An explanation of they/them as a singular pronoun.
Yesterday I was riding my bicycle when a car turning left out of a side-street nearly ran straight into me. I don’t know what the driver was doing, maybe they were distracted or something, or I was in their blind spot, but clearly they didn’t see me. If I hadn’t slammed my brakes on, I would have ploughed into them for sure.
Wondering why I’ve begun with this seemingly irrelevant story when I’m supposed to be writing about pronouns? Read it again, looking closely at the use of they, their and them.
If there’s one question I get all the time when I tell people my pronouns, it’s ‘But isn’t ‘they’ plural?’. As an English teacher, I can emphatically say that the use of they/them/theirs in the singular as a non-gender specific pronoun is not only grammatically correct, but fairly common in everyday speech.
Think about it. Chances are, without realising it, you’ve used they/them as a pronoun for someone before in a situation where you haven’t known the gender of the person you’re speaking about.
GRAPHIC: “Who's calling you?” “I'm not sure. Their number's on private.”
What is a pronoun, anyway?
If you weren't a big fan of grammar when you were in school, you may be asking yourself what a pronoun actually is. A pronoun is a common part of grammar, where a word will be used in place of a noun (object word). The English language consists of subject pronouns (I, you, he, she, it, we, you, they), object pronouns (me, you, him, her, it, us, you, them) and possesive pronouns (mine, yours, his, hers, its, ours, yours, theirs).
In English, pronouns are often tied to gender expression and/or gender identity. Some people who identify as non-binary may like to use they/them pronouns.
BuT how WILL I know who you're talking about?
A question that people ask is “But how do I know if you’re referring to one person or two?”. The answer to this is really simple, as it’s something that we already do everyday, because the pronoun you can also be either singular or plural.
Instead of “Are you coming to dinner?”, you could ask a friend “Are you both coming to dinner?”, to make sure that your friend knows their partner is invited, too.
You could tell your coworker “They’re all running late today” instead of “They’re running late today”, to clarify that you are talking about more than one person.
We are already used to using pronouns in both singular and plural forms. And yet for some reason people feel the need to challenge the use of they as a singular pronoun. Maybe they’ve never noticed people use it in the singular before. Perhaps they themselves tend to use "he or she". Or maybe, there’s something driving that resistance that warrants a closer inspection.
What's driving you to question someone's pronouns?
As somebody who uses they/them pronouns, the way in which people question their use is uncomfortable.
Of course, I can empathise with their resistance. We’ve grown up in a binary world where everyone was assigned the label of ‘he’ or ‘she’, so I understand that it can take some getting used to.
When you’ve never met someone who’s gender diverse, the prospect of someone identifying as non-binary and using they/them pronouns can shake the very foundation of your world view.
As humans, when this happens we have a tendency to resist. So perhaps what’s driving the question of ‘Isn’t they plural?’ isn’t actually their concern with grammatical accuracy.
Asking helps us learn and grow our understanding. Here at Let’s Talk About X, we invite those uncomfortable questions, the ones that prompt frank discussions. It’s only through asking these questions that we can achieve meaningful change.
Teaching others about identities like mine is my job, and to do that well, when faced with a question like this, I have to put my own discomfort aside. But I also want to explain why you shouldn’t question the grammar of ‘they/them’ when someone else tells you their pronouns.
Challenging someone's Pronouns = Challenging someone's identity.
When I tell someone my pronouns and they respond with, “But isn’t ‘they’ plural?”, it feels like they're challenging my identity. When you ask this of the person who has come out to you, you might be talking about grammar, but it’s highly likely that what they’re hearing is that you don’t accept them for who they are.
Hypothetically, let’s say you were actually right about the grammar, and they/them were only used in the plural. What would the implication of your question actually be?
To insinuate that a person shouldn’t use those pronouns because they’re not grammatically correct? To reject a person’s identity because you’re not comfortable with the language?
Language is a tool for communication. It grows and changes based on our needs. The meanings of words can change. So even if you were right about the use of they/them/theirs, my suggestion would be to adapt, rather than resist.
It’s good to question things, but we need to be careful not to direct our questions towards those who already feel persecuted.
For someone who is gender diverse, sharing your pronouns is scary enough, without also having to defend them.
The non-binary person in your life is not the one responsible for educating you on all things related to their existence. Chances are, they’ve got enough to deal with.
Questions are good, but do your own research, save them for those with the space to answer, or seek out education services like ours.
Mel uses they/them pronouns. Eleonora's pronouns are she/they.