It is usually possible, and preferable, to recast sentences as plural to avoid both the sexist and antiquated universal default to male pronouns and the awkward use of he or she, him or her and the like: All students must complete their homework, not Each student must complete his or her homework.
When such a rewrite is impossible or hopelessly awkward, however, what is known as “the singular they” is permissible: Everyone has their own opinion about the traditional grammar rule. The singular they is also useful in references to people who identify as neither male nor female.
Also, over three years ago in August 2012 when TIMP was just one month old, I was interviewed by prescient journalist Katie Toth for J-Source (the online magazine of The Canadian Journalism Project) about how the media should interface with and refer to non-binary, genderqueer or other folks who request gender-neutrality:
Lee Airton is the founder of gender-neutral pronoun blog, They Is My Pronoun, and a doctoral student at York University. Airton prefers to use the singular pronoun ‘they’. “My gender identity is very much queer, like it’s a very much in-between kind of thing,” they explained. “It would be very easy for people if people like me…said, ‘Yes, you can go ahead and call me ‘he.’ It’s a very different choice to say, ‘No, that also doesn’t feel good, I’m going to ask for you to work at it in the way that I work at being in this society.”
Airton is skeptical of writers’ insistence that ‘they’ poses a challenge for their readership: “I think it’s really interesting when writers presume a deficit in their audience.” At the same time, they said, using last names or descriptions of a person is a vastly better process than using a gendered pronoun that does not correspond with the source’s identity. “It’s a bit of a cop out…because [they] has to come into common usage.”
And now, more and more, this is happening. Onwards and upwards!
“I hear tons of talk about pronoun sensitivity, but what about a gender neutral word Mr. or Ms.? I work in a very formal environment, and so titles are a big thing.”
Thank you for asking, Anonymous!
I think that formal work environments are a major ‘frontier’ for gender-based language changes, particularly because formal authority structures are so wrapped up in the correct use of language and related protocols e.g., you can’t just revert to using someone’s first name when you don’t know their gender preference regarding formal titles (or honorifics, as they are sometimes called).
Many people have started to request Mx. to be used when they don’t feel like identifying either way in a titular sense, but I also am unaware of whether this is a verbal or just a written form of address. The UK city of Brighton has this year announced its intention to add Mx. as an option for those accessing city council benefits and services. Wikipedia tells me that Mx. is pronounced ‘mux’ or ‘mixter’ (??) but it’s clear we are a long way off from having something widespread and workable.
If this is a situation that affected you directly, i.e., you would prefer to be called something more they-ish than Ms. or Mr., I wish you the best of luck and can only say that your personal level of comfort at work (professionally and personally) will have to be weighed with your need for gender recognition. I am currently applying for tenure-track jobs, and I have been split down the middle on whether to ask my referees to write letters with ‘they’. Some have done wonderful backflips with language and written letters without any pronouns at all, even after I told them that I’m tending toward using a gendered pronoun and beginning the work when I get there in terms of educating my (fingers crossed) future colleagues. But this is entirely up to one’s field and one’s own preferences.
Thank you for your question, and please ask another anytime!