Q: Isn’t it grammatically incorrect to use ‘they’ to refer to one person?
A: This depends on what you mean by “grammatically correct.” Many English grammar rules were created for social reasons rather than linguistic ones. For instance, the idea that he should be the default (“generic”) pronoun instead of they or he or she can be attributed in part to the efforts of British lawmakers who openly advocated for the generic masculine pronoun based on men’s supposed superiority over women.*
In reality, language is always changing and with those changes come changes in people’s ideas about what is or isn’t grammatical. For instance, it was once ungrammatical for English speakers to use you (instead of thou) to refer to a single person, but social and linguistic shifts were dramatic enough that this rule now seems bizarre by modern standards (see Language matters for more on language change). Few people these days regard the use of who in place of whom as ungrammatical, except perhaps in the most formal contexts. Today’s ungrammatical speech is tomorrow’s completely ordinary language.
But singular they isn’t even new! It’s been in use by English speakers for centuries, including among some of its best crafters like Chaucer, Austen, Shakespeare, Carroll, Wilde, Fitzgerald, and Orwell. Usually it’s used in reference to non-specific persons (e.g. “Someone forgot their book”) or a person whose gender/identity isn’t terribly important (e.g. “Someone called from the bank but they said you don’t need to call them back.”) The only thing that’s new here is the consistent use of they for specific individuals.
Adopting a new form of language can feel ungrammatical at first, but remember that language change is an unstoppable force and that all changes start out as “wrong.”
The key question is whether you’d rather maintain arbitrary grammatical rules or show respect and support to those who feel excluded by the binary pronoun system.
Q: Is the rule against singular ‘they’ really arbitrary? Don’t we need to keep a clear distinction between singular and plural pronouns to avoid confusion?
A: We need to be able to clarify who we are talking about, but this doesn’t mean we need separate singular and plural pronouns. Languages vary enormously in what kinds of distinctions they make with pronouns. Some mark gender on every pronoun (e.g. Hebrew, with the the exception of the first person plural), while others have no gender marking on pronouns at all (like Finnish). Some distinguish between not only singular and plural pronouns, but between singular (1 person), dual (2 people) and plural (3+ people) — in fact, English used to do just this.
Today, by contrast, English no longer distinguishes between singular and plural in the second person at all: we can say you whether we are talking to one person or a hundred. Apparently we do okay with this ambiguity, in spite of any hand-wringing from previous generations about “kids today who don’t know the difference between thou art and you are!”
How do we manage? Well, pronouns are only one way to refer to people, and we have a whole array for resources at our disposal if we are ever uncertain who is being spoken of. If I say, “I was talking to Julio and Kim, and they said they couldn’t come to the party,” and you know that Kim uses they/them pronouns, you may not be sure whether I’m talking about Kim or both Kim and Julio. But nothing stops you from asking me, “Do you mean Kim can’t come or neither of them can?” Or I could just phrase my original statement in a way that makes my meaning clear, e.g. “I was talking to Julio and Kim, and they both said [or Kim said] they couldn’t come to the party.”
Keep in mind that we do this all the time because pronouns are inherently ambiguous. Especially when you talk about more than one person who uses the same pronoun, ambiguity is common. If I say, “I was talking to Jessica about Sara’s car and she said she doesn’t know why it broke down,” and we know both of these people use she/her/hers pronouns, I might not be sure which person you’re referring to. Luckily, this is an entirely normal part of language and people have no trouble seeking and providing clarification when it comes up.
Q: How realistic is it to think you can change the way people use pronouns?
A: It is absolutely possible for both individuals and people on the whole to change the way pronouns are used. Remember that trans folks go through this process, too, since few people are raised to use trans-friendly language. There are at least two factors that are good predictors of an individual’s success: first, the degree of motivation they have. Think about how this works in language learning — the more motivated someone is to learn a new language, the better they’re likely to do. This is part of why trans people tend to be very successful at correctly using each other’s pronouns. Another factor is exposure and frequency; if you only talk to and about cisgender women and men, it’s going to be harder to start using a new pronoun or to change the pronoun you use for someone. But if you incorporate trans people and issues into your life, you’ll improve your pronoun flexibility (see Part 2 for tips on how).
That said, there will always be people who find this kind of linguistic change easier than others, and some pronouns are clearly more familiar than others. (I was recently at a trans event where people were using singular they completely effortlessly, but when the conversation moved to someone who uses ze and hir, people started to mix up their subject and object pronouns and sometimes slipped by using they or them). But even if the change you experience isn’t perfect, you are still changing, and that suggests you can continue to change in the future.
Q: What’s going on with pronouns like ‘ze’ and ‘hir’?
