So as you may know, I prefer to be referred to using the gender-neutral pronoun “they.” If you don’t know that, surprise! I love the pronoun they. It contains multitudes. I love the way it sounds when I hear it floating around me, or my friends who use it, or strangers of unknown genders. I’ve been “she” in the streets and gender fluid (sometimes “he”, sometimes “she”) in my romantic relationships for most of my life. I thought it was time to make the fluidity explicit in more of my spaces, and I appreciate your support. I have the BEST people in my life and I get to try big things because of it.
Okay, now for my rant.
Many times, when I have told people about wanting to use “they” as my pronoun of choice, I have gotten as a reply, “This is hard for me because it is grammatically incorrect and unnecessarily confusing.” When I hear this, I start feeling defensive, and my response is not very patient or coherent. So I’m going to try to write this stuff down, in the hopes that I will clarify my own thinking some, and also be excused from making this speech again.
Some things to consider before you tell me that my preferred pronoun is grammatically incorrect:
1. Singular “they” is NOT grammatically incorrect.
Nope. It isn’t.
“They” can be used as either plural or singular, just like “you”. Like in this sentence:
“When it comes to figuring out identity issues, everyone is doing their best.”
Here, “their” refers to everyone, which is singular. See how it’s “is doing their best” and not “are doing their best?”
This pattern in English is very common, you probably use it all the time without thinking about it in casual speech. And it’s not only used recently or casually:
“A person can’t help their birth,” Rosalind replied with great liberality.
— Thackeray, Vanity Fair (1848)
‘Tis meet that some more audience than a mother, since nature makes them partial, should o’erhear the speech.
— Shakespeare, Hamlet (circa 1600)
“In the 19th century, grammarians in England petitioned the British Parliament to declare gender-indeterminate pronouns as ‘he’ rather than ‘they’, which was common usage at the time. ”
Don’t be like those guys.
(lots more: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Singular_they)
2. Singular “they” is ambiguous, it’s true. Just like all other pronouns.
“you” is ambiguous about number and gender.
“I,” “you,” “we,” and “they” are all ambiguous about gender.
“He” and “she” are ambiguous, too. They could refer to any number of people.
Pronouns are, by their nature, ambiguous. We ALWAYS are tasked to figure out their reference from context and from familiarity. If you think you can’t figure this particular one out, but have never felt that way about other pronouns, consider that the discomfort you feel is really about how rigid and oppressive our society is about gender conformity. Now *that* is unnecessarily confusing.
3. English is flexible and awesome.
I’m not saying that “they” won’t take some getting used to for some people, but consider it a thought experiment, as I do. Consider it a tribute to how dynamic and playful the English language is. It flows into spaces where there are un-served needs. English changes every single day, and the changes are driven by the passion and humor and intelligence of our enormous culture. It might be empowering to cast your awkward little verbal votes in favor of a recognizable gender-neutral pronoun, since there are people who need one.
4. Being a “Grammar Nazi” is not quite as bad as it sounds, but it is related.
Maybe you’ve heard the phrase, “language belongs to the people.” It’s an important idea. Every time someone speaks or writes, their history is partly embedded in the language they use. (See those nice pronouns I just rocked?) Saying that there is a right way and wrong way to use language is just waving your bag of class and educational privilege in someone’s face. And it’s waving around the assumption that the privileged part of our culture has the authority to judge and dismiss other parts. It’s just gross, and it’s not necessary for us to be able to talk to each other. If someone speaks and you understand them, they have used language perfectly. If they have used language in a way that you haven’t heard before, lucky you! You just got smarter and more connected to a part of our culture.
5. Give a queer a break.
I’m only going to speak for myself, here. This note should be ample evidence that it is hard to ask for this. I may be trembling with fear when we talk about this. I may, because of oppression, feel the need to justify, explain, apologize, and make other people feel okay about this. But this is a totally rational, personal decision that cuts right to the heart of my sense of self and my engagement with this world. It is not frivolous, any more than my art is or my love is.
So if you’re someone who cares about me and we’re having a conversation about my gender identity, ask yourself if grammatical nit-picking should be the first or tenth thing on your mind. I love to talk about gender and I welcome all kinds of questions about pronouns in general, and mine in particular. I don’t mind being challenged. But let’s stick to the thing that matters, which is people trying to figure out how to live honestly and fabulously in this weird old world.