They Is, They Are

This post from Anthony Lee Collins reminded me of a post that I’ve been wanting to write for a while, even though the gender/sex part of using the singular “they” did not arise until the last couple seconds of the video.

A few weeks ago at work, a couple of editors in my department put together a presentation about the new trends in gender and language and how these are affecting our editing. I was kind of reluctant to hear about the butchering of our language and terms like “ze” and “zir” used as substitutes for the pronouns “he” and “him,” but the good thing about all this is that it shows that the English language is still alive and well. The bad thing is that this can get downright confusing when you have two (or more) different people who want to be called by two (or more) different sets of pronouns.

Apparently, the Associated Press, the Washington Post, and the New York Times are all leaning toward using “their” instead of the awkward “his or her” or instead of using just “his” to cover all of humankind (because that’s *gasp* sexist!). Personally, I prefer “they” and “their” to any of the other oddball pronouns that are starting to be used (e.g., ze and zir, ze and hir, xe, ve, ne). But where it starts to get even more awkward is the singular “they.” When referring to a person who identifies as neither male nor female, it may eventually be appropriate and grammatically correct to say, “They is going to the store.” or “They loves cats.” It may be a long time coming before the singular “they” is widely used, and it’ll definitely take some getting used to, but thankfully, there are still some other ways to remove the dreaded “his” and “her” pronouns without having to use a new and potentially awkward and unrecognized term.

4 thoughts on “They Is, They Are

  1. On one hand, I am perfectly willing (and more than willing) to support some fairly old-fashioned language rules, such as “presently” (not meaning “now”), “contact” (not a verb), “that” (not to be used for people), and “they” (not singular, if referring to a generic person).

    On the other hand, if a specific actual person wishes to be referred to as “they,” or even something more unusual, that’s fine with me. To do otherwise would be rude — and politeness outweighs grammar obsessiveness. 🙂

    (Also, in some situations, “he or she” works just fine if referring to a single, nonspecific person — I’m not sure why it bother some people as much as it seems to.)


    1. True! It bothers me a lot when I hear someone say “you’re the person that…” And “he or she” doesn’t get on my nerves as much as “s/he” or something similar.


  2. It’s hard, because I’ve never managed to find a very good guide for proper/expected terms like zen or zir and there are so many potential variations that might differ based on the individual. At the same time, my partner falls somewhere on the genderqueer spectrum and has asked me not to use pronouns for them in my blog – because at the moment it’s not super practical of comfortable to try and do so in real life. It’s a very sensitive subject and when they have a dysphoria attack it’s both completely disruptive of my loved one’s day and personal happiness, and heartbreaking to watch.

    I guess what I’m saying is that’s more important than grammar rules or shoehorning new words into the dictionary. Using the singular they could save some people a lot of tears and feelings of not being included in their own identity.

    I do appreciate that link to the gender neutral language article, and I’m not trying to attack your views or anything. These are just some thoughts your post stirred up for me. It’s an important topic to discuss!


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