The singular they controversy continued making headlines this week as a star adopted the pronoun and a dictionary officially added the term.
If you’re tired of hearing people debate over the singular they controversy, you might want to skip this post.
This week, singer Sam Smith announced the adoption of they/them/their pronouns. People who consider themselves gender non-binary prefer such terms because it doesn’t restrict them to one gender or another.
Some argue this is inappropriate usage because plural pronouns should always refer to more than one person. Others argue, however, that the singular they was in use even by Shakespeare.
Meanwhile, as the Smith story made the rounds, Merriam-Webster announced it added to the singular they controversy with a fourth they definition. The new fourth meaning reads, “used to refer to a single person whose gender identity is nonbinary.”
There’s a lot to talk about in the singular they controversy.
The first item may be the easiest. The fact that this new meaning of they now appears in the dictionary is important. But we must keep one idea in mind: the dictionary doesn’t order usage; it merely explains word usage.
As I’ve pointed out several times, dictionaries include non-words like irregardless. It’s not a word; what people mean to say is either regardless or irrespective. The fact that irregardless is in the dictionary isn’t a sign that people should use it. Dictionaries include it to explain to people what others probably meant to say. Dictionaries define the way words are used to help people further understand what’s being said or written.
That’s a big reason dictionaries are so important to language. As many enjoy pointing out, language does evolve constantly. Dictionaries help us keep up with those changes.
The singular they has been used in English for a long time. But not like this.
When singular they graced writings, it almost always referred to a non-specific, unidentified or hypothetical person.
Here’s an example: A school releases a policy banning students from carrying smartphones into the classroom. A line in the policy might read:
Any student who violates the rule may be subject to having their smartphone confiscated.
In such a generic sentence in formal writing, the preference used to be to use the male pronoun, his. Over time, this fell out of favor because, in part, women complained that it was a sexist practice. Some writers tried to overcompensate by using feminine pronouns instead.
That didn’t always work either, because some assumed the less common use implied that women were somehow more likely to be the guilty party.
Since the gender in such a sentence really didn’t matter, the they pronoun, for most, wasn’t considered the end of the world.
In cases like gender identity, however, the pronoun does matter.
One’s gender identity is very personal and we should respect that.
For some of us, it’s not easy to fully relate to such problems.
I was born a male and identify as such, so it’s no issue if someone uses male pronouns — he/him/his — for me.
Despite being born into the gender in which I happen to identify, I can imagine — at least to an extent — what it’d be like to identify with the opposite gender. Some guys make jokes about their “feminine side.” Some women talk about channeling their “inner man.”
Our society constantly fails to deal well with gender.
For people like me, it’s the “non-binary” we find most difficult to figure out. Many like me do our best to sympathize. We try to picture not identifying as either or identifying as both at the same time.
Full understanding of that, however, seems very elusive.
Our inability to feel or comprehend it, however, doesn’t give us the right to say those who consider themselves “non-binary” to be wrong.
Too many refuse to understand that. That’s a shame.
Because the misunderstanding (or refusal to understand) exists, we likewise have a hard time figuring out how to handle such a situation.
The Associated Press Stylebook decided in 2017 that journalists should use the preferred name of a transgender person. Likewise, journalists should use the preferred gender. Writers should therefore refer to people like Caitlyn Jenner with feminine pronouns. No reference to Jenner’s gender of birth or previous identity should be made, by AP rules, unless it is relevant to the story. Even then, writers should take great care in doing so.
But singular they still causes problems.
The AP Stylebook also updated its take on the use of pronouns for transgender or non-binary people, saying, in part:
They/them/their is acceptable in limited cases as a singular and-or gender-neutral pronoun, when alternative wording is overly awkward or clumsy.
It also added this: “However, rewording usually is possible and always is preferable.”
Clarity is a top priority; gender-neutral use of a singular they is unfamiliar to many readers.
Sam Smith Announced That Their Gender Pronouns Are They/Them
When I first saw the headline — or a similar one elsewhere — I wondered who Smith attempted to define plural pronouns for. In other words, I read it as Smith setting someone else’s pronouns. Who is ‘they?’ I wondered.
I read the story and realized the they refers to Smith, not a group of others.
But the headline, though correct in its use of pronouns, was confusing for readers like me.
As a writer, both here and in the real job, my role is as a communicator. If I have to use words that are confusing and make such communication more difficult, that’s a problem.
I don’t have a solution.
I wish I did.
Some in the past suggested an odd collection of made-up pronouns that could take the place of the singular they. But people won’t accept those words. Even if they did, it won’t end the controversy that underlies the pronoun problem.
I think we all know that.
The best I can do for the person with a different gender pronoun preference is to respect it. Even if I don’t understand it, even if I can’t relate to it, it should be respected.
The best I can do for the reader, however, is either to construct sentences that avoid pronoun use or add text explaining that the subject prefers a plural pronoun.
Maybe posts like this might help educate more people about the issue.