Tag Archives: gender-neutral pronouns

But what about plural “they”?

This article originally appeared on The Editors’ Weekly, the official blog of Canada’s national editorial association.

Singular “they” is here to stay, and that’s a good thing. There is no decent reason to require that third-person singular pronouns—and only third-person singular pronouns—always specify gender. “He” has never truly covered men and women equally, though starting in the 1800s some people tried to insist that it did, and constructions such as “he or she” or “s/he” are clunky at best. So it’s natural to accept officially what has been an informal workaround for centuries: extending the plural pronoun to cover the singular.

It’s not the first time that English has done this. As early as the 1200s, we started using the plural “you” for individuals of higher status, and by the 1800s, rather than continuing to specify respect—or lack of it—in pronouns, we had almost entirely stopped using the lower-status singular “thou.” If we can use a plural form in place of a singular to erase a status-based distinction, we can certainly do it to erase a gender-based distinction.

But there is one problem that we run into with singular “they,” a problem we have already encountered with singular “you”: how do you make clear when it’s plural?

That’s still a useful distinction, and it’s not always obvious from context. Consider a sentence such as “The CEO met the VPs at a bar, but they drank too much and started singing karaoke, so they left.” If specifying the gender of the CEO is out of the question, to clarify who “they” refers to you’ll need to rewrite it to avoid the pronouns—and if it’s a longer narration, that gets clunkier and clunkier. So what do we do?

Well, what did we do with “you”? For a time—quite a while, in fact, from the late 1600s through the late 1700s—singular “you” got singular verbs: “you was,” “you is,” “you does.” It was so common, Robert Lowth inveighed against it in his 1762 Short Introduction to English Grammar. Even Doctor Johnson used “you was.” Will we try the same kind of thing with “they”—saying “they is” and “they was”? A few people have tried it, but such usages are already strongly associated with “uneducated” English, and so they’re unlikely to become commonplace. And “you was” didn’t last, after all—Doctor Johnson and everyone else ultimately switched to “you were” even for the singular.

So how do we specify plural “you”? You know how: we add further plural specification to it. In the US South, “y’all” or “you-all” is very common, and it’s spreading; in other places, “yous,” “youse,” “you ’uns,” “yiz,” and “yinz” are local favourites. In many other places, we say “you guys” or something similar when we need to make the distinction. And I’ll wager we’ll end up doing the same kind of thing with plural “they.” “They-all” seems readily available; “those ones” and “those guys” are likely to show up; differential usages of “themselves” and “themself” are already in use and may be extended; and others may appear—I’ll be watching eagerly. And in some contexts, for added clarity, something like “the one” might be used for the singular.

What do we do as editors, here and now? We keep an eye on how popular use is changing. When we can, we use our positions to influence it a little. And, as always, we use our judgement to find what’s clearest and most effective for the audience of the text we’re working on. 

Calling them what they want

This article was originally published on The Editors’ Weekly, the official blog of Editors Canada.

We’re all professionally attentive to detail, so I’m sure we all appreciate that, having earned a PhD, I am technically Dr. Harbeck, and it could be rude to call me Mr. Harbeck. My wife, having a master’s, is Ms. Arro — not Miss Arro, because she’s married, and not Mrs. Arro, let alone Mrs. Harbeck. Letters addressed to us as “Mr. and Mrs. Harbeck” will be received as uninformed or rude, depending on who they come from.

Now, if I were a judge, you would call me “Your Honour”; if I were a lord, I would be “sir” or “my lord”; if I were a king, I might be “Your Majesty.” When we refer to politicians, nobility and high-ranking ecclesiastics, we have to make sure we include, as appropriate, “the Right Honourable” or “His Eminence” or whatever. We’re in the business of calling people the right thing: the title to which they are entitled.

Or calling them what they want to be called. Even non-editors know it’s rude to call someone something they don’t want to be called. We don’t call Sir Edward “Eddy baby” unless he asks us to. We also don’t call people who have changed their names by their old names, especially if their identity has changed. We don’t call Chelsea Manning “Bradley Manning” or Caitlyn Jenner “Bruce Jenner” (although we may use that name historically, for instance in stories on the Olympic Games).

We don’t always call people by names and titles, though. Sometimes we just use pronouns. There are languages (such as Turkish and Finnish) in which the sex of a person makes no difference in the pronoun, but English is not yet one such. Since the binary distinction is an unnecessarily restrictive imposition, the singular they is gaining currency (since number sometimes is relevant, however, expect to see they-all becoming popular in its wake). But some people do want to use pronouns for gender presentation. There are a few different pronouns in use, not just heshe and they, but also others such as zey. But not nearly as many as there are honorifics, let alone names.

And yet, some people — even ones apparently capable of attaining and requiring “Doctor” before their names — find it beyond endurance to have to keep track of these pronouns. They deride it as silly faddism or political correctness — terms of abuse for people who refuse to stay in the boxes you have made for them. They can manage to remember who is Mr., who Dr., who Your Excellency; they can get a grip on who is Alex, who Sandy and who Alexandra; but keeping track of pronouns is just too much for them.

Of course it’s not really. They just don’t want the dominance of their paradigm challenged.

As editors, we like to ensure adherence to chosen sets of arbitrary standards. But we also like to check our facts and get the myriad nice details right — such as what pronoun a person has asked to be called by. It’s not all that difficult, and it’s good manners, too.

In the original article, I didn’t include some further remarks on “freedom of thought,” which was a line taken by a professor who is a prominent opponent of following people’s choice of pronoun. But I would like to add them briefly here:

In the case of the professor in question, it’s obvious to onlookers that he’s incensed at having to defer rather than always be deferred to; it threatens his freedom of thought only inasmuch as it makes it difficult for him to maintain his hyperinflated self-estimation. (He has been heard to lecture women on the purity of his feminist bona fides. Not really the cuttiest butter knife in the drawer, this guy.)

But just to address the broader question: If you are of the opinion that strict nativist two-valued gender normativity is the only truth, I assure you that using requested pronouns will not force you to think otherwise. You are still able to think such things. If you are concerned about your reputation, lest you be mistaken for someone who respects others’ choices of gender identities, you are still free to make it clear that you are actually quite rigid in that regard, and are conforming to university policy out of respect for civility. You are even free to think that civility is stupid; your freedom to be a jerk in your mind is not impaired by a requirement to act nice. Most of us are jerks in our minds more often than we are in our words and deeds.

For a parallel: We can’t force people not to think racist thoughts (though we can do what we can to encourage them to revise their views), but we sure as hell can require them not to say racist things. Especially within the ambit of an educational institution, for instance. Part of existing in a civil society is agreeing that, however little you may like or agree with some people, you must at least recognize that they have certain rights, which must necessarily be extended to all for the functioning of society. One of which is to be treated like a human being, and not as something less due to some intrinsic part of their person.

See? You can think whatever you want. But you act in a way that shows the required acknowledgement of others’ humanity. This may threaten your freedom of thought if if interferes with your holding the view that you are already being more than accommodating enough for these people, or forces you to confront the possibility that, in spite of what you tell yourself, you do not view everyone equally. But I do not think freedom from having your thinking challenged is a freedom worth fighting for.