“They” As a Nonbinary Pronoun

By Mark Nichol

A few weeks ago, an acquaintance visited me, and as my visitor exited the parked car, I saw that it was still occupied. My visitor, standing before me, made a reference to “they,” but only one person sat in the vehicle, and I was momentarily puzzled.

I have written here before about my support for acceptance of they as a gender-inclusive singular pronoun; I agree with many people that he is no longer acceptable to refer to all people, and that alternatives, while often reasonable and effective, do not preclude the need to fill a curious gap in English vocabulary.

However, this incident points out a new wrinkle in the issue. When the person sitting in the passenger seat got out of the car, it was obvious to me that this was someone who most observers would identify as a woman. However, two factors explained my acquaintance’s use of they to refer to the passenger: First, the person had an androgynous appearance. More significantly, my acquaintance is transgender, and a gender activist.

I have been comfortable in the company of a number of people who do not conform to binary gender roles. However, this was the first time, to my knowledge, that I had been introduced to someone who rejects binary gender assignment and prefers to be identified by the fluid alternative they.

This is not a sociopolitical forum, so discussion about the merit of this philosophy is irrelevant. The purpose of this post is to point out that many people do not consider themselves male or female, whether they align with physical and social characteristics associated with one gender or the other or not—and that regardless of your opinion about this issue, it exists, and it is one that writers likely will have to address at some point, if they have not already done so.

Unfortunately, shifting attitudes about gender in our culture complicate expression—and, most pertinently here, composition. People are increasingly asserting a right to self-identify with a neutral use of the pronoun they. To them, gender is not relevant or significant—and that is often true. But when I met the person who prompted this post, I wondered whether my acquaintance, who was born “male” but identifies as female, also prefers the ambiguous pronoun. I didn’t ask, however, and when I used she to refer to my acquaintance, I was not corrected.

Ultimately, when someone chooses to assert an identity, it is that person’s responsibility to call attention to that identification if it is relevant. For example, if I am going to speak or write of someone whose presentation is ambiguous in terms of gender, it is not my obligation to guess how that person self-identifies. But I am obliged to honor the person’s stated choice of self-identification, and that is a consideration that professional and lay writers alike will need to make as our society slowly but inexorably evolves to embrace a more fluid approach to gender identity.

If it is relevant to mention a person’s gender in writing, a reporter can make one of three choices when the subject asserts gender self-identity that may not conform to the reporter’s perception: Accept, reject, or circumvent. I strongly recommend the first option, oppose the second one with equally vehemence, and acknowledge that the third choice is valid but indefensible if the subject insists on acknowledgment of his, her, or their self-identification and/or if the context requires it.

In summary, they as a nonbinary gender indicator is going mainstream, and therefore is entering the lexicon as such. I’ll let the Associated Press Style Book have the last word: “In stories about people who identify as neither male nor female or ask not to be referred to as he/she/him/her: Use the person’s name in place of a pronoun, or otherwise reword the sentence, whenever possible. If they/them/their use is essential, explain in the text that the person prefers a gender-neutral pronoun. Be sure that the phrasing does not imply more than one person.”

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15 Responses to ““They” As a Nonbinary Pronoun”

  • venqax

    Sorry, have disagree and weigh in as the voice of small-c conservative restraint, here. Deliberately attempting to change language to suit a political agenda is one of the brightest flags of totalitarianism, left or right. He is still perfectly acceptable as the inclusive singular in English. Period. It has been for, literally, centuries and no body or thing has the jurisdiction to say that it is not beyond their own narrow and private editorial policies. The perception of a “gap” in the vocabulary is just that: A perception and a new one at that. That said, yes, there is a historical argument for they as a legitimate singular pronoun. But there are historical arguments for all kinds of bad things. Aks anyone in the know. As far as the transgender issue goes, that is simply not a linguistic concern. People’s behavior modifies in all kinds of ways, but no one can expect the language—which is the ultimate Commons—to change just to accommodate his (or their, in this case) rare sensibilities. This is especially true when the population in question is exceedingly small.

  • Jaime

    I would debate Penn’s suggestion that “An appropriate designation for a single person with no gender reference is ‘it,’ not ‘they.'” This statement seems to insist on a gender binary. Gender-fluid and gender non-binary people do, in fact, have a gender reference, even if our grammar and usage haven’t caught up quite yet.

    Further, to insist on using “it” feels arbitrary and prescriptivist, and moreover insists on a redefinition of the word “it.” Why not simply acknowledge someone’s stated preference for “they” or “ze” (i.e., ask the person). “They” already acknowledges personhood in its current definition; “it,” meanwhile, has never been used for human beings except to dehumanize them.

    Our grammatical discomfort is a sign that we need to take more care, not less. Rather than resisting the evolution of our language, written and spoken (and conceived), I’d encourage us to honor its complexity by taking the time to write more carefully.

