They/Them/Theirs
September 19, 2019 6:49 PM   Subscribe

This has been a big week for singular they/them pronouns. Merriam-Webster included the "singular they" for the first time. Singer Sam Smith, who'd previously come out as non-binary (instagram link), announced that their pronouns are now they/them - and The Associated Press somehow got it wrong in an article about that very pronoun announcement (they later corrected it). Queer, queer, non-binary journalist Ashley Dye brought this to light in a viral tweet and then wrote about how this error exposes journalism's failings when it comes to writing about LGBTQ issues and people.
posted by the sockening (82 comments total) 39 users marked this as a favorite
 
The weirdest hang-up about singular "they" that people claim to have is the subject-verb quantity agreement. The English language has been using the plural second person form for individuals for hundreds of years.

If using singular "you" (and saying "you are" instead of "thou is") makes sense, then using singular "they" (and saying "they are" instead of "they is") makes sense.
posted by explosion at 7:48 PM on September 19, 2019 [22 favorites]


If I understand correctly, singular "they" was already included in the Merriam-Webster dictionary, and what's new is specifically the fourth definition - the use for non-binary people. I just checked the OED, and it has singular "they", but only the use for people of undetermined gender. This puts Merriam-Webster ahead of the curve.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 7:59 PM on September 19, 2019 [9 favorites]


subject-verb quantity agreement

A linguistics query: is there a standardized reflexive form for semantically singular "they"? By analogy to your "you" example, should it be "themself"? (Noting that semantically singular "you" has reflexive form "yourself", and semantically plural "you" has reflexive form "yourselves" --- this is, AFAICT, one of the few places in English besides subject-verb agreement where noun number makes itself evident.)
posted by jackbishop at 8:17 PM on September 19, 2019


I’m reliving the whole notable event of Sam Smith coming out while reading Ashley Dye’s article and I’m glad I deactivated on twitter over the past 4 days because wow do people have shitty opinions on things they don’t understand.

Thank you for posting this, here’s hoping to a better future.

I do have one ask: when looking at people, see if you can objectively examine your bias towards sorting people into male and female. See if you can train yourself to pause that process and hold the assumption that your brain has made as something separate from what you associate and attach to that person. Call that your bias, not their gender. Instead, try getting to know their gender as a thing that is revealed to you, something they have that’s a special part of them and not something that you’re entitled to guess.

I do that a lot and I find that my relationships with people are more meaningful because I don’t project so much onto them.

I wager if more folks practiced this act of pressing pause on how we read gender and make assumptions, then the kind of blatant misgendering in articles like the one AP wrote would happen less.

Basically it’s not enough to be told “these are my pronouns” then train yourself to make the switch. The consent model of gender is largely broken and we all need to examine that and come up with a better consent model, so that maybe someday the act of training ourselves to make the switch will become a redundant task because we didn’t assume we were entitled to a person’s gender in the first place.
posted by nikaspark at 8:33 PM on September 19, 2019 [84 favorites]


1375. Guess some people just need a little more time to get used to it.
posted by some little punk in a rocket at 8:54 PM on September 19, 2019 [11 favorites]


nikaspark, I wish I could give your comment more likes! I had never heard gendering in terms of consent but that makes so much sense.

As a non-binary person, it's deeply satisfying when I can tell that someone can't figure out my gender in binary terms. Except that it's also uncomfortable - because I can usually also tell that it makes them uncomfortable. And I can almost see the wheels turning in their heads as they try to figure out "what" I am. And the visible relief on their faces when I speak, and my voice "gives me away." There's no space in there - in these casual, fleeting interactions - for my gender to be anything but male or female. Part of me feels resigned to that, and part of me feels like it really fucking sucks.

(And this doesn't even get into the fact that I live in a very queer neighborhood in a very queer city, so I have yet to actually feel unsafe because someone can't tell my gender. The fact that it's merely uncomfortable, not threatening, makes me lucky in a way that really fucking sucks.)

I think that's why the Sam Smith AP article is so enraging. Who knows if it was carelessness or malice - the upshot is that Sam Smith is supposed to have one of two "real" genders, and that gender must be defaulted to, even in an article about the fact that their gender is not one of those two.
posted by the sockening at 9:02 PM on September 19, 2019 [28 favorites]


Solidarity, the sockening.

I’m non-binary as well and I dress binary, the parts of my gender I want to share with people are totally dependent on their relationship to me. For the most part I’m agender but if we’re getting intimate I want to be seen and treated as a woman. So it’s weird cause I appear to be a feminine person in public, but I’m not, yet that shifts in super private and intimate settings. When people can be on that flow with me it feels really good.
posted by nikaspark at 9:13 PM on September 19, 2019 [12 favorites]


A linguistics query: is there a standardized reflexive form for semantically singular "they"? By analogy to your "you" example, should it be "themself"?

Yes, I'd say themself. I think it's pretty natural for 'self' to be analyzed on it's own and reflect the correct number.

The conjugation of 'to be' is a special case because it's so fossilized and opaque to modern analysis. It already takes a different inflection in every singular case - I am, you are, he/she/it is. Someone mentioned "thou is" upthread, but that's not right: it was "thou art" giving us yet another form. There's no reason for "they" to take is, because nothing but the third person does so already, and the number marking of "are" is long gone. If you knew all of english except what form of 'to be' went with what, there's no way you'd be able to figure it out. It's just what that word looks like when paired with certain other words at this point.

And honestly, if anything, 'is' is the weird one out. All the other basic forms start with an a.
posted by vibratory manner of working at 9:16 PM on September 19, 2019 [4 favorites]


Singular they is a huge matter of pointless contention for assholes, but let’s pour one out for all our enby homies who live in places where grammatical gender is so much more complicated than in English.
posted by Sterros at 10:47 PM on September 19, 2019 [22 favorites]


The consent model of gender is largely broken and we all need to examine that and come up with a better consent model, so that maybe someday the act of training ourselves to make the switch will become a redundant task because we didn’t assume we were entitled to a person’s gender in the first place.

I agree in theory, my prediction is that this is going to be really ugly and bitter for the next few decades.

