This year, the American Dialect Society made news by announcing that the singular "they" was their word of the year, and now The Comma Queen over at The New Yorker has a video discussing that decision. Like many people, she's all for it. But as the language expert points out, "they" isn't the only gender-neutral way to refer to someone.
The American Dialect Society's decision to highlight the word "they" as it is used to refer to a single person very specifically acknowledges and highlights the way the term is used as a preferred pronoun for many transgender or and gender nonconforming people. But it also isn't a new phenomenon in the English language. "The use of singular 'they' builds on centuries of usage, appearing in the work of writers such as Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Jane Austen," the society wrote of the decision. "In 2015, singular "they" was embraced by the Washington Post style guide. Bill Walsh, copyeditor for the Post, described it as 'the only sensible solution to English’s lack of a gender-neutral third-person singular personal pronoun.'”
In other words, despite there being a lot of people who are resistant to the idea of changing English to be more accommodating of people whose identities don't always match up with our language's strict gender pronouns, in fact, it's not such a big shift. And it's also great to see people who are in the grammar business embracing new and inclusive adaptations in English.
Here's what the Comma Queen, also known as Mary Norris, has to say about the subject:
1. Singular "They" Can Be Useful For A Lot Of People
These are people whose identities may be, but are not limited to, transgender, agender, pangender, genderqueer, or gender fluid.
2. There Are Still Usage Questions To Be Worked Out
For instance, when referring to a person with a singular "they," would you also use a singular verb, such as "is" instead of "are"? These sorts of questions are still being explored, and as Comma Queen points out, a lot of it will depend on context.
3. The Singular "They" Isn't The Only Possible Gender Neutral Pronoun
The most popular, she explains, is "zie," which is derived from the German pronoun "sie." And she even provides the helpful chart pictured above to explain the various "zie" pronouns and where they would be used.
4. Call People What They Want to Be Called
As she mentioned, a lot of these rules of usage are still being worked out, but in the meantime, it still really isn't as complicated as you'd think. Call people what they want you to call them.
Watch the full video below:
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Images: The New Yorker/YouTube (4)