They Isn’t a ‘Correct’ Singular Pronoun

Myth-busting Monday:  They isn’t a ‘correct’ singular pronoun.

 

This is false.

 

Historically, they was a singular pronoun, going back in the English language to the 14th century1, possibly before.  And this is, of course, a narrow cultural consideration – English and euro-centric.  Variations of singular they are used in other languages as well2,3.  Further, the concept of binary genders (he, she) is a cultural construct that is related to colonialism4 – many cultures from around the world had ways of discussing and labeling gender beyond these two options.

 

With a focus on English speaking and American context within which I live, singular they is currently used as a gender identifier for a number of reasons:  when gender is irrelevant to a discussion, to be inclusive of all genders, to avoid assuming anyone’s gender identification, to normalize they as a pronoun, and as a non-binary identity. And as we make gender identifiers explicit, people can and do combine gender identifiers5,6, such as he/they and they/she.

 

Whatever identifiers someone uses and requests, these are valid and authentic, regardless of social understanding or historical use of the identifiers. Self-discovery has its own time line, people may change or adapt new identifiers as they continue on their own journeys.  Further, folks may or may not feel safe offering up their reasons for their identifiers.  Trust that they person has an understanding of themselves that they don’t owe you, respect their pronouns, and move on.

 

How do you incorporate singular they into your language?  Do you notice how we so often gender people and objects as a culture without asking? (like the cashier at the register, offering your child a sticker, you might ask your child, “Can you say thank you to her?” – but did you ever ask the cashier their identity?). 

 

Keep up the good work, sexuality warriors and game changers.  We are in the long game – changing language, cultural concepts, and busting myths one Monday, one myth at a time.

 

References (please note that these articles are meant as examples of a discussion point, please do explore these concepts beyond the articles listed below)

  1. https://public.oed.com/blog/a-brief-history-of-singular-they/
  2. https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2019/12/15/guide-how-gender-neutral-language-is-developing-around-world/
  3. https://www.babbel.com/en/magazine/gender-neutral-pronouns
  4. https://arts.ucalgary.ca/news/english-professor-takes-notions-gender-binary-colonialism-and-patriarchy#:~:text=Many%20Indigenous%20societies%20have%20a,been%20sexualized%2C%20raped%20and%20exploited.
  5. https://twitter.com/mspowahs/status/1192192265898336257?lang=en
  6. https://hbr.org/2021/06/my-pronouns-are-she-they-what-are-yours

 

Additional works to consider:  MJ Barker’s Life Isn’t Binary as well as their work on the GSRD model here: https://www.bacp.co.uk/media/5877/bacp-gender-sexual-relationship-diversity-gpacp001-april19.pdf

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Written by Dr. Allison Mitch (she/her/they), wellness practitioner working to awaken and re-center joy and pleasure through Ignite Well-being. PT (DPT), CHEK practitioner, RYT500, sexuality counselor and educator; copyright protected, please cite accordingly.

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