I am thinking on my own exposure in real time to the Miss/Mrs./Ms. transition in the 70s. I guess it varies by place, but it seems a lot of the Anglosphere has accepted Ms. quite grudgingly, and it is still not the default everywhere - that in the wrong places "Ms." can still mark you as "one of those PC SJWs" or similar.

Will be interesting. I am all for it, but defaulting to "they" will be a really difficult aspect of non-sexist/non-gendered English for me to learn, doubt I will ever become fluent.
posted by Meatbomb at 11:45 PM on September 19, 2019 [4 favorites]


In 2017, the AP officially announced changes to its style guide specifically around “stories about people who identify as neither male nor female or ask not to be referred to as he/she/him/her.” In that update, the guide advises journalists to either avoid pronoun usage and if it is essential to explain “that the person prefers a gender-neutral pronoun. Be sure that the phrasing does not imply more than one person.” This would mean, essentially, that the original article on Smith didn’t even follow the agency’s own rules.
Yes, AP got it wrong.
posted by dumbland at 12:15 AM on September 20, 2019 [19 favorites]


Half the time, this is convention already. Which makes the other half hard to change. Well-meaning people are going to screw this one up for a while, and evil-meaning people, including those who want control over your body for its labor, are going to be rotten for longer.

Better start earlier, then.
posted by eustatic at 2:10 AM on September 20, 2019


At least in English there is such a convention. There is a problem in other languages without the they/them as singular and without another gender-neutral option for persons, and there may not always be an easy way to work around it without inventing new pronouns, and that can be an obstacle to widespread acceptance.
posted by bitteschoen at 2:23 AM on September 20, 2019 [2 favorites]


How does this work in languages where gender is important? In French, for example?
posted by emelenjr at 3:10 AM on September 20, 2019 [1 favorite]


I don't think that "ze" or "xe" or whatever will make it (could be wrong, though).

I feel obliged to point out that for us to be sitting here with an FPP where Merriam-Webster thinks 'they' is a pronoun used by people whose "gender identity is non-binary"*, we're also standing on the shoulders of people using all the neopronouns** and "just use my name". None of these things are "new".*** It's really only recently that "they" started getting seen as the default choice rather than the "default" being a matter of local culture. I moved across the country in 2008 and went from a place where people tended towards ze/hir to a place where people tended towards 'they' or name-only.

*Which is a weird construction and I could have done without the implication that 'using they' and 'being non-binary' are equivalent.
**Which is a term that bothers me for some reason, but seems to be what we have.
***I have such a soft spot for Spivak pronouns, by the way. First edition of the Joy of TeX is 1982.

posted by hoyland at 3:16 AM on September 20, 2019 [9 favorites]


How does this work in languages where gender is important? In French, for example?

There are newly created pronouns that are suggested, such as "iel", but there is no widely accepted convention to use them yet. Here’s an overview of gender neutral pronouns for several languages

In German too there is no such widely accepted convention such as "they" in the singular. There is a neutral pronoun but it’s normally for things, objects, not for people. I went to check the Sam Smith wikipedia entry in German and it’s been reworked rather extensively to reflect Smith’s preference, now it just uses "Smith" all the time instead of the pronoun (like I just did there with Smith’s preference instead of their preference - it’s sort of awkward to repeat the name so much but less so than invented pronouns that still have no widely accepted usage, I guess!)
posted by bitteschoen at 4:30 AM on September 20, 2019 [9 favorites]


We're living in a time of pretty serious upheaval in the English language, so rules-lawyering the proper use of the singular they is not just needlessly pedantic, it isn't even necessarily correct. Like, I'm pretty sure almost none of you were out here repeatedly complaining that "googling" is a proper noun and not a verb, and therefore will be difficult to integrate into our lexicon. Complaining about it--even (and perhaps especially) if you support the concept behind it--is just throwing up another obstacle for people who are simply asking to be recognized for who they are.
posted by zombieflanders at 4:51 AM on September 20, 2019 [18 favorites]


obligatory - "they/them/theirs" by Worriers
posted by entropone at 5:39 AM on September 20, 2019 [2 favorites]


Always interesting how people are suddenly very interested in grammar when it comes to sexuality, or feminism when it comes to Islam etc
posted by Chaffinch at 5:50 AM on September 20, 2019 [41 favorites]


Yeah I'm pretty happy this week. But I stayed away from social media. So all I have been feeling is "haha! Finally we have a big celebrity!" And subsequently "haha! Finally we have the dictionary!"
posted by captain afab at 6:21 AM on September 20, 2019 [5 favorites]


Just yesterday my colleague's daughter said that her teacher said that any gender identity other than male or female is MADE UP. We need to do better. If you can remember someone's name you can remember their pronouns.
posted by wellred at 6:25 AM on September 20, 2019 [7 favorites]


I wish I had been there and able to respond with:

“All genders are made up, it’s called social construction and it’s a deeply important part of manifesting into a happy and healthy human body. And yet, somehow, the gender group with cis men in it has gained the power to gaslight us all into believing the gender binary group that keeps cis men in power is the only one with biological validity. And isn’t that just so peculiar?”
posted by nikaspark at 6:33 AM on September 20, 2019 [24 favorites]


it took me three times reading your comment to grok the teacher (presumably, based on behavior) is a cis woman. I’m not surprised, also though, there are a lot of binary trans women who say the exact same damn thing.
posted by nikaspark at 6:38 AM on September 20, 2019 [2 favorites]


But courtesy has nothing to do with grammar.

I'm just going to leave this here. Enjoy.
posted by baptismal at 6:49 AM on September 20, 2019 [2 favorites]


nikaspark, I actually don't know whether the teacher is a ciswoman or cisman, but my colleague would have definitely mentioned if the person was not one of those two.
posted by wellred at 6:56 AM on September 20, 2019 [2 favorites]


I see now “her” is referring to your colleague’s daughter not the teacher. I’ll stop trying to comprehend comments until after I’ve had my morning coffee lol.
posted by nikaspark at 6:58 AM on September 20, 2019 [2 favorites]


you cannot expect to make an announcement and on the next day have everyone switch to referring to you by a different pronoun.

