“They” as a Singular Pronoun, a Cisgender Perspective
Bit of a disclaimer: in this post I discuss two different uses of the pronouns. The re-introduction of “they” as gender-neutral pronoun for general use and the use of different pronouns by people with non-binary gender identities. These are NOT the same, but I hope to show that the former can serve as a stepping stone for understanding the latter for cisgender people who’ve never thought about pronouns before. Later in this post, I reject “zie/hir” as viable gender-neutral pronoun for general use. It is my personal opinion that “they” fits this role better. On the other hand, it and other lesser-used pronouns can be very useful tools for expressing that you gender identity does not match that of other people, I think. I do not want to dive too much into that side however, because I know too little. That said, enjoy (hopefully)!
Imagine a bridge, silhouetted against the sun. From either end, two indistinct shadows approach. That they raise their arms and embrace in the middle, you can just about make out. After a few moments, they walk on. One turns back, raises their arm again and waves. The other never notices, their head bowed and deep in thought.
Later you’ll recount this story to a friend, how happy and fleeting a moment it seemed. Since you never saw the figures’ features due to how the light fell and the distance, you use “their” as a gender-neutral possessive pronoun. You scarcely give it a thought, seeing how often it’s used these days. It’s simply useful that you don’t have to guess whether to call them “he” or “she”.
Even less on your mind is how crucial pronouns are for people not strictly male or female, or how, when you read Shakespeare in high-school, you never stumbled over the gender-neutral pronoun either. It’s so normal. Grammar’s just boring facts. Right?
When I first registered on the asexual and demisexual forums I was puzzled by the need to specify a preferred pronoun. Other languages have two second person singular pronouns, formal and informal. Dutch has “u”, German has “Sie”, French has “vous”… In addressing “you” in English politely, I have to bust out the modal verbs and the honorifics. I filled out what I’d say in my own language when asked what my preferred pronoun is. “Zeg maar jij.” You’re allowed to use my first name and address me informally. In one latinate word, to tutoyate, use “tu” and “toi”.
In English it’s about gender identity, probably the most quantifiable characteristic of it to show up in the asexual community. Your preferred third person singular pronoun. He, she, they, or something else. “They” in particular interests me, because it’s making a come-back as a gender-neutral pronoun in general.
The reader, they…
Gender’s pervasiveness can be a bother when I’m speaking or writing. I may want to address a reader neutrally. It’s easier, in a Germanic language such as English, but I can’t avoid pronouns forever.
These days, business letters often leave off honorifics. Readers are as likely to be men as women, and both are to be respected equally. In speaking or speculating about a hypothetical person it’s good to be able to leave gender open to the imagination…
I’ve seen “zie” and “hir” proposed for use in these contexts, but they feel a little like Esperanto. Good in theory, not viable in practice. Traditionally, “he” is used when a person’s gender is unclear, and “she” in a feminist response to that, to even the playing field.
I’m glad I’m now able to speak of “them” instead being forced to pick “he” or “she” when addressing an unfamiliar person in the third person. A few years ago, it still felt ungrammatical, but now it’s almost natural.
So even in a cisgender world, a gender-neutral pronoun is a wonderful thing. Let’s hope the Powers Who Guard The English Language will allow it to dwell once again within their hallowed halls and grammar books in the future.
See, the use of “they” is a revival of sixteenth-century practice according to the Oxford Dictionary’s website that debates the use of “they” as third person singular. It got changed to “he” in cases where people spoke of a person with an unclear gender around 1850.
Yes, when people complain about using “they” for a gender-neutral pronoun, you can legitimately say “but Shakespeare could do it. Why can’t you?” and be speaking the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help you Shakespeare. So did Jane Austen, Louis Carroll, Walt Whitman and the King James Bible.
The boxes they cannot tick…
I cannot imagine how crucial the choice of pronouns is when your gender isn’t simply masculine or feminine… Then it’s less the polite “Stranger, I respect I do not know your gender” and more the humane “I recognise this basic fact about your identity.” I get that much, but I think that scarcely covers how much of an impact it has.
Language, naming what we are and where we’ve been, is powerful. Being able to name what I am has helped me immensely in my sexuality. If gender identity, how it really works, not just male-or-female, can be expressed more accurately in language, in pronouns, it goes a small way towards being accepted.
It’s already a smaller mental step, I think, to go from “use they for strangers” to “use they for people who prefer it” than from “third person singular is he or she” to “we need to add a new pronoun (e.g. zie/hir)”.
Conceptions of gender trickle down to institutions, such as in countries with forms with more than two options for gender, “male” and “female”. Or like social media sites who have more than two radio buttons (sometimes after a big kick in the butt). Or like Amsterdam, who’s done away with the need for gender registration at a local level altogether as of last week. Thus declaring gender less of a clear-cut and crucial fact of identity, and allowing for a shades-of-grey type situation that’s closer to reality, much like a gender-neutral pronoun does.
I was at first confused, and still strangely tickled by the question “what’s your preferred pronoun?” (and yes, I’m keeping “Zeg maar jij” because I hope someday someone will ask and we get to be dorky about language together). Now, I like the concept’s logic, how it fits in with a bigger change in language, the revival of the gender-neutral pronoun “they”. I like how a little bit of useful pre-Victorian grammar is returning in our Internet-era English. I also like how it offers some openness in the language, a measure of politeness, when gender identity matters. That even in English, I can offer respect by way of pronoun choice, even if it’s in third person instead of second.
So, what’s your preferred pronoun?
- The use of “they” as third person singular, according to Wikipedia
- They versus he or she, according to Oxford Doctionary website, and the debate about its use
- The common use of “they” before 1850 by famous authors, on the Telegraph (UK newspaper) blog
- A good blog about several different pronouns that were proposed as an attempt to introduce a gender-neutral pronoun.
- Documents existed that described how to use zie and hir and zir.
- Good guide for content creators about asking about gender in forms in a good way.
- On pronouns in social media such as Google+ (article)
- Facebook, of all websites, has enough options for its users, says the Daily Mail
- Some countries recognise more than two gender identities but the US government won’t, for now, a petition and its official answer
- Amsterdam’s solution sounds cool, doing away with registering gender altogether (Dutch)