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“They” As Singular (Part One)

Category: The Teen Scene
Posted: May 12, 2017

By: Josh O'Shea, Young Adult Librarian

Woman sitting on the grass writing in a notebook.Grammar Girl reports Chicago Manual Style and Associated Press Stylebook say “they/them” can be used to refer to individual people. Feminism and queer theory have been saying for a while that “he” shouldn’t refer to women or men, and that we need words that don’t out the subject in a way that would bias the reader to favor one gender over the other. Language should be able to accommodate people who don’t feel they fit one gender or another, or that these categories don’t define them. Also, there may be times when gender shouldn’t concern the reader. This begs the question, which came first: the word or the use? Another question is: why should I care about language or its academic guidelines?

Did the word or use come first? It’s kind of hard to know. They’re strongly tied together. There’s a good video about how the first human word came about, and there’s a good video about how English as we now use it evolved. “Hold on now,” you say, “words mean things; we can’t go around tossing out meaning and making words do whatever we want, willy nilly.” (Yes, I used willy nilly.) I agree with you. “If you agree,” you say, “how can a word that means one thing suddenly change?! Who do you think you are?!” One, it wasn’t suddenly. Two, you called me “you” just now; we’ll come back to that.

Language has social meaning. If I say “the bird pooped on my car”, you know what all the important words mean because we share most of the same rules of life and language, and many of us have witnessed the effects of guano dropped indiscriminately from winged critters. Games need rules. Writing has standards. One standard, or rule maker, is how we learn and use words. The Chicago Manual of Style (which is my favorite, and I need to use it more) and AP Stylebook both are a standard for writing papers in school, but they also can set the tone for everyday speech. A few months ago, they updated their guides to promote using “they/them” in formal writing if the subject asked for it, and if the writer wishes to be gender neutral. AP reversed its previous standard that the word “men” or “he” can be gender neutral, and blatantly tells its users that they shouldn’t assume the subject is male.

This, my friends, is huge. It means authorities for writing are respecting the wishes of people who desire not to pigeonhole people. This “un-categorizing” brings freedom to many people who don’t fit “normal” gender roles. This doesn’t disallow people to use gender binaries; it allows variety. When a person feels they can describe themselves well, or that they don’t have to focus on choosing gender, they can preserve authenticity. A writer or speaker can feel they’re presenting themselves in a way people will understand; understanding may even foster harmony between people and between groups. That’s why language is so powerful: it can tie you down or give you paint and brush.

Remember how the voice called me “you”, and “you” meant me sitting here at my desk writing this at my computer all alone (notice how that sentence emphasized singularity, and was rather confusing)? Well, get a load of this: “you” has been singular for about 400 years; before, singular was (think Shakespeare) “thou”. What happened? Use. It took a long time, much longer than “them” as singular, but the point stands. The way we present our self — who we say we are — has a strong relationship with how we talk and think about ourselves. There are rules, and we can adapt these rules to our experience while making the “language game” better for players. Language is living, and we should always strive to use language in a way that is uplifting and lifegiving.

Special note: most standardized testing, like the ACT and SAT, consider “them” as only plural and haven’t adapted to the new style guide, so don’t mark “they” as singular on your test just yet.

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