Just to be clear, on Metafilter you absolutely can and people who can't figure it out are going to get deleted and/or banned. It's not actually that fucking hard.
posted by restless_nomad at 7:08 AM on September 20, 2019 [54 favorites]


[And to re-emphasize, we are not debating any further whether people get to pick their own pronouns. I'm reluctant to nuke half the thread to cut that out at this point, but that is not an ok conversation for Metafilter and I'm sorry it didn't get nipped in the bud. ]
posted by restless_nomad (staff) at 7:12 AM on September 20, 2019 [25 favorites]


The teacher doubled down (turns out it's a ciswoman after all) and called nonbinary genders science fiction. Rage is happening.
posted by wellred at 7:12 AM on September 20, 2019 [7 favorites]


Last weekend, I was walking home in my quiet neighborhood and I overheard a small child ask their parent if "that was a boy or a girl" in reference to me. I heard the parent proclaim with absolute certainty that I was a boy. The answer I would have much rather hear is, "why does it matter to us?"
posted by advicepig at 7:22 AM on September 20, 2019 [16 favorites]


The fake offense people take at "they/them" very conveniently ignores that we're already ten to fifteen years (at least) into using that combo over "he or she/him or her" just because it was more organic not to talk like we were writing a legal contract every time we didn't know the gender of a person.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 7:24 AM on September 20, 2019 [14 favorites]


I mean, you don't have to even know nonbinary people exist to have been using they/them comfortably for years.

If your sibling says, "I finally got a new upstairs neighbor" you answer, "What are they like?" You don't say "What is he or she like?" No one has said that in years.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 7:36 AM on September 20, 2019 [22 favorites]


"The fake offense people take at "they/them" very conveniently ignores that we're already ten to fifteen years (at least) into using that combo over "he or she/him or her" just because it was more organic not to talk like we were writing a legal contract every time we didn't know the gender of a person."

Personally I'm 644 years into using the singular they (only 100ish years after plural they arrived!) but then I read my English literature, unlike some of the brave defenders of the English language who are apparently not familiar with such new-fangled writers as Chaucer or Shakespeare.

Wycliffe's Bible, 1382: Eche on in þer craft ys wijs. (Sirach 38:35) ("each one in their craft is wise")
Chaucer, 1400ish: And whoso fyndeth hym out of swich blame, They wol come up .... (Pardoner's Prologue)
Shakespeare, 1599: Tis meet that some more audience than a mother, since nature makes them partial, should o'erhear the speech (Hamlet)
King James Bible, 1611: So likewise shall my heavenly Father doe also unto you, if ye from your hearts forgive not every one his brother their trespasses. (Matt 18:35)
Austen, 1814: Had the Doctor been contented to take my dining tables as any body in their senses would have done ... (Mansfield Park)
Thackery, 1848: A person can't help their birth. (Vanity Fair)

(But whatever their birth, they get to pick their pronouns, I'm sure Thackery would agree.)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:58 AM on September 20, 2019 [11 favorites]


We're living in a time of pretty serious upheaval in the English language, so rules-lawyering the proper use of the singular they is not just needlessly pedantic, it isn't even necessarily correct

This isn’t even some new thing; English has been evolving constantly for its whole existence. The prescriptivist “rules” that were written down in the 19th century were much closer to being field observations (with frequent post hoc rationalization by way of classical languages) than the universal truths they’ve been presented as.
posted by a box and a stick and a string and a bear at 7:59 AM on September 20, 2019


[OK, on reflection, decided to nuke things. Please refresh; if you want copies of your deleted comments, just drop a line to the contact form and I'm happy to send them to you.]
posted by restless_nomad (staff) at 8:00 AM on September 20, 2019 [18 favorites]


I've been wondering how much the growing acceptance of singular "they," as well as being out as agender or fluid-gendered, has to do with the demise of honorific + last name in address? Most people call one another by their first names - "Hi, Alex, how's your day going?" rather than "Hi, Mr./Ms. Smith, how are you?" Doctors and judges have titles, but "Dr. Smith" or "Their Honor, Judge Smith" are gender-neutral.

At least in the US, it's gotten pretty rare for adults to use Title + Lastname with one another. Kids use honorifics with teachers, but neighborhood kids address me and other adults by our first names, unlike my childhood in the 70's when it was Mr. or Ms. Neighbor. It's easier and less of a "ok which title do I use?" to address someone by their first name (and it also promotes social equality).
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 9:08 AM on September 20, 2019 [2 favorites]


I do a lot of policy explaining and writing and rewriting in my work, and I try to fight the good fight of stealthily re-editing policy to use singular they instead of "he/she." Office powers!!

I can therefore say with some confidence that every time I have encountered policy language it is much more awkward and silly to read "When he or she is ready to X, he or she will do the following....submit his or her paperwork to X..."
posted by nakedmolerats at 9:12 AM on September 20, 2019 [12 favorites]


I also find the shift towards "they" immensely helpful when dealing with a lot of emails from people with names I cannot immediately gender, which is a lot of names outside of one's personal culture/ethnicity bubble.
posted by nakedmolerats at 9:15 AM on September 20, 2019 [12 favorites]


I do a lot of policy explaining and writing and rewriting in my work, and I try to fight the good fight of stealthily re-editing policy to use singular they instead of "he/she." Office powers!!

Me too! I recently saw this article and it made me feel happy about my own fight (though mine is pretty supported by higher-ups):

He, she, or ... ? Gender-neutral pronouns reduce biases: Researchers find usage boosts positive feelings towards women and LGBT people
posted by lazuli at 9:52 AM on September 20, 2019 [11 favorites]


One can only assume that anyone with an issue with the singular "they" is just as angry about the plural "you." Youse, yins, and y'all exist people. Fix your grammar.