A: Not everyone who opts out of the she/he binary wants to be referred to with singular they, so some people use other pronouns like ze/hir/hirs, ey/em/eirs (also called Spivak pronouns), or xe/xem/xyrs, among others. Some of these pronouns are new and others have been around for several decades. They are sometimes referred to as “invented pronouns” because they were created for the express purpose of offering an ungendered third person singular pronoun. Even though it can be more challenging to start incorporating these pronouns into your speech, the people who use them care about their pronouns as much as anyone else. For help learning to use new pronouns, see “How can I improve my pronoun accuracy?” in Part 2.
Q: Do I use the singular or plural form of the verb with singular ‘they’?
The default among people who use they/them/their(s) pronouns is to use the plural verb form: they are, they were, they do, etc. This is what people generally do with singular they in “Standard” English too. For example, “Someone called and said they were waiting for your email,” is more common than “they was waiting for your email.” I have known of a few trans people who like the singular verb forms: they is, they was, they does, all of whom make this clear when they give people their pronouns.
Caveat: This could work differently in dialects of English where “they was” is common, even when talking about multiple people (of which there are many).
Q: What about ‘themself’ versus ‘themselves’?
A: I have seen both in use, but have not encountered strong preferences one way or the other. I welcome input on this question from trans people who have an opinion. In the absence of objections, I believe it’s safe to use whichever option feels most natural to you. Of course, it’s always possible that specific trans people might express a desire for one over the other.
Q: What about “you guys”?
A: Even though many people think of you guys as a gender neutral phrase, it can still feel like being misgendered, particularly for trans folks who were assigned male at birth. This is a case where the speaker’s intention and the effect on the listener may not be the same. In recognition that language is action, allies can show support by using y’all, you all, you two, you both, you folks, or simply you. This phrase could be seen as the modern equivalent of the generic masculine pronoun, which was also claimed to be gender-neutral by its proponents.
Q: Will gender pronouns ever be comletely replaced by a gender-neutral alternative?
A: That’s not a question I can answer, but I can say two things. First, such a change would have to be part of a larger cultural change that reformulates how people think about gender. Second, when cultural change is happening it is completely possible for a change of this scale to take place. It would be far from the first time sociopolitical change influenced the trajectory of English grammar.
Q: Is it okay to refer to everyone as ‘they’?
A: Some language activists would like to see English do away with gender pronouns entirely, many of whom advocate for the use of they as the singular third person pronoun for everyone, regardless of what they want to be called. This is a fairly logical extension of historical usage and the way most English speakers already use singular they. From this perspective, referring to someone as they doesn’t imply anything about that person’s self-identified pronouns.
From another perspective that is more common among trans people, everyone deserves to be referred to with the correct pronouns, including those with binary identities. For trans people (or cis people) whose pronouns are she/her/hers or he/him/his, being called they may feel like being misgendered, even if they is intended to be gender-inclusive. People who take this perspective may use they for people whose gender is unknown, but will switch to binary pronouns once someone has identified their pronouns as she/her/hers or he/him/his.
Q: Why do people call them ‘she/her/hers pronouns’ instead of ‘female/feminine pronouns’ and ‘he/him/his pronouns’ instead of ‘male/masculine pronouns’?
Grammarians often attach a gender label to pronouns by designating them as female/male or feminine/masculine. This reinforces the idea that she should be used for women and he for men. But a lot of trans people use pronouns without necessarily identifying with the gender traditionally associated with them. For example, someone who is non-binary may go by she/her/hers pronouns without identifying as female, while a trans woman who is not yet out may use he/him/his pronouns despite not identifying as male.
Q: What can I do about titles like Ms. or Mr.?
A: Titles, like pronouns, are something to ask the person about. Some people use Mx. as a gender neutral option, which is pronounced like “mix” whenever I’ve heard it spoken (but other pronunciations may exist — let me know!)
Q: What’s wrong with the phrase “preferred pronoun”? What should I call them instead?
For a lot of trans people, the word preferred suggests that pronouns are simply a preference rather than a serious need. This is reflected by the fact that the word tends to be used in reference to trans people, but not cis people. When people ask about cis people’s pronouns, they might say things like “Is your professor a he or a she?” rather than “Does your professor prefer he or she?” Some trans people do use the word prefer, or the phrase preferred gender pronouns or PGP, but allies should err on the side of caution; instead of “(so-and-so’s) preferred pronouns,” just call them “(so-and-so’s) pronouns.”
*This history is documented in: Bodine, Ann. 1975. Androcentrism in prescriptive grammar: Singular “they”, sex-indefinite “he”, and “he or she.” Language in Society 4(2). 129–146.