But lately, some grammarians have focused their fervor over one particular bugaboo — the use, or alleged misuse, of the pronoun “they.” Their argument goes that “they” and “their” are always plural and must never refer to a single individual.
Elizabeth is running = she is running. Elizabeth and Bernie are running = they are running.
We know this less as an actual grammar rule than we do as a habit of natural speech, one that most of us absorb quickly by late toddlerhood. Eventually, we just follow it because it feels right. Eventually, much of life is learned through the osmosis of what feels right — patterns that become ingrained in our brains and hard to change.
The singular “they” has recently been causing consternation. An increasing number of individuals now publicly identify as non-binary, meaning that they don’t classify themselves as male or female. The singer Sam Smith came out earlier this year as non-binary; “Billions” star Asia Kate Dillon also identifies that way. And the pronoun that these and many other non-binary folks prefer to use is “they.”
When is Sam arriving? Oh, they’ll be here at 8.
Asia got a new dog, Lady Barkalot, and they are obsessed with her.
If the above sentences make you hyperventilate — well, you aren’t entirely alone. I once had coffee with a mother whose college-age child had recently come out as non-binary. The mom’s first concern, after her kid’s safety and how to tell the grandparents, was that she’d never get the hang of “they.” It was just too weird-sounding. Surely, she told me, her kid would forgive her for that.
For a subset of the crowd bothered by the singular “they,” this isn’t really a grammatical issue. I know this because when they write me, their correspondence is littered with misuses of “your” vs. “you’re,” and modifiers dangling off cliffs. And yet they want to tell me that using “they” for non-binary individuals somehow signifies the literal coming of the apocalypse.
For them, the grammar excuse seems to be a convenient fig leaf, and what it’s covering is these letter writers’ own prejudice.
Others, however, seem to experience genuine, acute pain at the concept of betraying the lessons of Mrs. Pemberlay from Roosevelt Middle School. The pull of long-ago English teachers is incredibly strong. And so is the pull of, “But this is how I learned it. But this is how I thought the world worked. This is how I thought things were organized, and now things are changing.”
Grammar isn’t much, but for some of its disciples, at least it’s a way to keep the world tidy. At least it’s a way to understand the rules. If the news is a mess, at least the commas can be right.
This week, Merriam-Webster dictionary announced that it was expanding the definition of “they” to specifically include usage for non-binary individuals. Editors released the news with a link to the new acceptable definition: “Used to refer to a single person whose gender identity is non-binary.”
In an accompanying article, the dictionary’s editors noted that the addition was not as “newfangled” as it seemed: “We have evidence in our files of the non-binary ‘they’ dating back to 1950, and it’s likely that there are earlier uses of the non-binary pronoun ‘they’ out there.”
No doubt, this etymological transition will still be difficult for some. No doubt, newcomers to the term will occasionally mess up and feel silly and vulnerable.
But I hope these folks can take comfort in the idea that their vulnerability in using unfamiliar terminology is nothing compared with the vulnerability of the other person, the “they” in question who is asking them to use it.
After all, they’re essentially asking how much you care about them. Do you care enough to learn something new? Do you care enough to allow life to feel a bit complicated?
We’re not really talking about grammar. We’re talking about the willingness for all of us to feel a little uncomfortable on our universal, bumbling quest toward compassion and humanity.
No doubt, some of you would still prefer to hear this from an English teacher.
So, I wrote to one: my dad.
He is — and he would never say this, but I will — not only an English teacher, but a highly esteemed one. He directs a university writing program. He is a former president of the National Council of Teachers of English, a 25,000-member organization comprised of instructors from elementary school through college.
My dad emailed me with a long, thoughtful commentary. He outlined the historical debate on whether dictionaries should be “prescriptive,” i.e. dictating the way things ought to be, or “descriptive,” i.e. merely documenting the way things are. He cited Samuel Johnson’s 1755 dictionary, and a great Webster’s dictionary battle from 1961.
He wrote about how language changes. How it’s always changed. How we’ve always changed. How we always will.
He also wrote, “I think the official recognition of singular they is a terrific thing. It’s great news for non-binary folks and, actually, everyone.”
Fellow lovers of language, and former English students, I hope that helps.
Monica Hesse is a columnist writing about gender and its impact on society. For more visit wapo.st/hesse.