Oh wait. Unless there's another issue?
posted by stet at 10:25 AM on September 20, 2019 [2 favorites]


In Spanish, where all nouns and adjectives are gendered, and forngroups of people who include males and non-males you're supposed to use the male plural, there's growing pressure to refer to them with a -es suffixes, such as alumnes instead of alumnos (students), etc.
Some of my 20 year old alumnes are starting to follow this usage, and i fully support it.
posted by signal at 10:34 AM on September 20, 2019 [10 favorites]


"One can only assume that anyone with an issue with the singular "they" is just as angry about the plural "you." "

You is the plural. :D Thou is the singular. IT'S ALMOST LIKE PRONOUNS ARE FLEXIBLE BEASTS WHOSE USE SHIFTS OVER TIME. (Although it is admittedly pretty funny when someone says "I won't use the singular they!" to reply, "I can't believe thou would say that, I expected more from thee." and insist on using the archaic but correct second person singular at them from then on since they're so married to proper number in pronoun use and object to using plural pronouns for singular individuals.)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 10:36 AM on September 20, 2019 [20 favorites]


In Spanish, where all nouns and adjectives are gendered, and forngroups of people who include males and non-males you're supposed to use the male plural, there's growing pressure to refer to them with a -es suffixes, such as alumnes instead of alumnos (students), etc.

This is interesting to me! I just started a Spanish class with the goal of ramping up my middling-to-poor Spanish proficiency to something approaching fluency, and the teacher was going over pronouns and said that Spanish is very male-dominate and so if you're referring to a group of people that all happen to be women, "ellas" is appropriate, but if one man enters the room, it's gotta be "ellos", so would the gender-neutral be "elles"?
posted by Automocar at 10:54 AM on September 20, 2019


I'm out at work as a "they" for the first time ever. Well, theoretically. Everyone said they would "try, but definitely will mess up, so just be patient" and after two weeks they've all forgotten and I'm just about too tired to keep playing Quick Correct The Pronoun. Frankly it's too difficult to do while also dealing with my work responsibilities .. and I am not looking forward to future confrontations where I have to deal with over-the-top performative remorse and more requests for patience and understanding.
posted by captain afab at 11:02 AM on September 20, 2019 [23 favorites]


captain, same. i keep coming out, and it keeps getting forgotten. the T kicking in should be interesting... I've already had some people I really like tell me that, essentially, everything else is cool but what's with this "they" stuff? I've even started putting an educational program in place for this large workplace to try to help but it's exhausting and I sorta just shrug and give up at all the times im in a group of people addressed as 'hey ladies." im gonna have to re-They myself again soon. I am looking for a quick and easy reference to point people towards to do their own work instead of having repeated long conversations at this point.
posted by emirenic at 11:06 AM on September 20, 2019 [14 favorites]


I've never seen or heard the "-es" ending for gender-neutral adjectives in Spain. Maybe it's more in use in the Americas?

In Spain you sometimes see "-@s", so "ell@s" would be the pronoun for a mixed-gender group. But that's a written form only, not spoken (and it makes things complicated on Twitter).

Or you can do like the left-wing political party Unidos Podemos, which decided to just go ahead and use the feminine to cover everyone, officially changing its name to Unidas Podemos for the last election.
posted by fuzz at 11:19 AM on September 20, 2019 [6 favorites]


Yay! Singular they! Non-binary they! I don't want to refer to anyone's gender just to ask a friend's kid about their teacher, discuss a scholar whose article I assigned as required reading, etc etc. I don't want to reinforce a @*#&^! binary with every conversation.

There are so many things about the Korean language that are exhausting when it comes to gender, hierarchies and gendered hierarchies*, but the absence of she/he pronouns was refreshing.

*Two common (but increasingly less used) terms for wife:
1) 집사람 literal translation - "house" + "person"
2) 아내(阿內) the second character (it's a Chinese origin word, hence the hanja) means "inside."
posted by spamandkimchi at 11:20 AM on September 20, 2019 [11 favorites]


if you're referring to a group of people that all happen to be women, "ellas" is appropriate, but if one man enters the room, it's gotta be "ellos", so would the gender-neutral be "elles"?

Yup. There's more info in the wikipedia article about élle if you're interested.

Personally, I far prefer élle and the associated suffixes over using 'x' to make Spanish gender-neutral (latinx), since I feel that works only when you're already speaking in English.
posted by Memo at 11:52 AM on September 20, 2019 [4 favorites]


I've never seen the"x" suffix used in Spanish, at all.
posted by signal at 1:49 PM on September 20, 2019


I’m reliving the whole notable event of Sam Smith coming out while reading Ashley Dye’s article and I’m glad I deactivated on twitter over the past 4 days because wow do people have shitty opinions on things they don’t understand.

There was a lot of "what, is Sam Smith more than one person now?" - mainly from the same crowd of dimwits who understand non-binary pronouns perfectly well, because when they are not harassing trans people they are complaining about pronouns, except when they can do both.

I'm kind of amazed at how stupid people are prepared to portray themselves as in the hope of upsetting other people.
posted by running order squabble fest at 2:08 PM on September 20, 2019 [8 favorites]


"what, is Sam Smith more than one person now"

And being a trans person who has dissociative identity disorder (we called that multiple personality disorder in the dark ages) this kind of shit lands on me twice because my gender and my mental disorders are being made fun of. Mental disorders that resulted from, welp, trying to be a girl when I was a child.
posted by nikaspark at 2:38 PM on September 20, 2019 [15 favorites]


Just had another shift complete with one "ladies!" moment plus about four or five "she"s that I noticed. And like.. I got promoted today. I should feel ok! But I feel weird. And weirder still because now I have to make them all feel weird, or else I'll never stop feeling weird. And I'm questioning my choice of wearing a teeny bit of eyeliner today - even though I've come out already, even though it still happens when I'm dressed masculine. (So I'm spiraling! Do I like..not get to ...wear those things anymore? I don't remember signing anything!)

I need to leave work at work, but this isn't work related for me exactly. Argh idk what to do or how to handle it. Seems kinda cocky to whip out the newest edition of MW.
posted by captain afab at 5:08 PM on September 20, 2019 [8 favorites]


As someone who is some flavor of agender but has cismasculine privilege, I'm finding myself somewhat inspired by the example of SonicFox (who recently came out as nonbinary) - basically, they're okay with he/him amongst close friends, but will in particular insist on they/them within the fighting game community, because those folks could use the practice.

