The Grammatical Case for Them

Merriam Webster has declared ‘they’ to be the word of the year. I disagree with Merriam Webster on many things,* but Bravo (or Brava! or Brave!) on this.

As an English major and self-declared pedant, the singular use of ‘they’ used to feel like chewing on tinfoil. After all, we have singular and plural pronouns for a reason. ‘They’ is plural, and must only refer to more than one person … correct?

But pronouns in English, as well as in French, German, and other languages, do double duty. They don’t just refer to the number of individuals, they also convey respect, or conversely, familiarity. Take the second person. In French one calls children, family members, and close friends ‘tu/toi’, and everyone else ‘vous’. To do otherwise is deeply disrespectful, and this transgression even has a verb: ‘tutoyer’. In English we gave up singular ‘thee/thou’ centuries ago. We now treat everyone with equal respect, by using ‘you’.**

How well do you know them?

Every time you refer to a person as ‘she’ or ‘him’ you’re making a declaration that a) you know what’s beneath their petticoats and/or codpiece and b) you know their gender identity. That’s pretty personal information. It’s the sort of stuff you should only confidently be able to declare about your close friends and immediate family. You know, the ones you’d call ‘tu’ in French.

Now, I don’t mind being referred to as ‘she/her’. I’m used to it, and it accurately reflects my gender identity. (Whether it accurately reflects my sex is none of your business). But I can’t help but feel if you don’t know me, it’s only polite to refer to me as ‘they/them’, just as you’d politely address me as ‘you’.

Test case: even if you are 99.9% certain the Queen identifies as female, wouldn’t it be more respectful to refer to them as ‘Their Royal Majesty’? After all, TRM Queen Elizabeth refers to themself in the first person formal ‘We’.

Lately I have been making an effort to refer to everyone as ‘they’. This serves two purposes. It helps me avoid accidentally mis-gendering someone,*** and it trains my brain to get used to using ‘they/them’ in a singular sense. After around half a century of speaking English, it’s not easy to retrain my synapses, but you actually can teach an old dog new tricks.

If you hear me referring to you as ‘they/them’ when you’re used to being ‘her’ or ‘he’, don’t be offended. I’m merely according you the same respect I would the Queen.

* ‘Nuclear’ is not and should never be pronounced ‘nu-cu-lar’.
** BTW, we have an equivalent of the verb ‘tutoyer’: it’s ‘to thou’.
*** But wait, you say, aren’t you misgendering people who identify as ‘her’ or ‘he’ by labelling them non-binary? No. Because ‘they’ refers to groups of all genders.

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