The Use of “They” for Gender Identity

By Mark Nichol

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Merriam-Webster recently announced that it has provided an additional sense in the definition for the pronoun they: “used to refer to a single person whose gender identity is nonbinary.” What does this mean?

First, two more definitions: Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary defines “gender identity” as “a person’s internal sense of being male, female, some combination of male and female, or neither male nor female,” and nonbinary, in this context, means “relating to or being a person who identifies with or expresses a gender identity that is neither entirely male nor entirely female.”

Therefore, the publisher has updated the dictionary to reflect the fact that gender identity is not a simple matter of gender assignment according to physical characteristics. And as a post published on this site a couple of years ago points out, usage is evolving in parallel with an evolution in scientific thought.

However, a complication arises. In journalism, and in other contexts in which a person is identified by gender, the writer should accurately describe that gender, and the way to do that is to ask that person to identify the pronoun by which they wish to be referred. (The choices are he, she, and they.) But this, you may protest, is an onerous burden: Journalists are seriously expected to ask every person they interview to provide their gender identity along with the spelling of their name?

Doing so is an additional logistical step in the reporter’s task, but a trivial one that stands out only for its current novelty. However, a simple alternative exists, which was discussed in this post years ago: Accept they as a singular personal pronoun.

As that post explains, people have employed they to refer to a single person for hundreds of years, in classic literature as well as in casual conversation, and there is no good reason not to accept it in formal writing as a sensible alternative to, in referring to a generic person, using he (and thus implicitly excluding and therefore invalidating more than half of the human population), referring to “he or she,” alternating between he and she, using plural forms, or employing several other strategies.

Normally, I am conservative about responding to evolutions in grammar and usage, arguing that writers should adhere to authoritative resources such as The Chicago Manual of Style, Garner’s Modern American Usage, and, well, Merriam-Webster. Chicago, and usage maven Bryan Garner, both advise against using they as a singular pronoun. (Chicago’s editors acknowledge the lack of a universally acceptable solution, while Garner simply dismisses the use of they in this context as one of a class of words he calls casualisms, which are more or less informal.) Merriam-Webster, on the other hand, acknowledges the longstanding popularity of they as a singular pronoun in prose and speech and its utility in the absence of a grammatically perfect alternative.

In light of the frustrating (and perplexing) failure of the English language to organically produce such an essential element of its vocabulary (one that exists in many other languages), Merriam-Webster’s practical approach is attractive.

Some people point out that if a universal function for he and other alternatives are unsatisfactory, it should perform this role. At first look, that pronoun is a much more logical choice; it is, after all, grammatically valid. However, the logical choice isn’t always the best one, and the impersonality of it, which is otherwise used to refer to an animal of unknown gender and to inanimate objects, disqualifies it for consideration. The fact that almost no one, in writing or speech, employs the word in this way means that a movement to support it as a singular pronoun referring to a person would likely go over as well as the spectacular failure to introduce the metric system in the United States decades ago.

To return to the topic of this post, it is not logistically reasonable for people with nonbinary gender identities to expect every person with whom they come into contact to remember their choice of self-identification, and it is not always necessary; there is often no reason to refer to someone else with a gender-specific pronoun. But publications can keep a record of preferences of newsworthy people in their style guide (subject, of course to the vagaries of popularity in popular culture). And any sympathetic person should, of course, strive to honor the choices of family members, friends, colleagues, and associates with whom they are more than casually acquainted. Understandably, however, depending on who one associates with, the challenge of remembering how people in one’s interpersonal orbit self-identify can be daunting—unless everyone is a they.

This is an additional argument for promoting they as a singular pronoun in formal writing. Widespread acceptance will take time, but publishers, from governments and global corporations to local publications and the most obscure bloggers, can be proactive in adopting such usage, incorporating it into the entity’s style guide and even posting a statement on its website’s About page.

Everyone else, of course, is welcome to exercise their linguistic free speech.

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5 Responses to “The Use of “They” for Gender Identity”

  • Tim Slager

    See also Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style. He has a good entry on singular they.

  • Gary Lum

    Thanks for this explanation. I appreciate how you’ve handled this matter.

  • NX

    I would disagree. Pronouns are used by a person to refer to another. If the speaker perceives the person as a Male, Female, or unknown/indeterminate, then they would use He, She, or They. The person’s self-identity is irrelevant. Yelling at people for not being a mind reader is silly.

  • Brendon

    Your explanation is clear. I agree about the singular pronoun “they”, but I don’t like the main concept of “they”. Maybe later someone will come up with a new word for the third gender.

  • Leigh

    When using “they” to refer to a non-binary individual, may I say “they is” to clarify that I am talking about one person and not a group?

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