I've got a lot of inertia with my current he/him pronouns, but I feel like it might do some good to lead by example when I can, for the sake of my enby compatriots who would benefit from increasing normalization.
posted by NMcCoy at 5:13 PM on September 20, 2019 [10 favorites]


Here are a couple links from my area's local news weekly from the past two weeks:

We've Come to Prefer They/Them Pronouns -- the newspaper explaining why they are breaking from Associated Press style to drop gender pronouns.

Letters to the editor the next week

#first comment since 2007
posted by fleener at 5:40 PM on September 20, 2019 [11 favorites]


"We've Come to Prefer They/Them Pronouns -- the newspaper explaining why they are breaking from Associated Press style to drop gender pronouns."

That is a really great editorial! I would even say really sweet.

And one of the things that has driven me crazy about the AP guidance is that AP advocates writing around problems, BUT IN DUMB WAYS. Journalists should be super-adept at writing around problems within three months on the job -- English is chock full of possible sentences that are unclear, unwieldy, or just plain unpretty. And for some reason AP wants you to write around using singular they, instead of writing around any confusion resulting from those pronouns, like you would do with "he" or "she" when you have two people both using he and it naturally introduces confusion about antecedents. ("Beth wasn't impressed by Amy's complaint, and she told her mother to get right out of town.")

So yes! You legitimately might run into confusion using the singular they! English is a confusing language! But it's so easy to write around! Like maybe I have "Sam Smith loves Target; they can usually be found in the shoe section. When Smith's whole band goes to Target with them, they gravitate towards housewares." Oh no! We have some legitimate confusion! Allow me to write around:

"When Smith's whole band goes to Target with them, Smith gravitates towards housewares."
OR
"When Smith's whole band goes to Target with them, the group gravitates towards housewares."

NO. PROBLEM. Like, if you cannot figure out a way to make a singular-they situation clear where there's some possible ambiguity, you probably should not be a journalist.

(Note: I do not know if Sam Smith likes Target or has a band.)

"#first comment since 2007"
Hello! We missed you!

posted by Eyebrows McGee at 6:06 PM on September 20, 2019 [11 favorites]


basically, they're okay with he/him amongst close friends, but will in particular insist on they/them within the fighting game community, because those folks could use the practice.

I know someone who is a "she/they" enby, and what she says to people when coming out to them is "I'm inviting you to practice they/them pronouns with me because it can take some getting used to for some people, and I'm a good person to practice with because it won't make me feel bad if you call me 'she.' But don't assume that applies to other non-binary people.'" I think this is such a great act of solidarity with people for whom pronouns are a big deal.

and I am not looking forward to future confrontations where I have to deal with over-the-top performative remorse and more requests for patience and understanding.

I have had to explain to three different cis people this week why excessive apologizing, and pre-emptive apologizing ("I'll probably mess this up, let me know if I do.") are not great ally behavior. And it made me feel like such a scold, because they were all talking about it as if it were an example of how Cool and Great they are with non-binary people. One of them knows I'm non-binary, the other two I'm not out to yet. It's been a weird week. (Honestly, I'm so glad right now to have this space to talk about this anonymously, because I'm not ready to be fully out yet for some personal reasons, but it's been hard to have to pretend to just be a Concerned Cis Ally in these conversations on social media)

Anyway, I'll just repeat here what I said there: when someone tell you their pronouns, if they're not what you were expecting, just thank them for the information. They know you might mess up. You don't have to warn them. If you DO mess up, just apologize quickly and move on. ie. "thesockening was just telling me about her cat - oh, sorry, I mean their cat - and it's such a funny story!" Don't make them do the emotional labor of either steeling themselves to be disappointed by you or consoling you when you overapologize. Instead, do the work yourself of teaching yourself their pronouns. (The same goes for name changes)
posted by the sockening at 6:10 PM on September 20, 2019 [14 favorites]


I know someone who is a "she/they" enby, and what she says to people when coming out to them is

Huh. And I called this person "she" without thought. Which ... is not wrong, but it's definitely me defaulting to the binary.
posted by the sockening at 6:37 PM on September 20, 2019 [4 favorites]


but it's definitely me defaulting to the binary.

I wish I could manifest a dollar for every time I did this, because I would be a billionaire...and all trans and nonbinary people would want for nothing including myself.
posted by nikaspark at 6:49 PM on September 20, 2019 [4 favorites]


i'm happy with they/their becoming a standard, seems easy and fits quite fine. it's not fully integrated into my brain yet but seems very close.
they/them is a third person referrer which is clearly an issue for journalism, but what about first person formal for those of us who don't write but hope to have face to face conversations with people of all gender orientations?
sir/madam/???, mr/ms/?? what is the etiquette there?
posted by danjo at 6:43 AM on September 21, 2019


If you can remember someone's name you can remember their pronouns.

Heck, I can't remember people's names half the time, but can still remember their pronouns.

A friend is encouraging everyone to use "they" in general unless a gendered pronoun is specifically important for some reason - like the transition from boyfriend/girlfriend to partner. I'm still working on the implementation, personally, but think this is a fantastic idea and encourage its widespread adoption.
posted by eviemath at 7:20 AM on September 21, 2019 [3 favorites]


what is the etiquette there?

This is exactly my problem with the he/she/they dilemma. How do I address you when I know nothing about you? I exchange e-mails daily with dozens of folks who I've never met. I have meetings with new people once a month. How can I, in a business setting, ask about your preferred pronoun? Look, I am totally on board with non-binary folk (I am currently struggling with my enterprise's HR department to just conform to state law acknowledging them). But unless you explicitly tell me, "we're a 'they'," then how am I to know?
posted by SPrintF at 9:14 AM on September 21, 2019


A couple ideas:

* Add your pronouns to your email signature, which can encourage others to do the same. I have the word "pronouns" linked to a website that explains why pronouns in email signatures is important, so that recipients who don't feel comfortable asking about it at least have a resource.

* Start meetings, if there are any new people at them (or even if there's not!) by going around and stating names, pronouns, job titles, etc.

