— “I went to the post office and asked about the new Willa Cather stamps.”
— “Oh yeah? What’d they say?”
A personal essay in support of they pronouns and why I both do and don’t feel a connection to them…
We’ve been using the “singular they” for a long time in conversational language. Written language (thankfully) evolved in the last 30-ish years away from “him” and “he” standing in for both male and female to the relatively inclusive, but awkward, “he/she,” “(s)he,” or “him or her.”
(It turns out that using “he” for a generic person in written language this way was a totally made up rule itself! Check out “The Rise of They – English pronouns are evolving, and it’s time to embrace it” – Lexicon Valley podcast #142)
Language evolves; always has done. And with much faster and easier ways to communicate (thanks, interwebs!) it’s been speeding up. In the past few years, with more and more folks realizing that gender is not a binary, the pronoun set “they, them, theirs” has come on to the scene.
The most exposure I’ve had to the they pronoun set has been at the LGBT Resource Center at the university where I work. Name tags and group introductions always include a declaration of your pronouns, as in “I’m Betsy, my pronouns are she/her/hers.” “I’m JC, my pronouns are they/them theirs.” Using your first name rather than pronouns has also been increasing in popularity, I’ve noticed: “I’m Dolores, please use my first name rather than any pronouns.”
Using they is something the kids are doing much more so than “olds” like me (Gen Xers and up) – see previous paragraph about experiencing they pronouns at the LGBT Center that primarily serves undergrad and graduate students.
I love that this is happening. You identify strongly with your gender identity and want to use “they,” awesome! Do it! Remind me when I mess up! Tell your professors, your parents, your friends, your cousins!
One of the best moments of my gender identity journey was when, after I declared my genderqueer identity on a Facebook post, my niece said, “I haven’t asked about your pronouns. Do you have a preference?”
It made me feel so validated and seen. But it wasn’t something I’d ever seriously considered outside of a “queer setting.” I ended up saying, “Nah, not for the family.”
I still hold “woman” as part of my identity and getting into a discussion about (or defense of) my genderqueerness and why they pronouns are valid is something I really only want to do in small, select settings.
Using they pronouns seems to be challenging (as in hard to get used to) for other olds (myself included) and definitely for the “even olders.” Many things – language, technology, social norms and mores – are that way, so I’m going to back off a bit from my statement above about using they in a queer setting and modify it to a “young” queer setting.
They has been adopted by some style “authorities” and media groups in the past couple of years – mostly. “… the Associated Press Stylebook and the Chicago Manual of Style, emphasize that “they” cannot be used with abandon,” states the Columbia Journalism Review. I agree with the article’s author that we are at the “…middle of the end for the insistence that “they” can be only a plural pronoun.” The article is from 2017, so we’re a bit farther than the middle now.
Using they can be a mental shift for people who haven’t grown up with it or don’t have call to practice using it on a regular basis. And that’s okay. As actor and writer Wil Wheaton likes to say, “Don’t be a dick,” if someone prefers they pronouns, use them. If you mess up, correct yourself and move on. Keep practicing, respect people’s identities, and say Yay for They!!
P.S. Recently, a friend (an educator and top-notch person) posted the Teen Vogue article How to use Gender-Neutral Words – and why they’re important in advance of the school year starting. A friend of hers replied, “Oh my god! Some of this is just unbelievable! I don’t even know what a non binary person is! And if you don’t know if you identify as a man or woman then there is more serious issues then what name they are called! Too over the top for me!” Below is the reply I posted:
“As someone who identifies as non-binary, but is also from a generation that isn’t quite as “hip” as the kids are today (a GenX-er in my mid-40s), I appreciate the notion that some of this feels like “too much.” However, doing a small thing to be more inclusive is not at all a small thing for the people to whom it is important.
I get called “sir” frequently (I’m 6ft tall and have short hair). I also get called “ma’am” on a more regular basis. Neither one feels right to me. I understand that people are using those terms to be polite and respectful, but if there is a way to be polite and respectful AND use a word or language that includes everyone, why would you push back against that?
I have spent many, many years feeling invisible – like my identity does not exist and that to most of society, I wasn’t a valid woman or man, and therefore, I wasn’t particularly valued. Letting people (especially young people) know that they are seen and respected for who they are is critical.”
How to do the Absolute Minimum with Pronouns by Kirby Conrad, linguistics Ph.D candidate at the University of Washington