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The English Non-Binary They Posted by on Oct 3, 2019 in English Grammar, English Language, News

We have a word in English which has always been trouble for grammarians. They and its related case form their and them, is a singular indefinite pronoun. We use it to refer to a group of people who might be male, female, or a combination. “They say it’s going to rain tomorrow.” It is also the nominative plural of he, she, and itThey may also be used with a singular noun antecedent in place of the definite masculine he or the definite feminine she. “Whoever is at fault, they have a responsibility to go to the police.”

Image courtesy of Pixabay, CCO

But, more recently, they has become a lightning rod in English linguistic circles as a singular gender-neutral pronoun used to identify a specific individual. If someone chooses not to identify under a singular genetic binary designation, then the word they is used. For many grammarians, who like their rules simple and direct, this change seems to go too far.

The complaint is that distinct pronouns like she and he add a level of specificity when writing or speaking. It’s a formal construct that has existed for most of the history of our language. Using their as a singular pronoun simply because someone chooses not to adopt one of the traditional genders appalls many in the linguistic community.1See this article by Jen Doll in The Atlantic: https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2013/01/singular-their-affront-good-writing/319329/ They would prefer a new word (or several) rather than alter the usage of historically established pronouns.

Let’s begin by understanding the word binary. It is an adjective meaning something which is composed of two parts. Traditionally, many people have regarded gender as a binary system – male or female. Of course, this is nonsense and always has been so. Yet, in English, he has been the default pronoun for someone of unknown gender. “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” It is as if only one gender has ever mattered. This is clearly sexist by today’s standards.

The problem of how to refer to someone of a non-binary gender has existed for centuries. The dehumanizing pronoun it was actually accepted in legal matters such as wills and real estate documents as far back as the 17th century. Lawyers needed some pronoun to apply, so they chose that one. However, upon reflection, since they is already widely accepted as a singular pronoun, why not use it in this instance?

Gone are the days of labeling an individual as either heterosexual or homosexual. We now have the term gender-expansive, covering a spectrum of gender identities. So, now we have they as an accepted pronoun, and not only for one or more than one unknown. Now, individuals prefer they in place of any gender. “I’m going to meet up with my friend Karielle after work. They want to take me to a new sushi restaurant they like.”

The question is if they as a gender-neutral construct will ever be accepted as the norm when referencing any gender. Could he or she be replaced in common discourse by they and them? What do you think?


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