5 Reasons Why Feminist Grammarians Should Embrace the Singular “They”

Singular TheyBy Allison Epstein

I’m what you could call a “words person.” On top of working as an editor for Adios Barbie, I’m an English Lit grad who writes for an agency by day and freelance proofreads by night. So you bet your bottom dollar I give a damn about where folks are putting their apostrophes. I have stronger feelings about em dashes than most people do about the November election.

That said, it might surprise you that I’ve been sneaking an error into almost every piece I edit.

Hold onto your hats, folks. It’s time to talk about singular “they.”

Singular “they” has been making a splash in the news lately. Maybe you heard when the Washington Post added it to their in-house style guide. Maybe you noticed when the American Dialect Society named it their 2015 Word of the Year. Or maybe you spotted it when some awful person on your social media feed was ranting against people using “they” as their pronoun.

Whatever the case, it looks like it’s here to stay. And I couldn’t be happier.

What is singular “they,” anyway?

Here’s one of the problems with English: We don’t have a gender-neutral singular third-person pronoun. That might not sound like a problem. (Actually, it probably sounds like I brought you back to freshman year English class.) But trust me, it is.

If you want a pronoun for someone you’re not directly speaking to, your choices are “he” or “she.” Male or female. That’s it. No ambiguity, no exceptions. Not every language works this way, of course. Languages like Thai, Icelandic, and Turkish all provide a gender-neutral singular pronoun, and Sweden made headlines in 2015 by adding a new one.

But according to English language stylebooks, if you don’t want to specify a single person’s gender, tough luck. If you’re talking about a group of people, sure, there’s always “they.” For example, if I say “they went to the store,” you don’t know the gender identity of those folks, and you don’t care. But if just one person went to the store, I need to specify whether that person was male or female to say it.

That is, I would, if not for singular “they.” All of a sudden, I can say “Sam went to the store, and they bought some milk,” all without forcing Sam to one end or the other of the gender binary.

Here at Adios Barbie, singular “they” isn’t just a fad. It’s an editorial practice. In fact, when writing an entry for it in our in-house style guide, I didn’t hold back:

Singular “They”:
Life, liberty, and the pursuit of singular “they.” Forget everything your high school English teacher taught you about subject-verb agreement. Use liberally and always.

I can just hear about 30% of our readers spiraling off into a rage. “But it’s still wrong! ‘They’ is plural! You can’t use it to replace ‘he or she!’ And English pronouns have always marked gender! Why don’t you just stick to what’s correct?”

Well, we have our reasons. Here are five to start.

1. The gender binary is inaccurate

The gender binary—the idea that every person can be classified as either male or female—is a long-standing fixture in most Western understandings of identity. It’s also, pardon my French, total bullshit.

Gender isn’t a this-or-that kind of deal. It’s a spectrum with basically infinite possibilities. You might firmly identify with the  “male” or “female” end. You might fit best at any given point between the two. Your gender identity might shift: gradually, suddenly, or repeatedly. Or, for some folks, using the male-female spectrum to determine their gender might be as useful as using a thermometer to tell what time it is.

(By the way, gender has nothing to do with sex—your biological characteristics. It also has nothing to do with sexual orientation—who you’re sexually attracted to. Both these things are important and deserve articles of their own, but whatever you’ve been told, they have fuck-all to do with pronouns.)

If we believe the gender binary is real and all-encompassing, then we already have pronouns for all existing genders: “he” and “she.”

But if we look at gender scientifically and accurately, we’d need an infinite number of pronouns to represent the infinite varieties of gender that exist.

People who complain singular “they” is inaccurate are missing the point. Taking gender out of the linguistic equation is the only way we can be accurate.

2. Basic respect of others’ identity is non-negotiable

Imagine it’s the first day of school, and the teacher is calling roll. They call out “Jonathan,” but you inform them you actually go by your middle name, Tyler. The teacher apologizes, makes a note, and from that day on, you’re Tyler.

Now imagine you’re introducing a classmate to your friend. This is Sarah, you say, and “she’s in my math class.” But when Sarah tells you their correct pronoun is “they,” you say this is ridiculous, it’s grammatically incorrect, and you can’t possibly keep up with all this PC crap.

