Grammar

The Demi Lovato Headline Showing the ‘Singular They’ Problem

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Singer and activist Demi Lovato came out earlier this month as nonbinary and selected ‘they/them’ as the proper pronouns.

“I’ll officially be changing my pronouns to they/them.” With that announcement last week, singer Demi Lovato came out as nonbinary. Lovato said the they/them pronouns better reflect the “fluidity I feel in my gender expression.”

I’ve said it before and I think it’s important to say it again: one’s gender expression is very important to their own person. The rest of us should respect that, even if we can’t fully wrap our heads around the concept.

In fact, our acceptance should not be dependent on whether we understand it. It’s a matter of respect. Nothing more, nothing less.

Lovato should no longer be referred to as she or her. It’s not they or them.

Again, that’s something a lot of people don’t understand. Some grammar enthusiasts love to argue that it’s inappropriate to refer to a single person with a plural pronoun. Others like to argue that “singular they” has been around for a long, long time and therefore shouldn’t come as a shock.

But the whole singular they thing we use every day typically has nothing to do with gender expression. Consider this example:

Any student who doesn’t turn in their assignment will fail the course.

I imagine we all saw announcements like that in high school or college. The subject, student, is a singular verb. Yet we find it perfectly acceptable to apply a plural pronoun, their, to the sentence.

Some argue that instead of their, the proper pronoun should be his. But this causes another problem. Women feel it’s sexist to assume only male genders could be students. They’re right about that. Some try to mitigate that problem by substituting his or her for their.

Since the conversation about nonbinary came up, his or her may not apply properly, either. Some identify as both or neither.

Their works in this sentence.

Gender identity aside, the main reason this sentence works is because it confuses no one. We all can read that sentence and immediately understand their refers to any student.

But sometimes, it’s not so clear.

Yahoo! recently ran an article with a headline that illustrates the confusion singular they can cause.

Read this headline:

Why Demi Lovato Is Telling Fans To Not Comment On Their Body

Wait. Whose body? Does Lovato not want fans to talk about fans’ bodies or Lovato’s body? The their makes that unclear.

When you use singular they to refer to a specific person, it causes unavoidable confusion for the reader. If you read the article, it refers to Lovato with them/they pronouns as Lovato requested.

The article quotes a passage of a Lovato quote from Twitter. It then adds, “They continued,” and quotes another passage.

It reads awkwardly for most of us. The pronouns stop the reader.

Unfortunately, when a word or phrase — grammatically correct or not — stops the reader, we writers run the risk of hurting our ability to effectively communicate a message.

The article correctly respects the pronouns Lovato adopted. You must give credit for that.

Unfortunately, our language was designed to understand and appreciate a two-gender system. And until the rest of us get used to the idea that some genuinely feel they don’t fit into an either/or gender system, this kind of confusion is going to continue.

There’s also inconsistency in pronoun use.

I notice that while Lovato adopted plural pronouns for third person, they didn’t adopt plural pronouns for first person.

In the video announcing the change, Lovato said this:

“I want to take this moment to share something very personal with you.”

Why didn’t Lovato say, “We want to take this moment to share something very personal with you”?

I can imagine plenty of people asking that question. After all, Lovato wants people to use they or them instead of she and her. If the pronoun is plural when someone else refers to Lovato, why shouldn’t the pronoun be plural when Lovato makes reference to themselves?

If Lovato does not want people to comment on Lovato’s body, would they use our or my as the pronoun before body? In that quote, Lovato uses my, not our.

The reason, of course, should be obvious. Lovato is one person, regardless of pronouns. Lovato uses I to refer to Lovato because Lovato is an individual.

The only individual pronouns we have for third person, however, refer to a specific gender selection that doesn’t necessarily apply.

The pronoun I refers to anyone who uses first person.

But masculine of feminine pronouns do not necessarily apply as well when you’re referring to someone else.

Still, the singular vs. plural pronoun use is bound to confuse readers.

You have to decide how to handle cases like this.

I think it I should repeat this. Writers should always respect the gender identity of the person they write about. This includes people who cannot identify as a single gender.

But I also think writers should avoid phrasing that stops readers in their tracks. I learned a long time ago that as soon as a reader stumbles over a phrase that’s confusing, they miss the message you’re trying to convey.

AP Style, which I refer to often, makes the gender guidance clear: Go with the preferred pronouns of the person about whom you write.

If Demi Lovato prefers singular they, use singular they. Simple.

But for the headline above, that could leave confusion about whose body Lovato referred to, I would rewrite the line to avoid that confusion. I might have phrased it this way:

Why Demi Lovato Tells Fans: ‘Don’t Comment On My Body’

It’s a bit shorter, which is usually a good thing, and makes it clear exactly whose body Lovato is talking about. And, honestly, I find that one more compelling.

On one hand, I’m trying to bypass singular they. But on the other, in this case, I actually do think its use makes the meaning less clear.

As we adapt to this concept of gender identity that is not new, except to us, we have to remember to respect those who do not identify as simple male or female.

We have that obligation simply to be decent human beings.

But part of showing that respect, I have to believe, is writing about the topic as clearly as possible. We have that obligation as communicators.

Sometimes, communicating effectively and clearly means rewriting or rephrasing. I’m willing to spend the extra time making sure the message is clear and the person is respected.

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Patrick is a Christian with more than 30 years experience in professional writing, producing and marketing. His professional background also includes social media, reporting for broadcast television and the web, directing, videography and photography. He enjoys getting to know people over coffee and spending time with his dog.