* Use "their" as the gender-neutral singular pronoun in memos, policies, instructions, etc.
posted by lazuli at 9:23 AM on September 21, 2019 [1 favorite]


The root cause of the "how do I address you when I know nothing about you?" or "what is the etiquette here" dilemma that SPrintF and danjo mention is our current obligatory usage of gendered pronouns or gendered honorifics. I see the rise of non-gendered they as a partial solution to these conundrums rather than a complicating factor.

In emails, I find that the person I am writing to actually is the easiest person to refer to pronoun-wise. Second person! "Would you be able to...."

It's for the third person reference that I'm so glad to have the non-gendered they. "I'll be meeting with them next week...."

And if you are worried about using "they" for people who have names from non-Latinate or non-Germanic languages (I'm Korean American and many Korean names are very gender-neutral to me), at least some languages don't have gendered pronouns and so "mistakes" are not as intense-feeling (according to my friends at least). I have nearly bilingual friends who still use she when they meant he and vice versa. A singular pronoun is a singular pronoun in their mental bucket of English language grammar.
posted by spamandkimchi at 10:49 AM on September 21, 2019 [5 favorites]


As for honorifics, let's think of good options. Language is ours! If people can come up with new words for hellspawn like "alt-right" we can come up with new words to be polite. I guess this is where Spanish "usted/ustedes" and the bane of my Korean language learning - honorific verbs - similar come in handy because the honorific isn't tied to the identity of the person.

There are also suffixes to show respect in the East Asian languages. In Korean, if you know the person's job title, you just use that, or add their family name to their title: "Teacher" or "Teacher Kwon"; "Director" and "Director Kim." If I don't know their job title, "director" is still a good option because it is higher in the hierarchy and thus polite. You are polite by assuming the other person is important. My relief in the Korean language breaks down when it comes to calling over restaurant staff -- the rise of "older sister" as a way to refer to waitstaff....
posted by spamandkimchi at 10:57 AM on September 21, 2019 [2 favorites]


Mx. is a gender-neutral honorific.

I just default to using they/them pronouns for people until I find out for sure otherwise. You can glean what pronouns a person uses with some degree of accuracy by observing what people close to them use, but ideally if you’re going to be referring to them a lot in the future it’s best to ask directly, since people get pronouns wrong all the time.

How can I, in a business setting, ask about your preferred pronoun?

“hey, just wanted to check in, what pronouns do you use?”

n.b. it’s best to avoid saying “preferred” pronoun. I don’t prefer they/them pronouns; they’re just correct in my case. Better to ask what pronouns a person uses, or just “what are your pronouns” straight up. Sometimes it’ll be more than one and sometimes there’s a preference for one or the other in those cases, but not always.
posted by Gymnopedist at 12:10 PM on September 21, 2019 [7 favorites]


Spamandkimchi, I liked hearing about honorifics in Korean; it seems really easy to use "polite" or formal address without specifically gendering the person. In English, at least American English, there are very few non-gendered honorifics, and really no way to convey extra politeness (English, unlike Spanish, French, and many other languages, has no T/V distinction that conveys familiarity versus distance).

So we're left with defaulting to informality - and I don't think that's a bad thing, at all, even if some people mourn "lovely old-fashioned manners" or the like. But some situations probably do call for a bit more formality, and there is where we're stuck if we're speaking English.

It seems all-around easier to default to names, and I really do think that the singular "they" couldn't have taken off the way it has if English-speakers used honorifics a lot. Hooray for "they!" It's nice to have a gender-neutral pronoun that is easy to use and remember and that can be defaulted to when in doubt.
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 12:33 PM on September 21, 2019 [1 favorite]


This is exactly my problem with the he/she/they dilemma. How do I address you when I know nothing about you?

Address me as "you" (a conveniently nongendered pronoun) or by my name. If you need to reference me in the third person (which is when the he/she/they pronouns come in) and don't know what pronouns I use, use my name. More generally, consider defaulting to they/them for people whose pronouns you don't know, instead of assuming that either he/him or she/her are appropriate.

How can I, in a business setting, ask about your preferred pronoun?

You could start by offering your own pronouns. Email signature blocks are a good place to do this. Also, please drop "preferred". A person's pronouns are their pronouns; it's not just a matter of preference.

Look, I am totally on board with non-binary folk (I am currently struggling with my enterprise's HR department to just conform to state law acknowledging them). But unless you explicitly tell me, "we're a 'they'," then how am I to know?

If you actually are "totally on board", stop saying things like "unless you explicitly tell me, "we're a 'they'," then how am I to know?" Most nonbinary people use "I" and "me" pronouns, just like everyone else. Using "we" is seriously pinging my "concern troll" alarms. If that's not what you intend, please be aware that that's how it may register.
posted by Lexica at 6:06 PM on September 21, 2019 [9 favorites]


[One deleted; people are answering in good faith about their pronoun choices and about how to forward the conversation with your workplace. Please don't get defensive when people are being generous and helpful with their expertise.]
posted by Eyebrows McGee (staff) at 7:04 PM on September 21, 2019 [2 favorites]


I think this is an important discussion. It is very difficult to discuss this topic with my boss, who declares, "oh, non-binary is just the state acting weird." On an individual-level, I am very sensitive to gender and race/ethnicity issues. At the reporting-level, it's really hard to get anyone to acknowledge this.

For myself, well, I think folks are just folks.
posted by SPrintF at 7:12 PM on September 21, 2019


But unless you explicitly tell me, "we're a 'they'," then how am I to know?

There are people like me who have what used to be called “multiple personality disorder” that’s now called “dissociative identity disorder” so truly I could say to you “we’re a they” and be coming from a place of truth, but in reality “we” are he, they and she because there are three separate people inside me. Yes I know it sounds crazy. No it isn’t actually crazy, it was a normal psychological response to some seriously fucked up trauma that happened because I was “queer” as a kid.

So, “how am I to know?” The point is you aren’t. You have to wait to find out.

What that means is that in emails where you don’t know a person, you don’t assume shit about them.

