Why focus on singular they?

There are many gender-neutral pronouns, and people continue to develop new ones all the time. So why is singular they the focus of a blog on practical usage and user support?

First, from a non-scientific and non-random sample, it seems as if they is gaining ground and acceptance as the most popular and recognizable gender-neutral pronoun.

Second, although ‘they’ and its derivatives (their, they’re, theirs and them) are ordinary and familiar English words (unlike zie and hir, for example), users often receive comments from others who maintain that singular they is grammatically incorrect. In my view, the root of many peoples’ struggles with gender-neutral pronouns might not be grammar, but discomfort with difference. To claim that grammar is the obstacle is to avoid having to say that we are uncomfortable. A grammatical argument sounds reasonable. TIMP exists to ignite a different conversation about singular they: not whether it’s correct or not, but how to put it into practice and make peoples’ lives nicer.

Zie/hir etc. are unfamiliar words in English, and although they can become more familiar over time, they do not demonstrate this conflict in the same way that they, a familiar word, does.

TIMP recognizes that other gender-neutral pronouns are valid and wonderful, and that many of the practical suggestions on TIMP (like when to ask someone’s preference, etc.) are applicable to all alternative pronouns in English.

6 comments

    1. Thanks for your comment, Graham. I agree and I do the same. I think it is far less jarring and that is one advantage of singular they in the first place.

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  1. So do I call everyone they, or do I have to brace for a harangue for the rest of my life as people correct my every usage, often with political motivations. Why do we need to treat people differently at all. In the feminist period the idea was to treat people as the same, even saying that there could be differences was a thought crime. Now this. Why do I have to work out a whole deal before I can open my mouth. Is this thing gender blind or gender complex.

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  2. To play devil’s advocate, there is a big reason why singular they is jarring and makes grammarians uncomfortable. It dispenses with the distinction between singular and plural and leaves ambiguity! The _entire function_ of pronouns is to reduce ambiguity (not to mark personal identity) in sentence construction. _Which_ person are you referring to? Oh, _that_ person or _those_ persons.

    English already has a third person singular gender-neutral pronoun. “It.” But, no one wants to use that, because it has stigma. We call animals and babies “it.” It’s dehumanizing and othering, so I understand why nobody wants to use it. But it’s a far more logical place to start, because it doesn’t create the same ambiguity that “they” does.

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    1. I want to add something to my own comment that I forgot to add.

      This may be a uniquely English version of this problem. In English, “it” is used for objects and objects are genderless. But in French, there is no word for “it.” Objects are all either “him” or “her” depending on whether they are masculine or feminine. All objects have gender in French! German has a word for “it,” “es,” because German has three grammatical genders, masculine, feminine, and neuter. Some objects are “er,” some are “sie,” and some are “es.” I’d be curious to know how German speakers feel about gender-neutral third person singular pronouns.

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    2. No, the function of pronouns is to *replace noun phrases*! Hence “pro-noun”. Ambiguity has nothing to do with it. When you’re talking about two men, “he” doesn’t distinguish between them, because that was never its job.

      It’s a moot point, anyway: “you” is in the same place of being both singular and plural, and it’s a total non-issue. The nice thing about language is people automatically chuck enough redundancy into their sentences to convey what they want clearly; thus you get constructs like “you all” or “you folks” or “all of them” or “the two of them” or whatever.

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