, questions, or stories about gendered communication, give us a call on the Write Right hotline, just leave your name and your message and you could be on the show! Here’s the number… do you have a pen? It’s 218 382 6892.
This has been an episode of Write Right, a production of the Texas A&M University Writing Center, a service of the Department of Undergraduate Studies. My name is Davis Land and I wrote and produced this episode. I had editorial help from Nancy Vazquez, Flo Davies, and Nick Cenegy. If you’re a Texas A&M Student we offer online and in person consultations about your papers, presentations, and anything else that involves communicating clearly. You can find us online at writingcenter.tamu.edu and on Twitter @tamuwc. We’re also on Facebook, Instagram, and if you stop by our office, we’ll give ride in our brand new time machine.