That means making directed asks, thinking more thoroughly about what you are trying to say, and reducing your dependence on assumptions. It means SLOW DOWN and think about why you need to write an email or address a group, and if you’re addressing the group, then use “everyone” “they” and “them” and “us” and “we”.

If you need address a person, use their name and make a succinct directed ask of them. Define what your need is from them, tighten up your ask, and direct at them. There’s no need to know someone’s gender in order to communicate to them.

If you need to talk ABOUT them, and you don’t know their gender, then wait until you know more about them before you talk about them. If you have to talk about them, make a succinct statement that says “we are in conversations with (person’s name) we will update everyone later after we’ve had a chance to communicate and get to know the situation better”.

In short, assume less and slow down.
posted by nikaspark at 7:43 PM on September 21, 2019 [6 favorites]


> "How does this work in languages where gender is important? In French, for example?"

French actually has a gender neutral pronoun -- "on". It is, to oversimplify, roughly equivalent to the English word "one" in the sense of "one does not do that". It refers to people and is not equivalent to "it".

> "In German ... there is a neutral pronoun but it’s normally for things, objects, not for people."

Unless the person in question would take a neutral pronoun. For example, "Mädchen" (girl) is a neutral word, so you get sentences that literally translate as "I see the girl; it is standing on the hill."

The idea that languages with gendered noun cases would have a harder time dealing with this kind of thing doesn't make much sense -- gendered noun cases are already mostly nonsensical to begin with and break themselves all the time.
posted by kyrademon at 3:16 AM on September 22, 2019 [3 favorites]


At least in the US, it's gotten pretty rare for adults to use Title + Lastname with one another. Kids use honorifics with teachers, but neighborhood kids address me and other adults by our first names, unlike my childhood in the 70's when it was Mr. or Ms. Neighbor.

Honorifics have been driving me nuts lately. At 44 I'm still in the process of working out my relationship with gender and haven't yet claimed "they/them" as my pronouns (though I think I would have long ago if it had been a possibility I was aware of while growing up), but I do deliberately avoid female-coded terms to refer to myself. I've just started working in multiple classrooms, and want my students to refer to me by first name in part to get around the honorifics thing. I've already lost track of the times this conversation has happened with classroom teachers and staff:

Coworker: "What do you want the kids to call you?"
Me: "DingoMutt."
Coworker: "Kids, say hello to Miss DingoMutt!"

I recognize they're doing it out of a misplaced sense of politeness, but it makes me grit my teeth every time. Nikaspark, you put it so well when you said that the consent model of gender is broken. Up to now I haven't said anything because I've been uneasy to get into it, but damn, the more I think of this the more I realize that "Just DingoMutt" should not be that hard to say. Think I'll try that next time it happens and see how it goes.
posted by DingoMutt at 4:04 AM on September 22, 2019 [5 favorites]


The idea that languages with gendered noun cases would have a harder time dealing with this kind of thing doesn't make much sense -- gendered noun cases are already mostly nonsensical to begin with and break themselves all the time.

Well yes of course gendered noun cases in gendered languages are nonsensical, they have no logic to them most of the time, but that means that when referring to a group of people you have no gender-neutral plural like "students" or "workers", it defaults to masculine, so you have to find creative ways when you want to use a gender-neutral plural for people; and when it comes to pronouns a gendered language like German (or French or Italian) doesn’t have that already accepted convention of "they/their/them" singular as gender-neutral. I had looked up the entry for Sam Smith on Wikipedia precisely to see how they got around that, and at least they made the effort to avoid using pronouns altogether, by repeating "Smith’s" instead. Here’s a story in German reporting on Sam Smith’s announcement about wanting to be referred to with the pronouns "they/them" and the story uses the masculine pronoun "er". At the end they do clarify (quickly translated):

In the German language there are no gender-neutral pronouns
In UK and in the USA the gender-neutral pronouns "they/them" in the singular have established themselves. In the German language it is difficult. Many non-binary people reject the pronoun "es", and new pronouns like "xier" or "dey/denen" have been suggested. However they have not established themselves in German usage as much as "they/them" in English.


It is objectively more difficult to try and establish new pronouns (particularly those with weird pronounciations like "xier" which ends up sounding like the feminine "sie"), it would just be awesome if every language had or invented and the equivalent of "they" to refer to a singular person and that got widespread acceptance, but unfortunately that hasn’t happened, yet (except in Sweden as far as I know?).
posted by bitteschoen at 4:36 AM on September 22, 2019 [5 favorites]


Also, please drop "preferred". A person's pronouns are their pronouns; it's not just a matter of preference.

So, while I agree that we've moved away from "preferred pronouns", I also want to encourage people to think about the ways in which pronoun use can be compromise. Masculine pronouns aren't "my" pronouns, they're the pronouns I choose to use. I'm sure some people have "their" pronouns, but we don't all. Likewise, the pronouns someone uses is a particular context may not be their preferred set, or their optimal set, or whatever. There's a certain presumption in saying "What are your pronouns?"--it's an implicit demand that you be seen as someone to be trusted with someone's gender. Asking "Which pronouns do you use?" is much less loaded.
posted by hoyland at 3:54 PM on September 22, 2019 [11 favorites]


Just wanted to echo the thing about Sweden. My grandchildren are hearing “hen” on a regular basis at preschool, in videos, from me and their parents. This non-gendered pronoun has truly taken off in Sweden, and I am so glad.
posted by Bella Donna at 4:52 PM on September 22, 2019 [7 favorites]


Spamandkimchi, I liked hearing about honorifics in Korean; it seems really easy to use "polite" or formal address without specifically gendering the person.

sort of. it's actually something that comes up in korean-american queer/trans spaces, that there is a general agreement to use names and avoid korean forms of address, regardless of how formal or informal they are.

for example, the way to address a slightly elder peer, both formally *and* informally, is to use the terms for 'older brother' or 'older sister', which differs based on which gender you are. an older brother to a younger masculine person is '형' (hyeong) while to a younger feminine person is '오빠' (oppa), and an older sister to a younger masculine person is '누나' (nuna), while to a younger feminine person it's '언니' (eonni). there are no terms for older siblings, whether binary or not, from non-binary younger siblings in existence. (this does, however, then run into the situation where binary trans and non-binary korean folk can have tension; for instance, it's affirming to me for someone to call me '누나'/'언니' and it was easy for me to default to using '오빠'/'언니' instead of what i used before). what's even more troublesome is that there really isn't a way that i can think of that doesn't go *more* formal.