Notice anything…inconsistent?

People of all genders have the right to decide which words reflect their identity. The only person who’s allowed to determine your most accurate pronouns is you. No one else. And not listening when someone else tells you their pronouns is insulting, arrogant, and dehumanizing.

When someone calls you out for using the wrong pronouns, the only acceptable response is, “I’m sorry—thank you for correcting me.” Then use the right ones.

3. “Correct English” is arbitrary

This might sound odd coming from a vigilante grammarian like myself, but it’s true: “Correct English” has no inherent value.

The Lord didn’t engrave the rules of English grammar in stone tablets and bestow them unto the people. An old dead white guy just made them up. Specifically, this old dead white guy, who, back in 1585,  pretty much made up the bulk of English grammar rules out of thin air because he wanted English to be as high-class and fancy as Latin.

But here’s the thing: English isn’t a damn thing like Latin. It’s a linguistic mashup made of Germanic dialects, French, and Old Norse, with about a billion different other languages mixed in there for added fun and flair. And we’re adding new words and rules all the time.

Yes, there’s value to grammar. It creates a set of rules to ensure others can easily understand us. Grammar is the framework of communication. But it’s not divine writ. It can change. And there’s  no morality or prestige attached to it, unless we choose to put it there.

Saying singular “they” isn’t correct English is basically saying that some 16th-century linguist didn’t think it was a good idea. And honestly, if you’re letting a 16th-century linguist make life decisions for you, you need to sort out your priorities.

4. Privileging Standard English is oppressive

Put aside the fact that “because Latin said so” is a terrible reason for doing anything, these totally arbitrary grammar rules tend to overlap with everyone’s favorite oppressive systems: classism and white supremacy.

Every dialect and variation of English has its own grammar. African-American Vernacular English, Appalachian English, Spanglish, whatever: They’re all rule-governed, and they’re comprehensible to the people who speak them. However, speakers of Standard English (what we’re taught in school to call “correct English”) have a habit of judging nonstandard speakers as less intelligent, less civilized, less valuable. Remember how the world reacted to Rachel Jeantel, a key witness in the 2013 George Zimmerman murder trial, and how she was berated for her nonstandard English?

If these dialects are just as logical as Standard English, why do we treat them with so much contempt? Well, the answer’s simple: They’re not spoken by the people in this country with the most social capital. They’re not spoken by the white and the wealthy. And in a country that others, objectifies, and oppresses folks with marginalized identities to maintain the status quo, shaming the individual goes hand-in-hand with shaming their language.

Others have written about linguistic privilege with much more insight than I can. But the impossibly brilliant Professor Anne Curzan might put it best:

“…Standard English is not structurally better than other varieties of English. Nonstandard varieties are not illogical or any less rule-governed, in the descriptive sense, than Standard English. … Standard English and prescriptive grammar are about who has the social power to prescribe and who is silenced in the process. If we want to talk about social justice and diversity … we need to talk about language.”

Yes, singular “they” doesn’t appear in the rules many rich, well-educated white people have been imposing for centuries. That doesn’t mean the people who use it are less intelligent. It means they’re following a different system. Not better, not worse. Just different.

5. It’s older than you think

Singular “they” isn’t always a deliberate blow against discriminatory grammar. It’s not always part of an activist or political agenda. Most of the time, we use it because it feels good.

Say you’re trying to pull into a parking spot, but another car cuts you off. Would you yell “He or she is such an asshole”?

Singular “they” feels natural. It feels logical. And it feels familiar—because it’s been around for centuries. The first recorded use of singular “they” is back in 1385. Shakespeare used it. Jane Austen used it. Chaucer, Byron, Dickens… Basically, name a famous old-time author, and they’ve used singular “they.”

Not that we need the prestige of the literary canon to justify our pronouns. Language is a democratic force. It shifts and evolves and adapts based on the way it’s used. It expands to meet our needs as they arise.

That’s the beauty of language. And that’s more valuable than any set of made-up grammar rules, whatever “they” say.

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