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'They' for individuals

May 15th, 2015
ling, they

In yesterday's Singular 'they' FAQ discussion one question people were interested in was when to use 'they' for individuals. I don't have an answer tidy and certain enough to put down as a FAQ response, but I have some disconnected thoughts.

Some people request you use 'they' to refer to them. So I'd say "Stacy forgot their book" or "Jules said they'll be late". This isn't actually about singular "they," though: if Pat wants me to use 'zie' as zir pronoun I'll do that for zim. Using people's preferred pronouns is a way to be polite and show respect. The mental burden of using 'they' this way is much lower than different per-person created pronoun sets, though, so I think it's great more people who are uncomfortable with 'he' and 'she' are asking for 'they'.

I also want to get to a point where we use 'they' for everyone, however, where it no longer has any meaning beyond "this is a reference back to a person already in the discourse". In that world people wouldn't have any need for custom pronouns. So if someone wanted to start using 'they', all the time, for everyone, that seems like it would be progress. Not a step I would make currently, because for me it's pushing faster than I'm comfortable with, but it's a step I could see myself taking in maybe ten years?

If someone does decide to use 'they' for everyone, though, what do they do in cases where people have expressed a preference? Maybe you really want 'he' because you're trans and you want to make sure people see you as the gender you are. Maybe you really want 'she' because even though you're cis and consistently read as female your femininity is a core part of who you are. And so it hurts for someone to refuse you that affirmation and go with 'they'. I'm not sure what to do here, but I think the long term benefit of getting gender out of language, getting us to where the pronoun isn't something people would expect at all to indicate anything about gender, is probably greater than the short term harm of some people missing that signal that their gender is respected?

For most of us, though, we're not trying to use 'they' all the time, instead we're just using it when it makes our lives easier. (This user manual needs a pronoun for the user: I'll use 'they'. I don't know the gender of your boss: I'll use 'they'.) Which means we do need to be careful not to fall into using 'they' just because we have trouble remembering someone's gender. I've occasionally heard people who use 'they' for specific named people only when those people are trans, and that's a really harmful way to apply it. It signals "you're not really [your gender]". If anything it would be better to go the other way, be less likely to use 'they' for people you know are trans, except treating a trans person differently than you'd treat anyone else of that gender just because they're trans is not a good habit to be in, even if in this case your motivations are positive.

So to answer the question of when to use 'they' for specific people, I guess I'd say push a bit from where you're comfortable and be consistent?

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