This is an ideas piece by Vince Ruston: In defense of the singular ‘they’.
It was about four years ago now when I began to realise that I didn’t feel like a girl, at least all the time. Or perhaps not so much realise, as learn that there were words for what I felt, and that there were other people who felt the same way; I learned that there was a whole community of gender-diverse people, identifying with terms like trans and genderqueer, agender, non-binary and genderfluid. The term I’ve used for the longest is genderfluid, and I think it’s the most accurate. I knew there would be some resistance from people when I started going by gender-neutral pronouns. Most of my friends, already being outspokenly queer themselves, adopted the pronouns at the drop of a hat. But my cisgender friends and peers took issue. Perhaps the biggest complaint they had with using ‘they’ as opposed to ‘he’ or ‘she’ was that it wasn’t ‘grammatically correct’. Frustratingly, they didn’t like the idea of using other gender-neutral pronouns like ‘ze’ or ‘xe’ either, because these were ‘made up’ (never mind that all language has been made up at some point).
A lot of cisgender people don’t understand why pronouns are so important for gender-diverse people. Along with our names, it’s one of the first changes we instigate when we begin the social transitioning process. Cisgender people often think we’re making a mountain out of a molehill, because they have never had to experience the waves of dysphoria we regularly feel whenever misgendered. It makes every social interaction with a stranger uncomfortable, the misused pronoun hovering in the air wearing big neon lights. In social-justice speak, it’s what people call a micro-aggression: a subtle interaction that reminds someone they are less than human, that their gender identity is not recognized. It tells us that we are not in a safe place, in safe company.
(Photo: Liubou Dvuzhilnaya/Shutterstock)
You know that bit in Legally Blonde where Elle is tricked into going to a party in costume, and she walks up to Warner in her little bunny outfit, and Enid is telling Warner that the English language is “all about subliminal domination”? “Take the word semester; this is a perfect example of this school’s discriminatory preference for semen over ovaries. That’s why I’m petitioning for next semester to be referred to as the winter ovester.” I like to think this is a sneaky nod for those in the audience who are familiar with postmodern, poststructuralist philosophy and sexual difference feminism; Enid is talking about phallologocentrism.
Postmodern philosophy’s basic shtick is a focus on the role language plays in constructing our cultural and individual perceptions of the world. When this is applied to gendered pronouns in English, it becomes obvious that the concept of gender binary is entangled in language: English does not give space for a gender-ambiguous or neutral subject, so neither do those who grew up speaking it. Even when we do not know the gender identity of a stranger, we automatically assign them a place in the gender binary when we talk, or even think about them. For a long time, the use of ‘he’ as the default pronoun was commonplace. It was assumed that your doctor or the like was a man until specified otherwise; the masculine subject as the default and universal one, woman as the Other. The use of ‘he/she’ arose after the first few feminist waves, but while this is a degree more inclusive, it still does not give anyone the space to identify outside of the binary. Nor does saying ‘he/she’ translate well into conversation. The use of ‘they’ as a gender-neutral and all-encompassing pronoun seems the best way of eliminating the problem of forcing a stranger into the gender binary.
Using ‘they’ as a singular pronoun isn’t new, or an outrageous product of being ‘politically correct’; it’s been recorded in editions of the Oxford English Dictionary as a singular pronoun since the fifteenth century. The OED’s online entry on the debate cites writers such as Jane Austen, Chaucer, Shakespeare and George Bernard Shaw as users of the singular ‘they’. I have a sneaking suspicion that people who argue that it’s grammatically incorrect have used it throughout their life without even thinking about it, and their only real hang-up with it now is that they’re uncomfortable with people who defy gender. The qualms are less about grammar and more about a fear of change. Like people who decry e-books and Kindles as ‘not real books’, or accuse Thomas Edison of witchcraft.
English is a strange language to have people getting so uptight about its rules; the language itself breaks them constantly. I’ll admit that I was one of these insufferable people who constantly picked on people’s grammar and spelling once upon a time; I was in high school and had yet to learn about concepts like classism and how to not be a dick. Why is it ‘the Queen’s English’ that is held up in this regard by a number of its speakers? Is it the illusion of patriotism surrounding colonialism? Classist arrogance at having the privilege of being educated in a white institution? The elitism of language is ancient; the Greeks thought of any culture that didn’t speak their language as ‘barbarian’ and promptly conquered and enslaved them. Language plays a large role in dehumanizing groups of people.
Language has never been static; it changes as society’s values change. The Oxford English Dictionary has to be revised every year, showing how quickly language evolves: words and phrases fall out of use, and words once widely used are now considered slurs because we are as a culture recognizing the humanity of people of colour, people living with mental illness and disorders, sex workers, and people who identity as LGBTQI+. If the grammatical correctness and ‘real words’ argument on pronouns is going to stand up, we should probably stop using abbreviations and ‘made up’ words like ‘computer’ and ‘plastic’. The English we speak today isn’t even real English; go pick up some Chaucer and see how closely it resembles today’s English. Actually, since English is just a butchered mix of over 350 languages, why don’t we just go back to using the Latin the Romans brought to England on their conquering trip in 410 AD?
There are a number of other criticisms I could make of this grammatically incorrect argument: that it upholds both classist and racist values, privileges the ‘educated’ (read: white upper classes), and devalues the language patterns that have developed in working class communities, or communities where English is not the first or only language spoken collectively; African American Vernacular English (AAVE) is one example. Each and every community creates, alters and bends language to encompass their experiences and cultural perspectives.
To put the argument into perspective, what matters more: getting worked up over the correctness of a language that is ever-changing because it is imperfect for encompassing the vastness of all human experience; or respecting the autonomy of a real live human being?
This is an ideas piece, part of a series where writers discuss ideas around the craft of writing. To read more like this, click here:
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Vince Ruston (21) is a writer, Voiceworks and Buzzcuts editor based in Melbourne. Currently they are undertaking RMIT’s Bachelor of creative writing. When away from the desk they can be found in a library or crying over lingerie in David Jones. They have been published in Voiceworks, Scum-Mag, Rabbit Poetry Journal, Zo Universal and Feminartsy. You can find them on WordPress and Twitter.