They is the answer
Pronouns are an integral part of the English language, and while there has been some controversy over the use of the singular they pronoun, there is no denying the immense traction that it is gaining within English speaking societies (Merriam-Webster 2020, Noor 2020). Not only did Merriam-Webster Dictionary add singular they to their dictionary in 2019, but they also declared they as their word of the year for 2019 proving that singular they is a topic of discussion, research, and interest for many English speakers (Merriam-Webster’s Words of the Year 2019). While some people may not understand how much significance a pronoun may hold in the transmission of linguistic information about the gender of an individual, it is important to queer individuals. Transgender and non-binary individuals’ pronouns are a vital part of identity and the increased exposure of the singular they pronoun may help normalize gender-neutral language and non-binary people as a whole. Despite the fact that using plural pronouns to have singular meanings is frequently done in English, there is still push back in today’s society to use the singular they pronoun. In response linguist Gretchen McCulloch gives the examples that “plural you got extended to mean a formal, singular you and ultimately completely annihilated thou”. This is fully accepted in the English language now, so why haven’t we done the same for they?
Without the widespread recognition and/or straight up denial of the use of they/them pronouns, the use of an incorrect pronoun form can ultimately be harmful. People end up misgendering people and erasing their gender identity proving the need for more inclusive language. Since we have a binary language and pronoun system, it leaves out certain groups of people. For example, the phrase “ladies and gentlemen” does not leave room for non-binary and other gender-variant people to be recognized. This same issue goes for personal pronouns and the fact that we do not have a set gender-neutral pronoun in English. While He and She are taught as personal pronouns, they is not. In regard to the comments that they is only plural (Steinmetz), singular they has actually been used for centuries and “The English Oxford Dictionary traces singular they back to 1375” proving that we can use singular they to refer to non-binary people and be grammatically correct. We use singular they habitually when we do not know the gender of the person, as Dennis Baron gives the example “You just had a telephone call.”, “Did they leave any message?” (174) showing that the only struggle we seem to be facing regarding the implementation of singular they into common conversation is the lack of societal acceptance. The real trepidation is not really grammatical concern but actually a lack of open mindedness in terms of inclusive language and gender expansive individuals.
As English speakers, we need to embrace the fact that singular they has been a part of our grammar system for centuries, and despite whether you agree or not with why or how people use it for themselves or others, it is not ‘wrong’. Non-binary people can and will be seen and supported linguistically.
By Meredith Persin
"Merriam-Webster's Words Of The Year 2019
". Merriam-Webster.Com, 2020, https://www.merriam-webster.com/words-at-play/word-of-the-year/they. Accessed Mar 2020.
Baron, Dennis E. What's Your Pronoun?. Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2020.
McCulloch, Gretchen. "A Linguist On The Story Of Gendered Pronouns - The Toast". The-Toast.Net, 2020, https://the-toast.net/2014/06/02/a-linguist-gendered-pronouns/. Accessed Mar 2020.
Noor, Poppy. "So Your Friend Came Out As Non-Binary: Here’s How To Use Pronouns They/Them". The Guardian, 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/jan/14/janelle-monae-non-binary-pronouns-they-them. Accessed Mar 2020.
Steinmetz, Katy. “This Is Why Singular ‘They’ Is Such a Controversial Subject.”
Time, 13 Dec. 2019, time.com/5748649/word-of-year-they-merriam-webster. Accessed Mar 2020.