‘They’ is coming: putting gender on the writing agenda


(*Or should that be ‘They are coming’?)

Professional writers, from copywriters to journalists to novelists, seek clarity, and consistent grammar is the girder beneath every sentence. Even avant-garde poets need to know the rules before breaking them. Style guides run into hardback volumes and entire wikis, and debates rage across the internet on points of ambiguity. We don’t like not having an answer.

Which makes the issue of gender-fluidity very interesting indeed. Transphobia and discrimination against non-binary individuals hinge on a fear of the unknown. Not being able to categorise people by gender and assign traits to them accordingly, many people cast doubt on the validity of a person’s gender identity. You only have to glance at the news to see how openly celebrities like Jeremy Clarkson and Germaine Greer write off trans people as “the punchline in a stag night anecdote” or “not real women” (in the case of trans women).

Perversely, perhaps one way to embrace gender fluidity is to nail something down. A pronoun for general use or shorthand. Gender-Neutral Pronoun has a fantastic guide to the vast range of pronouns preferred by different non-binary people, from zhe to vis, and ideally, yes, we would ask everyone their preference and remember it. But in the meantime, to even keep the conversation about genderqueer issues rolling, we need to work with the language we have, to promote inclusivity in manageable steps. 

That’s why it’s time to get over hangups about using ‘they’ to refer to a single person. Having conducted an unscientific straw poll of non-binary friends on social media, most seem to be in agreement that ‘they’/’their’ is acceptable, where the conversation is not steamrolling an interviewee or specific subject’s preferences. 

As many have pointed out, the singular ‘they’ has been accepted as correct in works by Shakespeare, Chaucer, Austen and Wilde, among others.

But there is still resistance. Part of this comes from a confusion about singular/plural disagreement (see the title of this post), but for my money, that’s a no-brainer. You write as feels right. Stick with “They are”/”They have” over “They is”/”They has” to avoid pirate-speak and keep the flow. English has so many exceptions, it can surely cope with one more.

There is also an issue of whether ‘they’ should be used only to talk about gender-neutral people, or whether we can realistically see it extending to all people, many of whom will resist ‘losing’ their gender on paper.

But the main difficulty I can see with the adoption of ‘they’ in this way is plain old resistance to change, and the fact that trans and genderqueer people are underrepresented in prominent roles, leaving their everyday problems marginalised and played down.

In a question to the Chicago Manual of Style, one correspondent swore they had seen the authority approve the use of ‘they’ as a singular pronoun. CMS replied:

“there was some regret at having written it, and we decided to abandon the idea for the fifteenth and sixteenth editions. Though some writers are comfortable with the occasional use of they as a singular pronoun, some are not, and it is better to do the necessary work to recast a sentence or, other options having been exhausted, use he or she.”

This raises two questions for me:

1. Who are these uncomfortable writers?

2. How many are non-binary?

In December, Mentalfloss reported that the Washington Post Style Guide now officially accepts ‘they’ as a gender-neutral pronoun. I sincerely hope they are the first of many.

As ever, I’d love to hear your thoughts on this subject.

For more on gender in copywriting, check out my post on How To Speak to Women.

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