Singular ‘they’ is here to stay – it is more than just a fad

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Note: “Transgender” can be defined as someone whose gender identity differs from that which society has assigned to them at their birth; thus, people who identify as neither man nor woman (i.e. “non-binary”) often identify as trans as well. 

Already a norm in our Student Union and its campaigns, there is a growing, student-led trend in recent years in colleges and societies towards people introducing themselves with not just their names (and subject and so on) but also their preferred gender pronouns. That is to say, which set of pronouns you would like others to use to address you in the third person, the two most common sets being ‘he/him/his’ and ‘she/her/hers’.

The underlying rationale is that we should avoid assuming a stranger’s gender merely based on how they look, dress and sound. Many colleges, following the lead of a growing number of banks, companies and public institutions, also allow students to choose ‘Mx.’ as a title now, a gender-neutral alternative to titles like ‘Mr.’ and ‘Ms.’. Someone, such as myself who chooses to use ‘Mx.’, might use ‘they/them/theirs’ pronouns too, because we are not, and do not want to be seen as, neither man nor woman.

But the pedant in us might wonder: is using ‘they’ in such a way ungrammatical? There is historical precedent for the pronoun’s use in referring to an individual; some esteemed users of singular ‘they’ throughout the centuries include Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens and George Bernard Shaw. In more recent times, we are seeing a rise in official usage as well, exemplified by authorities like The Washington Post style guide, The American Dialect Society and the Canadian government’s Justice Department. 

Linguistically, it is far from remarkable for a personal pronoun to be both singular and plural. Consider the pronoun ‘you’ in English, for example. English, as it currently exists, is a gendered language, though perhaps less so than Romance languages like Spanish or French. However, elsewhere, it is common for languages to be far less gendered, sometimes unintuitively so. Malay, for example, uses the same word ‘dia’ to denote ‘he’, ‘she’, ‘it’ and ‘(singular) they’.

There is historical precedent for the pronoun’s use in referring to an individual; some esteemed users of singular ‘they’ throughout the centuries include Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens and George Bernard Shaw.

Singular ‘they’ is regularly used by native English speakers without their realisation, typically in contexts where the gender of the person referred to is unknown. And if we search through corpuses of published books, we witness the use of singular ‘they’ even in formal writing, such as in the instances of the singular ‘themselves’ and, what is increasingly common, ‘themself’. To dismiss the use of singular ‘they’ as “illiterate”, as detractors like British grammarian Simon Heffer did, is nothing short of language puritanism that has its roots in centuries-old classist and elitist mind-sets. 

The crux of the issues resides in respecting someone’s gender identity. Even if you do not accept the use of singular ‘they’ to replace generic ‘he’ or the clunky ‘he or she’, you should still accept it as a gender-affirming pronoun for non-binary and genderqueer individuals. When we meet someone new, we have to learn bits of information about them, such as their name or what their face looks like. Knowing which gender pronouns they use is also a bit of information that we pick up, usually unconsciously.

As an analogy, would you intentionally mispronounce an acquaintance’s name? No, of course not. When you intentionally or consistently use the wrong pronouns for someone, you are, in effect, saying: “I do not respect your gender identity. It is not valid.”

Getting someone’s pronouns right is naturally of greater importance for the trans community. The reality is that trans people have our identities invalidated and denied on a regular basis. Being misgendered, especially when it is often, can cause the intensely unpleasant feelings of gender dysphoria and is part of the bigger picture of why trans individuals face such disproportionately high rates of mental health issues and suicide. 

Although a world where nobody assumed anybody else’s gender based on their appearance is only but a distant hypothetical, all of us, transgender or not, can do more to question the assumptions we make in quotidian life when it comes to gender and other people.

Beyond ‘he’, ‘she’, and ‘they’, there exist other sets of gender pronouns as well. Correlating to ‘they/them/theirs’, some of these are: ‘it/its/its’, ‘ey/em/eirs’, ‘ze/hir/hirs”, ‘ze/zir/zirs’. (These are typically used by trans people with non-binary identities too.) It is admittedly rare, statistically, for you to come across these in Oxford. 

Pronouns, like the singular ‘they’, are here to stay because we, the trans individuals of Oxford, humbly demand that you respect our gender identities, as we already do yours.

But if you do, fret not, panic not, worry not. Chances are that you are not expected to have heard or used them before. Just keep an open mind and a willingness to learn to use such new pronouns. If you slip up, just apologise and make a more conscious effort not to do it again. It is that simple. 

Pronouns, like the singular ‘they’, are here to stay because we, the trans individuals of Oxford, humbly demand that you respect our gender identities, as we already do yours. I would hence advise everyone to adjust to being asked which pronouns you use, because this is a trend that is more than a mere fad.