Take Two: Why the Singular, Non-Binary “They” Pronoun is Darned Difficult to Master

If you read no further, delight in watching John E. McIntyre’s Baltimore Sun video on the indisputable appropriateness of the singular, epicene, pronoun “they.”

The third-person, singular “they” he talks about was the 2015 American Dialect Society Word of the Year.

Merriam-Webster and the Oxford dictionaries agree.

And the Washington Post style guide, the Associated Press Stylebook and the Chicago Manual of Style do, too.

So why is speaking “they” when we’re referring to one person so difficult to master?

Even — and especially — if someone has told us “he” or “she” just isn’t who they are.

Logic says this should be easier.

Most of us have lived through a few language changes in our time.

Think no further than “groovy.”

We used it, then shuttered and moved on.

Yet tell me that they/them/their are your pronouns, and I’ll stumble, fall, get up, and do it again.

“As shorthand for any thing or concept, pronouns are used so often and so unconsciously that they are more like hardware.

Linguistics May Hold the Answer

Why I slip up so often can, at least partially, be explained by linguistics.

John McWhorter, an English and literature professor at Columbia University, says we are flexible with changing nouns, verbs and adjectives, and it can even feel natural to add, subtract and revise them.

Like software, he said, we can adapt moderately easily to new versions of what’s called, “open class words.”

But other parts of language are different.

“Pronouns are closed class words,” he said.

“As shorthand for any thing or concept, pronouns are used so often and so unconsciously that they are more like hardware.

“A new object or practice is one thing — but a new “you” or a new “him” or “her”?

“It’s harder to wrap our minds around changing something so cognitively fundamental, just as one does not pop up with new prepositions.

“ . . . nouns and verbs are lightbulbs; prepositions are the wiring inside the walls.”

He said the origins of our language can be traced back 6,000 years.

And even then people spoke pronouns that sounded similar to “me,” “you,” and “we.”

“That’s how hardy pronouns are,” he said.

Comfort in Knowledge

So let’s drop some of the judgment we put on ourselves for making mistakes with “they.”

Slipping back into “he” or “she” when someone says their pronoun is “they” is what can happen when you have hard-wired parts of the brain.

And as a result, this is going to take time.

What we’re seeing is a rapid evolution in English.

But John McIntyre cautions against taking too long to adapt, “The tide is running against you, and it’s coming in,” he said.

“. . . Resistance is futile.”

Take Action!

•  Read  the CNN Opinion by John McWhorter, Goodbye to ‘he’ and ‘she’ and hello to ‘ze’?,” October 14, 2015.

Read  New York Times magazine article, “Who’s ‘They’? by Amanda Hess, March 29, 2016.

•  Watch John McIntyre’s Baltimore Sun video on singular ‘they.”

•  Read last week’s blog, The Evolving World of Pronouns, and My Struggle to Keep Up.

•  And You Might Enjoy  Growing Up in a Town Hospitable to Lesbians and Others with Non-Binary Lifestyles 

•  •  •


Ellen Synakowski lives in Laramie, Wyoming.
Her website is EllenSynakowski.com

“Never forget that justice is what love looks like in public.  — C. West

2 thoughts on “Take Two: Why the Singular, Non-Binary “They” Pronoun is Darned Difficult to Master”

  1. While having just congratulated myself for not using “I” outrageously often, what will happen to that singular identification of myself, and only me?
    This “they” thing is going to take time and many slips of the tongue. Guess it is progress, and that’s a good thing. Thanks for the references, Ellen.

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