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Gendered Pronouns & Singular “They”

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What is a pronoun? Why do people use different ones? Why are he and she not enough?

Linguistically, personal pronouns are words that refer to people by replacing proper nouns, like names. A pronoun can refer to either a person performing an action or a person who is having an action done to them. Common pronouns include they/them/theirs, she/her/hers, and he/him/his. Pronouns often indicate the gender of a person; traditionally, he refers to males while she refers to females. While the English language does not have a unique gender-neutral third-person singular pronoun, they has been used to identify singular persons in speech, popular literature, and dictionary reference materials since at least the 12th century. In fact, singular use of  they has been officially recognized as correct  by several key bodies such as the Associated Press, American Psychological Association (APA)  and Modern Language Association (MLA), the Oxford English Dictionary, and the Merriam-Webster Dictionary.

Knowing that they can be used to refer to individual people allows writers to avoid defaulting to he or she in regular use. It is also important for people whose genders are neither male nor female. In the words of the Chicago Manual (17th ed.), "Some people identify not with a gender-specific pronoun but instead with the pronoun they and its forms or some other gender-neutral singular pronoun; any such preference should generally be respected."

What is gender inclusive language? What does it have to do with the OWL?

Historically, the OWL has had resources on gender inclusive language that mainly focus on incorporating women into general language—for instance, using “he or she” or just “she as the pronoun for a general subject, rather than always defaulting to “he." Now, the conversation on gender inclusive language has expanded further to include people whose genders are neither male nor female (e.g., gender-nonconforming, gender-neutral, genderfluid, genderqueer, or nonbinary individuals, though this list is not exhaustive). In basic terms, this means that he and she are not sufficient to describe the genders of all people, because not all people identify as either male or female. As such, the phrase “he or she” does not cover the full range of persons.

The alternative pronoun most commonly used is they, often referred to as singular they. Here’s an example:

Someone left his or her backpack behind. → Someone left their backpack behind.

Since we don’t know the gender of the person who left their backpack behind, we use they to include all genders as possibilities for that mystery person. In addition to being respectful of people of all genders, this makes the sentence shorter and easier to say. In fact, almost all of us use this language on a regular basis without even thinking about it.

While they is already a common part of the English language, especially while speaking, there are other third-person singular pronouns that have come into use that you may encounter in writing. Some of these include zie/zim/zir and sie/sie/hir. The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee's LGBT Center has a chart with more options, but even this is not exhaustive.

Some things to keep in mind when using gender-inclusive pronouns:

Introducing Your Pronouns: If you are unsure of how to best ask for someone’s pronouns, you could introduce yourself and the pronouns you use. Thus, you invite the individual to give their pronouns as well if they so choose. For example:

Hello, my name is [insert], and my pronouns are she/her/hers; he/him/his; or they/them/theirs; etc.

Privacy: The main thing one should avoid is making assumptions about an individual’s gender identity. There is potential danger of outing someone who is trans or nonbinary who might not want that information disclosed. Pay attention to the situation and to how people refer to themselves. Ask everyone what pronouns they use (even if you think you know). Try to get into the habit of introducing yourself and your pronouns.

Mistakes Happen: As long as you are earnestly putting forth effort to be respectful to someone’s pronouns, small mistakes can be forgiven as long as you learn from them. Being aware of gender pronouns expresses to individuals that you are an ally. People are allowed to be people and ask how to be addressed since that is inherently their right.

Why should we use this kind of language?

Isn’t this incorrect grammar?

In short, no. Grammar shifts and changes over time; for instance, the clunky he or she that a singular they replaces is actually a fairly recent introduction into the language. Singular they has been used for a long time and is often used in casual situations; you probably do it yourself without realizing it. We are simply witnessing a reorientation of the rule, mostly with the intention of including more people in language.

When individuals whose gender is neither male nor female (e.g. nonbinary, agender, genderfluid, etc.) use the singular they to refer to themselves, they are using the language to express their identities. Adopting this language is one way writers can be inclusive of a broader range of people and identities.

Isn’t this political?

Conversations around language, gender and sexuality have always been political, as Dr. John d’Emilio, Professor of History and Gender and Women's Studies Emeritus at the University of Illinois at Chicago, has discussed in his numerous publications. However, using gender-inclusive language and gender-neutral pronouns is not just a move for the sake of political correctness. As mentioned above, these practices are becoming officially recognized by language organizations and other official bodies. Recently, the Chicago Manual Style and the Associated Press (AP) style book have both announced that they will be accepting they/them/their as an example of a singular and/or gender-neutral pronoun. The American Dialect Society crowned singular they its word of the year in 2015. That same year, the Oxford Dictionaries website added the honorific Mx, defining it as "a title used before a person's surname or full name by those who wish to avoid specifying their gender or by those who prefer not to identify themselves as male or female” (OED Online).

Is this just a trend?

Gender neutral pronouns were not invented in the modern period—they have a vast and long history. The Oxford English Dictionary’s first citation for a gender-neutral, indefinite they is from about 1375 from the romance of William of Palerne. The use of they as an indefinite pronoun which refers to people in general has been used even longer. The singular they even appears in 1382 in Wycliffe’s translation of the Bible. Additionally, in Much Ado about Nothing, Shakespeare uses they in the line, “To strange sores, strangely they straine the cure” (see OED Online). In fact, it wasn’t until the 18th century that some grammarians declared the singular they to be invalid because it couldn’t take a singular antecedent, ignoring the conceptual meaning people across genres were using. However, at the same time, you was undergoing this exact change. Despite this, famous writers such as Charles Dickens and Jane Austen continued to use the singular they throughout the 19th century. The singular they has been prominently used in English throughout history and is a legitimate use of language. However, it has only been recently, with the changing conception of gender and society’s growing acceptance of non-binary individuals, that gender-neutral pronouns have been more widely discussed.

How can I learn more about gender inclusive language?

The Chicago Manual of Style on Singular They

Oxford Dictionary Entry for They

NCTE Position Statement on Gender-Fair Use of Language

American Dialect Society on singular They as 2015 word of the year

University of Wisconsin-Madison on Using Gender–Neutral Pronouns in Academic Writing

You might also be interested in these resources:

LGBTQ+ Center at Purdue's Terminology List

University of Minnesota's List of Nonbinary Gender Pronouns

American Psychological Association (APA) LGBT Resources and Publications

Works Cited

“They, pron., adj., adv., and n.” OED Online, Oxford University Press, June 2017.