  • Dale A. Wood

    Isaac Asimov once took on a challenge from another writer of SF. This other man thought that nobody could write a SF novel about a civilization that had more than two sexes. Asimov did it, and he produced the novel “The Gods Themselves”, and it won both the Nebula Award and the Hugo Award as the best SF novel of the year.
    In this novel, some of it is set in an alternative universe in which some of the laws of nuclear physics are different. There, there is a planet on which all of the beings are in the forms of blobs of plasma. The intelligent ones usually live in groups of three because there are three kinds with three sexes:
    1. The Rationals, who are the ones who make the society run – the engineers, scientists, doctors, politicians, and so forth.
    2. The Maternals, who are the ones who are interested in the home, the family, the neighborhood, and the children, if they have any.
    3. The Eroticas, who are interested in sex, and very little else. They are not very smart, and they do not understand why. They are just cheerful beings who try to keep everyone happy. (I imagine them as being rather like the little yellow bird “Woodstock” in the PEANUTS cartoons.)
    Nobody there quite understands all of this, but the only way for them to reproduce is for all three of these plasma beings to merge for a while.
    They also do not understand what happens them, but it turns out that for days or weeks, they become a fourth kind, “the hard ones”. In the family at the center of the novel, that “hard one” is some kind of a Nobel Prize winner in Physics. That one has figured out a way to send plutonium 138 to another universe and get valuable materials in return. Well, that Pu-138 is being sent to scientists on The Earth! In our universe, Pu-138 immediately starts decaying by emitting a lot of positrons. That is a valuable source of nuclear power – BUT this exchange leads to lots of problems in both universes.

  • Emma

    @Penn – don’t forget to read the preceding sentence – “If they/them/their use is essential, explain in the text that the person prefers a gender-neutral pronoun”.
    If you don’t like the usage of they as singular, it’s actually been in use for a long time, it was only recently that it was used in connection with gender-neutrality as a choice.
    Wikipedia ( https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Singular_they ) – or, if you think that Wikipedia is inaccurate, there’s an article in the Economist that says they as singular predates you as singular ( https://www.economist.com/news/books-and-arts/21719768-praise-singular-they-english-has-traditional-solution-gender-neutral-pronouns ) – there are lots of other similar articles.
    If you object to gender fluidity, then that’s a different issue, but from linguistic point of view, they as singular has been accepted in English for a long time.

  • TheBluebird11

    As a “lay” person, by which I mean not a writer or a reporter, or anyone who might have to really wrestle with this issue, I am fine with calling people whatever they want to be called, whether that’s a name, a gender, a non-gender, whatever. I think “they” is a bit silly, and confusing, if it’s just one person, and it would take me some real getting used to to start referring to someone as “they” all the time. They main advantage of this word is that we do already use it, as noted, for some occasions when a singular pronoun is less appropriate (a la Dwain Wilder’s comment). I think referring to someone as “it” is kind of rude, objectifying or pettifying them (ie turning them into pets…yes I think I just made up that word…oh well). I also think that bending over backwards with things like “he/she” or “she/he” or any other contrivances (POSSLQ…ugh) are just cumbersome and…contrived. So for lack of anything better, I guess “they” is OK.

  • Dale A. Wood

    “Good, so maybe we can get both back to them!”
    This sounds like a perfectly reasonable comment to make about an estranged couple – a man and a woman – such as Gerri and Sylvia Anderson (both deceased now, sadly) or Mick Jagger and Jerry Hall:
    Maybe we can get “both” back to “them”.
    We will helped the two estranged people become a unit again. This is exactly the plot behind the two movies called “The Parent Trap”, and this idea has been repeated over and over again in Hollywood. It was also a subtheme in the movie “Independence Day”, with the President’s assistant and her estranged husband.
    (Jagger plus Jerry = “us” will never happen, and also Mick plus Bianca = Mr. & Mrs. Jagger will never happen again!)

  • Dale A. Wood

    Things that are nonbinary.
    By now, we should be familiar with things that are binary, or “digital” as in digital computers and digital communication systems, with zeros and ones. In telecommunications systems, it is perfectly reasonable to have more than two choices.
    Systems with three are uncommon, but they are called “ternary”.
    Systems with four choices are quite common, and they are called “quaternary”, and then the most common kind with more choices has eight. There isn’t a common word for this kind.
    In the jargon of telecommunications, the common one with four choices is called “quaternary phase shift keying”, and you can see why this one is abbreviated “QPSK”.
    Generalizing, the kind with eight choices is called 8-PSK for short. The most common form of signaling with just two choices is called “binary phase shift keying” = BPSK. (This one might be heard of more commonly than QPSK.)

