On Singular They

The Good: Nonbinary and genderqueer folks have a pronoun to use when referring to themselves that doesn’t specify gender, that has existed for a long time in popular usage, and has been used singularly already for a long time.

The Bad: The fact that our culture is more comfortable blurring the language’s ability to accurately denote the number of things to which a word refers (by using singular they) than simply using a word that could very specifically point out an ambiguous or unknown gender (such as ze/zir or xie/xir) while preserving the word’s ability to communicate number? That demonstrates the severe degree of discomfort our culture has with indeterminate and/or nonbinary genders.

I know my opinion is against the current trend in common usage. Again, I am very glad that the public is finding a way for language to avoid referring to gender. De-gendering the language is a HUGE step in making our culture more accepting of nonbinary and indeterminate or unknown genders. But singular they will always have problems. It will always blur number. It will further codify our cultural insecurity with nonbinary genders rather than creating an unfraught space for them. It creates more opportunity for confusion.

We have words for this kind of thing–singular nongender pronouns. Why aren’t we using them? And why are we avoiding them with such prejudice? Our culture loves to invent new words (think mansplaining, think gaslighting, think asshat) and play with grammar (think Doge memes, think “because” as a preposition). Why are we recoiling from a great opportunity to do more of what we enjoy?

I regret that nongender singular pronouns do not enjoy the popularity singular they currently does. Granted, singular they has been in use for a long time already. I was taught to use it in grammar school. It’s one of those accepted exceptions to the rule. Or perhaps it enjoys such popularity because it’s easier to ask your parents and friends to avoid certain pronouns (he/she) in favor of other familiar ones (singular they) than to ask them to use new ones they’ve never heard before (ze/hir etc).

I thought about taking singular they as my preferred pronoun. I chose against it. As a writer, as someone with a focused awareness of the rhetorical implications grammar and syntax can perform, I understand the problems singular they communicates better than some. It condones our culture’s gender insecurity in its disregard for number; singular nongender pronouns don’t sacrifice number, and they accomplish the same thing singular they does: making space in the language for gender identities besides male and female. Singular they is a step in the right direction, and I applaud the folks who have worked to normalize it, but there is more solid ground one could tread. Singular they is a hackneyed compromise. Singular nongender pronouns are more efficient, more elegant, more accurate than singular they can ever be.

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