Pronouns

As a non-binary person without gender, K. A. asks that you refer to them in the third person with they/them/their/themself. They’re thrilled to bits when someone uses their preferred pronouns to refer to them!

Simple, right?

Unfortunately, no. Or at least not given the reactions I’ve gotten.

This is a perfectly legitimate usage, as per the Style manual:

Other indefinite pronouns such as someone, anyone and none also tend to be followed by theythem or their […] This type of construction has a long history dating back more than four hundred years, but it has acquired a special value recently in the context of seeking inclusive language. The evolving use of the singular theythem and their makes an interesting comparison with the evolution of the singular use of you in place of thou and thee in early modern English.

(Style manual for authors, editors and printers, sixth edition, 2002, John Wiley and Sons Australia, p 76.)

As a non-binary, genderless editor/writer who has run into many issues with other editors telling me my use of ‘they’ in the singular is incorrect, I was quite surprised to see the Style manual put this in such an enlightened, positive way.

But ‘they’ used in the singular takes a plural verb, people say! The verb doesn’t match the antecedent! It isn’t correct English!

By bringing up the usage of singular ‘you’, however, the Style manual makes the case that English speakers do, in fact, speak and write English this way every single day of their lives.

‘Thou’ (the old singular version of ‘you’) takes the singular verb, the same way as ‘he’ or ‘she’. ‘He/she/thou catches [singular of ‘catch’] the bus to school.’ Simple, right? Should one recast that sentence with ‘you’ in the normal modern usage, however, the verb becomes the plural despite the fact that ‘you’ can encompass one person or several. ‘They/you/Jack and Jill catch the bus to school.’ You can say that sentence to your friend – ‘I don’t know how you run marathons every weekend!’ – or to your parents as a unit – ‘I don’t know how you run marathons every weekend!’ – and they are both grammatically correct with the plural verb.

(Yes, we often say ‘you both’ or ‘you all’ to distinguish the plural usage, but that doesn’t damage my point any: ‘they both’ or ‘they all’ is just as grammatically correct and will distinguish the plural usage of ‘they’ just fine. The grammatical precedent stands.)

If ‘you’ used in the singular takes a plural verb, therefore ‘they’ used in the singular with a plural verb – ‘I know K. A.! They hate people who use the tab key when indenting paragraphs!’ – is a perfectly legitimate usage with grammatical precedent. There is no grammatical reason not to use singular ‘they’ in this way when we already use ‘you’ in just this way (without complaining about the integrity of the poor English language). Unless you (singular or plural) go (plural verb) around using thou/thee/thine to distinguish between singular and plural ‘you’ (and, hey, use ‘ye’ in the subjective case while we’re at it) there is absolutely no argument to be made for not using ‘they’ in the singular.

You are (plural verb) capable of using my pronouns correctly. You do (plural verb) it every day.

When you tell me that my words are incorrect, you’re showing a shocking ignorance about how we use the word ‘you’ in its singular and plural forms.

In all honesty, you’re using ‘preserving grammar’ as a justification to deny a disenfranchised minority inclusive words to communicate their non-binary identities. As a non-binary person this behaviour demoralises me such that I am afraid to tell people in real-life interactions the words that properly, accurately and legitimately describe my gender. As a writer/editor it makes me want to slap people about the head with the Style manual. I am afraid to insist on my grammatically-correct words that have historical precedent because ignorant people (who often don’t share my profession and education, funnily enough) tell me I’m wrong.

Now, unless thou wants me to ask thee, mate, why thou slanders the English language with thine terrible singular ‘you’, stop using ‘grammar’ as an excuse and use my proper pronouns.

I know, it’s not easy to remember. I misgender myself all the time.

The only way to create an inclusive world, though, is to give it a shot.

(For more on queer language and word usage: queering words part one and part two.)

6 thoughts on “Pronouns

    • Thank you for reading and commenting.

      Well, there’s an awful lot of non-binary people out there who believe that our pronouns should be accepted whatever they are. We’re all going to have our own unique relationship to the words we use and what they mean for us – there is no universal terminology, and that’s confusing for cis people, but that’s what I find intensely liberating about being non-binary.

      For me, they in the singular reads as particularly without gender without being specifically a gender outside the binary, which is my feeling with regards most other pronoun sets. This isn’t necessarily a logical or rational feeling; it’s not one I can define because of grammar or reason. It’s most likely unique to me. It’s just what feels right to me, which is why I’m happiest with ‘they’. (As you say, a great many people do use it in conversation to refer to someone of non-specific gender or a person in the abstract – it’s when it comes to writing it down the preference tends to ‘it’ or designating a gender. A great deal of my editing work in fact involves the massive difference between spoken and written English!)

      I’m fairly sure, though, that any non-binary pronoun will be, in fact, confusing (as given the responses I’ve gotten to my fiction writing, which uses any number of different pronoun sets depending on the story). We live in a world where people don’t want to accept anything outside the binary.

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      • I still think that X and Z pronouns are less confusing than singular they, but like I said, it’s entirely up to you if you prefer to use that. After all, it’s each individual’s right to choose self-descriptors, amirite?

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        • After all, it’s each individual’s right to choose self-descriptors, amirite?

          I like to think that’s the heart of being not only non-binary but human. Would that we lived in a world that understands it!

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    • When I click on that link I get a 404 error – any chance you can repost it for the benefit of anyone else who happens across this piece? Awesomeness shouldn’t go unseen!

      I would caution against terms like ‘genetic woman’, because unfortunately they’re often used in a context by less well-meaning people to diminish trans people as not real/less real. For non-binary people it’s especially confusing. I mean, I’d argue that my body – which I see as andrognyous – is no less genetic than a cis woman’s body. I don’t see a woman’s body in the mirror, so the fact that people consider it to be female is … well, bizarre.

      A trans woman’s body is a woman’s body because she has the heart and soul and experience and feeling of a woman. If we use words like ‘genetic’, are we sending an empowering message to trans folk by bringing everything back to chromosomes? You’re a woman, but not wholly a woman because you lack an X chromosome? We can and should avoid that kind of implication; I think, given the complexity of chromosomes and sexual characteristics, it’s so often irrelevant anyway. ‘Cis’, I think, says what you mean to say – that your gender is the gender presumed for you at birth by the genital configuration of your body – without any awkward or unfortunate overtones. I’d love to see more cis folk using it!

      (Likewise, a trans woman is in fact a woman born because she inhabits her body from birth. The doctor assumed that her genital configuration must mean her body is male, but that was an erroneous assumption. I know people seem to think that a trans woman becomes a woman via transitioning, but that invalidates the trans-ness of people like me, who don’t access much in the way of medical transitioning – and ignores the base problem which is, in fact, the wrong assumption.)

      Now you know why, I think, I said I’ve got a terminology post in the works, but language does matter!

      But yes, the world is in much want of basic, simple respect.

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