Using they/them as singular pronouns is not a new phenomenon. However, as the discussion on pronouns becomes more normalized, people question the need for a gender-neutral pronouns.
He/His. She/Her. These pronouns are used every day. However, as people who identify outside of the gender binary are recognized, the use of they/them has been scrutinized. Some may call this additional pronoun “confusing” or “grammatically incorrect,” but is that really the case?
They/them pronouns are not a new social fad. Singular “they” is seen in the Merriam-Webster dictionary, which solidifies its status as grammatical correct. According to Ian Sample of the Guardian, the use of “they” as a singular pronoun appears as far back as 1375.
Using they/them pronouns is a way of respecting others. The pronouns are needed for people who identify outside the gender binary or who are uncomfortable using he/him or she/her.
According to Dr. Valerie Hennings, the effort put in by using they/them pronouns is a way of accurately, and respectfully, communicating. They are essential to communication.
Dr. Hennings is an associate professor at Morningside College. She teaches the Gender studies course and is the faculty advisor of the student group Gender Undone. Dr. Hennings has a background in political science and women/gender studies.
“There has been this push to have the singular they accepted because we’ve had this binary.” said Dr. Hennings, “This inaccurate binary.”
She called the binary “hierarchal.” She explained it sets the man as the default, which is a problem for those who are not male. They/them pronouns, however, break away from that binary. “What’s important,” said Hennings, “is trying to be respectful of using the pronouns an individual requests.”
Pop star Sam Smith announced their pronouns are they/them in September. With a well-known star using they/them pronouns, Tampa Bay Times writer Ashley Dye expected educational discussions on gender. What they got instead was an Associated Press article mis gendering Smith for its entirety.
The AP stylebook, the “bible” on editing in journalism, had updated to all the use of they/them in 2017, yet the article had blatantly ignored it. Dye saw the article as disrespecting non-binary identities.
Psychologist Brenda Crawford said, “Respecting gender identity pronouns was something that was taught to [psychologists] back in the 90s.” Gender identity and pronouns has been a part of counseling psychology for 25 years, she continued.
Crawford said using an individual’s chosen name and pronouns is a simple change, as opposed to large social change. The language used to address someone is an easy was to show respect.
Why, then, are people resistant to this needed, respectful way of communicating? Crawford said it is a matter of adjusting to change. The use of singular they/them falls outside of some comfort zones. Also, there are beliefs about gender that add to the resistance.
One example of such resistance is illustrated in the opinion piece by Madeline Fry of the Washington Examiner. “Using the pronoun that corresponds to someone’s biological sex is not something-phobic or a form of hate speech. Not every request for accommodation is reasonable,” said Fry.
However, all it takes is a little practice and effort, according to Crawford. Is such a request really unreasonable? Crawford said no. Remembering they/them pronouns just takes conscious effort, like learning kid’s names in a class.
Using they/them pronouns are a step in the right direction for gender equality, said Melanie Enloe.
Melanie Enloe is a senior psychology major at Morningside College. She is the president of Gender Undone, a student group on campus that focuses on issues that impact men, women, and member of the LGBTQ community.
“The situation often decides what gender is given to an unspecified person,” said Enloe, “If you’re talking about a CEO, he is used because it’s a male-dominated profession.”
Using the gender-neutral pronouns is one way to reduce male dominance, Enloe explained.
Recognizing the need for they/them pronouns is the first step to understanding their benefit to communication, respect, and equality.