Welcome to another installment of our “Defining” series, where we unpack various terms and identities. Do you have a word that needs defining? Let us know!
Pronouns are words used as substitutes for other nouns–words like “she,” “he,” or “they.” Basically, these words make it easier to have a conversation without constantly saying the name of the person we’re talking about. While “they/them” pronouns can be used to refer to groups, many people have begun using these pronouns for themselves in place of “he” or “she.” This use is commonly referred to as “singular they.”
When I talk to people about they/them pronouns, I get a lot of questions. Let’s look at the three most common questions I get asked:
Why would anyone use they/them pronouns? People use they/them pronouns for a number of different reasons, but we generally all have one thing in common: “he” or “she” pronouns simply don’t work for us. For people with non-binary genders who use they/them pronouns, it may not feel right to be referred to by pronouns associated with being a man or a woman. For people who are questioning their gender identity, they/them pronouns can help them figure things out by providing a space where they are not constantly reminded that everyone sees them as the gender they were assigned at birth. In short, people not only use they/them pronouns to say “this is who I know I am,” but also to say “this is who I know I am not.”
How do I use these pronouns in a sentence? This is a great one! The short answer is: They/them pronouns for a single, known person are used the same way as they are for a group of people. Here’s an example to show you how to use pronouns for different people:
Group of people: “They don’t want ketchup with their fries.”
“He” (singular): “He doesn’t want ketchup with his fries.”
“She” (singular): “She doesn’t want ketchup with her fries.”
“They” (singular): “They don’t want ketchup with their fries.”
What does it mean that my loved one uses they/them pronouns? Only they can tell you! People use they/them pronouns for so many different reasons. My best advice is to approach your loved one in private with an open heart. Ask what it is about they/them pronouns that makes them feel comfortable and validated, and be patient. There is no time limit for figuring out who we are!
• “Isn’t this just a fad?”Sometimes people say this as a way to say that they/them pronouns aren’t legitimate, like all language isn’t made up as it is (Hint: it is!). People find words that make them feel validated and relieve the stress of being constantly dismissed. Even if it is a “fad,” why is that not something worth celebrating? While I understand that it’s different using they/them pronouns for a single person instead of a group of people, the “singular they” has actually been a part of the English language for centuries. In fact, “singular they” was recognized as the 2015 Word of the Year by the American Dialect Society
• “Using they/them pronouns for a single person isn’t grammatically correct.” First of all, using they/them pronouns for a single person is grammatically correct; singular they/them pronouns have been used (correctly!) for centuries, whether we have consciously realized it or not. If you really pay attention to your daily language, I’m willing to bet you yourself refer to someone as “they” without thinking twice. Furthermore, even if the singular they hadn’t been used for centuries, the most important thing is to show others respect by using their pronouns. Language is always changing, and so is grammar! After all, we don’t say “thou” and “thee” in conversation anymore, do we?
• “But they dress like a boy/girl, so why would they not use ‘he’/’she’ pronouns?” If you read that without getting confused, congratulations! You’ve just seen the “singular they” in action. Back to the question: Someone’s gender expression (how they present their gender through clothes, haircuts, accessories, etc.) can be completely different from their gender identity (their internal sense of their own gender, or what they know their gender to be). Typically, we expect people to dress feminine if they feel feminine, or to dress masculine if they feel masculine, but that’s not the case for everyone. We wouldn’t think a woman wearing jeans and a flannel isn’t actually a woman because she’s not in a dress and heels, so why would we think “clothes = gender identity” for other people?
Kai River Blevins is a genderqueer/femme poet, community organizer, and graduate student from western New York who now lives in Salem, Oregon. When Kai isn’t doing homework or writing on their blog, Queer as Life, they love to read, color, cook delicious vegan food, and spend time with their loving partner and adorable fur-child, Sir Reginald, the Earl of Puppydom. Follow them on Twitter @queeraslife