Singular They is Old, Singular They is New

(The Linguistic One stretches, blows the dust off this blog that has been sitting idle while we all deal with Life Things, and dives in to writing).

In the last few years, English pronouns have become a hot topic of discussion and controversy, mainly because they constitute the central linguistic battleground on which English-speakers play out debates about the nature of sex and gender. I thought I had written about this more than once on here before, but it turns out I touched on it only once (here, in relation to the claims of authority expressed by Canadian Academia’s own He-Who-Shall-Not-Be Named). The main focus of The Great Pronoun Controversy is what is conventionally called “singular they”, although novel pronouns (like ze, xie, or others) also come up sometimes. There is now an abundance of good writing available, both in accessible blog posts or news stories and in books and academic articles — to highlight just a few, check out the work of sociocultural linguist Lal Zimman (here for academic stuff, here for some blogging), as well as the fantastic work of my new colleague Lee Airton on the blog “They is my Pronoun” or in their book “Gender: Your Guide”, discussed here.

We are hitting another round of public discussion of “singular they” right now, as the Merriam-Webster dictionary has declared it to be the “word of the year” (for announcement, see here). This comes on the heels of the fairly significant announcement a few months ago that the American Psychological Association style guide (heavily used across several academic disciplines) will include, in its 7th edition, the instruction to use “singular they” in cases where a) the gender of the individual being discussed is unknown or not specified or b) the gender of the individual being discussed is known to be neither male nor female. The APA decision in particular makes an important move toward changing the material manifestation of gender representation in print, since style guides constitute, in some contexts, formal rule books — in academic or journalistic writing, you may be able to argue for some wiggle room, but the default will be for copy-editors and other reviewers to “correct” your word choices.

Pronoun_badgesAs noted above, there are any number of experts on the use of Singular They that could tell you more about the pragmatics, psycholinguistic acquisition, and politics of this pronoun (in addition to the scholars above, see for example, information about this conference on the topic from last summer, or Twitter accounts of scholars @kirbyconrod, @VerbingNouns, and @lexicondk). What I want to add here is really about the discourse around singular they, in particular, around the “Word of the Year” declaration. In addition to folks who have really rigid ideas about how both gender and language work or should work, I see some mild pushback on these types of announcements from people who totally support the use of singular they, but who dismiss the idea that anything new is happening here. People who point out this oldness and commonness are profoundly well-intentioned and supportive of the rights of gender non-conforming people (they may even be trans or non-binary themselves), but I think they are missing something that does matter about this pronoun, and in doing so, are appealing to a view of language that is worth pushing against.

In a certain sense, it is accurate to say that “singular they” is old – there are attested uses of it, referring to unknown individuals or hypothetical people (e.g. “If someone comes to my door to sell me cookies, I will give them all my money”) going back hundreds of years. There are even fun examples of people arguing against it literally while they are using it (for example “If a student submits a paper using ‘they’ as a singular pronoun, they are going to lose grades for grammatical incorrectness”), and it is hard to resist the schadenfreude involved in pointing out this apparent hypocrisy. But Merriam-Webster — and the American Dialect Society, who declared ‘they’ its Word of the Year in 2015 — are not hopelessly out of touch in recognizing this pronoun as as a significant word that highlights an important social change. The use of singular they to apply to named/known, non-binary individuals is definitely new, and its rise is directly connected to an increasingly prominent understanding of gender/sex in non-binary terms. This is a point I want to emphasize for a couple of reasons – first, in rooting the claim to its “correctness” in an argument that “singular they is old”, it opens to door to those who can object to your point by noting (accurately) that this way of using it is new. If your point is that we should be okay with the grammaticality of singular they because we have been, in a certain form, for centuries, that is one type of linguistic battle you may choose to fight; if your point is that we can and should affirm non-binary gender identities through the recognition of “they” are a personal and specific pronoun, relying on an appeal to its longstanding grammatical presence is weak. Don’t get me wrong – I am not debating or contesting the grammaticality of non-binary, specific, singular they. I’m just saying a) it is actually a new thing, b) that’s actually great, because it shows that our language can change to accommodate our new social understandings of fundamental things like gender. Grammatical correctness does not accumulate with age.

The second reason I want to emphasize it is that I think sometimes this “singular they is old” and “everyone uses singular they” point is somewhat dismissive of the challenge of learning to apply this pronoun. A lot of the really great scholarly work around singular they right now is looking at people’s ability to acquire the pronoun and to learn to use it appropriately. Airton’s entire blog (linked above) proceeds from the recognition that this is a thing that has to be learned for most people, and that addressing that process and effort compassionately and supportively is an important part of bringing about the necessary social change. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this change is easiest to make for people who are themselves trans, non-binary, or genderqueer, who have been thinking about gender in complex and life-altering ways for essentially their entire lives, or for people are situated in communities in which they encounter a lot of gender non-conforming individuals, who therefore get a lot of opportunities to use these pronouns. I do think people outside these groups – in other words, cis, straight people who don’t necessarily engage much with queer communities – need to put in the time to learn how to do this right. It matters. Using the wrong pronouns for people hurts them (see for example this discussion of the related practice of “deadnaming” trans people), and denies their gender identities. Language is a central battleground in this particular story because it is through language that we express our acceptance or denial of the reality of who a person is. These expressions are about real changes to how we, as a society, talk about gender, and that means it’s worth taking the time to learn even (or perhaps especially) if it’s hard and confusing for you. It’s one thing to criticize pedantic dinosaurs for refusing to even entertain the grammaticality of singular they in any form, but quite another, I think, to suggest that there’s nothing to see here.

The grammaticality of “singular they” doesn’t depend on its presence in dictionaries or style guides or on appeals to its age in the English language, but in this case, the dictionary is right to highlight it – trans and non-binary people are becoming much more visible, and we as a broader society are learning new ways to talk about gender as a result. This pronoun is a radical thing, and it has come to mainstream public attention and use really quite quickly. Recognizing its newness is not to dismiss it – instead, it is to highlight its importance and to push forward with making it more present.


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