  • Dale A. Wood

    “They” As a Nonbinary Pronoun is a very curious title for a variety of reasons, including these:
    1. “They” as nonbinary as being neither singular nor plural. I genuinely disagree with this usage. “They” is plural.
    2. “They” actually as a “Nonternary Pronoun”, where “ternary” means “one of three” – he, she, or it. I agree strongly that beings that are sexless are “it”. For example, the United States is an “it” and not a “she”, and so are the United Kingdom and the British Commonwealth.

  • Dale A. Wood

    “Any idea who they might have been?” is a simple miswording of “Any idea who that might have been?”

  • Dale A. Wood

    I agree with Mr. Penn completely.

    We also have the long-ongoing problem of the given names that are used by both sexes (and by androgynous folks, too), such as
    Dale, Andre Marie Ampere (a Frenchman), Chris, Freddie, Kelly, Lynn/or Lynne, Lauren, Gerry/Jerry/Geri, Randy, Terry, Willie/Willy…
    I insist that such folks should be called “he” until it becomes clear otherwise.
    Freddie is a completely reasonable nickname for Frederique.
    Willy is a completely reasonable nickname for Wilhelmina (my great-aunt Willy).
    I am wondering about the possibility of a man named Lauren but called “Larry” (rather than having the name of Lawrence).
    Who was Gerry Anderson? He was the husband of Sylvia Anderson, and together they created these fab TV series: “Supercar”, “Fireball XL5”, “Stingray”, “Thunderbirds”, and “UFO”. Who is Jerry Hall? She is the model who is the former common-law wife of Mick Jagger (mother of his four children) and the present wife of Ruppert Murdoch!
    Then there are the men Jerry West, Jerry Seinfeld, Jerry Springer, etc., and the woman Geri Halliwell, aka “Ginger Spice”.

  • Dale A. Wood

    Concerning the first comment, I think that someone needs to do something about an inadvertently omitted word. [This happens to me sometimes.]
    “It seemed to embarrass this 78-year-old man [more] than the 20-something young woman and her fellow employee, who cracked ‘Yeah, short curly hair!'”

    Also, the “word” “misgendered” does not require a hyphen. In case you have misapprehensions or misgivings, the prefix “mis” never does need a hyphen. “Mis” is a Germanic prefix, as in “misunderstand”, and “missverstehen” and “mißverstehen” – two different spellings of the same word.

  • Amazing Blair Peery

    I agree with Penn that the singular word with no gender attached is “it”, but that word carries some negative freight when applied to a person. “They”, although technically incorrect (however it might have been used in the 14th century), is at least not insulting. Try substituting “it” into Dwain’s dialogue:

    “Someone left a coat after the meeting.”
    “Any idea who it might have been?” [that could work]
    “No, but looks like its phone also got left in the pocket.”
    “Good, so maybe we can get both back to it!”

    Sounds like you’re talking about a dog, or a tree.

    Should we invent a new, un-freighted pronoun for a single, gender-unspecified human, equivalent to “Ms.” instead of “Miss” or “Mrs.”? One that doesn’t sound too alien to be adopted. All that I’ve heard proposed so far sound too clunky. “Li”, for example. Yuck.

    (By the way, is “Ms.” still in vogue?)

  • Grace

    ‘They’ as a singular pronoun for a person of unknown or non-specific gender is not a new concept in English. It dates back to the fourteenth century. Its modern adoption is a revival not an innovation.

  • Penn

    The last line, quoting AP, is salient: “Be sure that the phrasing does not imply more than one person.”

    “They” refers to more than one person. An appropriate designation for a single person with no gender reference is “it,” not “they,” and I don’t understand the failure to address this directly. I have started adopting this usage when the gender of the person is unknown to me or the person disavows gender or is between gender identities.

  • Dwain Wilder

    Thank you for writing on this matter. I am a non-binary gender-fluid male. It pleases me that I often feel a strong feminine presence, and sometimes go about fully dressed as a woman – complete with van Dyke and moustache. I am a member of the Rochester Gay Alliance Speakers Bureau. Members of the bureau respond to requests from schools, businesses, professional groups, health providers, etc. here in Rochester, regionally, and even nationally.

    As someone who presents sometimes as definitely male yet also feminine, I struggle with the same issues you write about here. On first blush it does seem odd to refer to someone’s gender non-specifically, unless asked to do so. And yet the practice is embedded in common usage when referring to someone of unknown gender:

    “Someone left a coat after the meeting.”
    “Any idea who they might have been?”
    “No, but looks like their phone also go left in the pocket.”
    “Good, so maybe we can get both back to them!”

    Admittedly it can be a bit embarrassing for both parties to directly ask an androgenous-appearing young woman if you have mis-gendered her after referring to her as “he”. I did that just yesterday! It seemed to embarrass this 78-year-old man than the 20-something young woman and her fellow employee, who cracked “Yeah, short curly hair!”

    Much as you say, we are in midstream of changing mores (When have we not, one way or another!), always an awkward phase. Perhaps in language as in medicine we can do no better than “First, do no harm.” Thanks again for writing about the matter.

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