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All About Everyday Manners

Gender-neutral pronouns: When 'they' doesn't identify as either male or female

Recently, a young woman I know explained to me that she now considers herself to be “genderqueer,” which is a new phrase for me. My first question is: What does she mean by that? I also understand that she no longer uses female pronouns to refer to herself (i.e., “her” and “she”) but prefers “they,” “them” and “their” because, as she told me, they identify her as a person, not as either a man or a woman. She has asked her friends to adopt that language, too, but maybe I’m old school, because I find it odd and grammatically incorrect to say something like, “Oh, they went to the movies this afternoon,” in reference to one singular person. What is the right thing to do, and say, in this circumstance?

My first reaction is: Wow, this is complicated. But really, it’s not. Language is about respect, and we should all do our best to recognize how people wish to be identified, whether it is using their preferred name or a pronoun spelled any which way. In other words, do your best to adjust to changing times and terms, and address people the way they ask you. Or more bluntly, use a person’s preferred gender pronouns even if they are unfamiliar to you and not in the general lexicon. (This would only apply to those who make such a request; our own pronouns remain the same.)

But this latest evolution of the English language has felt awkward to me as well, as I have witnessed my inner Strunk and White struggle with what I first saw as “political correctness.” My first step was to learn more about “genderqueer,” which the National Center for Transgender Equality explains as a “term used by some individuals who identify as neither entirely male nor entirely female.” Jacob Tobia, a recent college grad who identifies as genderqueer, also helped me:

“Genderqueer people see gender not as binary with men or women, but as a spectrum that ranges from masculinity to femininity. Most genderqueer people identify somewhere between or outside of conventional masculinity or femininity.”

Jacob (whom I’ve known for years) prefers the pronouns “they” and “them,” and so here’s how I would write about Jacob: They have a gender identity that encompasses both male and female, and their attire ranges from pencil skirts, high heels and lipstick to blazers, bow ties and facial hair on any given day.

This past week I attended a presentation at Duke University’s Center for Sexual and Gender Diversity, whose name was the LGBT Center but was changed to reflect a more fluid understanding of gender. At the outset, the speaker asked the audience to introduce ourselves and declare our preferred gender pronouns. Most of us stated an adherence to the traditional — “he/him/his” and “she/her/hers” — but several individuals chose gender-neutral pronouns, “they/them/their.” One person preferred to use “ze” (“ze smiled”) and “hir” (“I work with hir”).

Clearly, there’s change afoot in the language to refer to gender identity, and this clashes for some people with strong feelings about established rules of English. On my Facebook page, when asked for input about this question, many expressed views along these lines: “The letter writer needs to follow the rules of grammar and pick a singular. You can’t just toss the rules on a whim.”

I think it’s wiser to take a longer view on matters of language evolution. It’s not as if this is the first time the language we use to describe gender has prompted debate. Think back to the early 1970s when the term “Ms.” was introduced as an alternative to “Miss” and “Mrs.”

There was vociferous opposition to that change by linguists and etiquette experts. But it made good sense because it obviated the need to guess a woman’s marital status. To this day, the Economist magazine’s style guide states: “The overriding principle is to treat people with respect. That usually means giving them the title they themselves adopt.” And then it calls out “Ms.” as being “ugly.”

Linguist Dennis Baron at the University of Illinois points to the evolution of the word “you” as another example: “Purists object that a plural pronoun like ‘they’ can’t be used as a singular. But they are wrong: ‘You’ began its life as plural (the singular second person was ‘thou’). Then ‘you’ began serving as singular as well. . . . Today we use ‘you’ to refer to one person — ‘Are you talkin’ to me?’ — without worrying about number. And for most people, ‘they’ works the same way.”

Even the “they” and “them” debate itself has been going on for some time. Baron referred to an 1878 issue of the Atlantic magazine arguing that tired old “he” and “she” needed replacing: “We need a new pronoun. The need of a personal pronoun of the singular number and common gender is so desperate, urgent, imperative, that according to the established theories it should long have grown in our speech, as the tails grew off monkeys.”

There you go, folks — the history. Now without my Strunk and White sword to fall on, I’d add only that grammar evolution should be bolstered with respect. My friend Jacob is not a pronoun, but a person. And if they want me to refer to them with a gender-neutral pronoun, I will do my best. You should, too. (As for “ze” and “hir,” I’ll try, but I’m still going to need a little more time to learn how to pronounce them.)

Originally published in the Washington Post, October 27, 2014

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