like, i guess you could use '선배' (sunbae) [yes, etymologically senpai is related to this term, and it's written in kanji and hanja as '先輩'], but that has more of a mentorship connotation and i've really only ever heard it used in work settings.

which is why in those k qt spaces, relying on given names is preferred. it avoids the thorniness of those gendered terms.
posted by anem0ne at 8:36 AM on September 23, 2019 [6 favorites]


The one spot I still run into a bit of a sticking spot on, grammatically, is cases where I'm (referencing someone in the reflexive/not specifically gendered sense, i.e. I wouldn't generally use he or she there in its place, definition 3 I think?), but it's heard as ambiguous that I'm instead affirmatively referencing them as nonbinary-they (def. 4), which isn't always welcome.

Not to say "this is wrong and needs to change" by any sense, I love the rise/revival of singular-they and have been growing to prefer it for myself; and it's something which can be worked around by being more mindful of reflexive usage and remembering people's comfort/discomfort on that ambiguity. But while I'm being self-reflective, that's the spot I currently get caught on and need to improve on.
posted by CrystalDave at 10:51 AM on September 23, 2019


Asking "Which pronouns do you use?" is much less loaded.

Thank you for this! "My pronouns" is a complicated subject, and I'm fine with what people assume for me in practice. Because of that, I hate telling people what pronouns to use for me when I'm doing group introductions. It always feels like a choice between lying and outing myself. Framing it this way, even if I'm just framing it that way in my head, will help.
posted by vibratory manner of working at 12:58 PM on September 23, 2019 [4 favorites]


anem0ne, I had been so focused on work/office etiquette, I completely blanked on the ubiquity of elder sister/brother in social contexts for Korean language speakers. I got used to 팀장님 and other job position based honorifics in office environments, and was only thinking about that milieu and the convenient ungenderedness of "Team Leader."

The need to not only gender the person you are addressing but also yourself... ugh. Point taken!

As a Korean American woman raised in a primarily white American environment, who is on top of that, an only child, the nuances and obligations of the friendly/familial honorific were not in my wheelhouse. In my college and post-college years I was noticeably flustered at being addressed as 언니 or 누나 and I rather resented the pressure in some Korean American social circles to call older dudes 오빠 (not surprisingly the women really didn't badger me about calling them 언니). I will say that in my experience, 선배 and 후배 got used a fair amount in graduate school in Korea to refer to students who had entered before you did, but more in the third-person when you are introducing them. "This is Cheolmin, my sunbae."

And the whole mess that is gendering and age-ordering for parents' siblings and their spouses in the Korean language.

I've thought about the Aunt / Uncle gender binary in an English language context because of the ubiquity of those familial terms in Hawai‘i. I was both thankful and flummoxed that when a non-binary friend met my honorary (looking for non-gendered term for nieces and nephews...) nibling, my nibling asked my friend "should I call you Uncle or Auntie?" I had also not paid attention to the problematic gendering in what felt like delightfully warm ways for younger people to show respect to older people.

Why yes, I am cis... my privilege is showing quite obviously in my obliviousness to these things.
posted by spamandkimchi at 4:49 PM on September 23, 2019


As an educator, for future classes, I plan to include a short discussion about singular they and pronoun usage in the syllabi. In terms of classroom ground rules, I will need to think through, look for examples, and draft what I want to say, and hopefully hire a sensitivity reader so I don't get it wrong while wrapped in a cocoon of my good intentions.

I had been mulling over whether I should just state in class (syllabi are moving targets!) that I am deliberately using singular, non-gendered they so as to not automatically gender people. I mean hell, I assign articles and book chapters by people I know nothing about besides their names. On principle I should never use gendered pronouns for strangers.

I already eff-ed up today in naturalizing and reinforcing binary gender for the purposes of a class discussion on safe spaces.... Argh. Teaching is hard. Not essentializing difference when I am talking about how urban planning fails to recognize dimensions of difference is hard.

I guess one thing I have been deliberately trying to model for students is that I get things wrong, inadvertently exclude, negligently other, and that I don't want to make mistakes but I am working on not being afraid to learn from other people's criticism.
posted by spamandkimchi at 5:03 PM on September 23, 2019 [1 favorite]


I was both thankful and flummoxed that when a non-binary friend met my honorary (looking for non-gendered term for nieces and nephews...) nibling, my nibling asked my friend "should I call you Uncle or Auntie?"

sparent
posted by Gymnopedist at 7:49 PM on September 23, 2019


spamandkimchi, I totally get it--a lot of what you said before is very true and explains a lot of the Korean way of speech well (and, tbh, I had actually always thought 아내 was just a homophone with "inside", and then when you pointed out the Sinic origins with the hanja it kinda became a bit horrifying and weird*), but I didn't want people to get the wrong idea about how gendered/ungendered Korean speech is. The main reason why I'm aware of it was that I wasn't an only child, and communicated extensively with my cousins, and had some Korean-American family friends.

You touch on the weirdness of it re: parents' siblings; I recall how offended my paternal aunt was when I used the term for maternal aunt for her, when I was six, and that she gave my mom an earful**. It's awkward enough that when a non-Korean, non-binary friend of mine asked me if there was such a term in Korean for nb parent sibling from the perspective of a nibling, given that they'd heard that Korean doesn't have gendered pronouns, I had to explain that well, no, Korean doesn't, but it genders so many other relationships in strange ways...

*I mean, I never really looked into it because it's not a word I use since I don't have a wife and I have my doubts that I'll ever have a Korean spouse, since, well...
**Fuck that lady though, that was the first time I'd spoken to her while I'd spoken to my maternal aunts who gave a shit about our family tons of times by then.
posted by anem0ne at 11:47 AM on September 24, 2019 [2 favorites]


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