The long, long history — and bright future — of the genderless ‘they’
In 2013, Jo Herrera, then a student at the University of Missouri, became the first transgender candidate for the school’s Homecoming Court. When the university’s award-winning paper reported on the campaign, Herrera made history a second time — as the first person described in The Missourian as preferring the personal pronoun “they.” “While [the article] was going through editing, the person who oversees education reporting called me, and we had talked through the ‘they/them’ pronoun situation,” says Herrera, now an audience engagement specialist at Public Radio International. “She had never heard of it, and it seemed to me that they hadn’t covered anyone who had used ‘they/them’ specifically.” Herrera, who later worked for The Missourian as a reporter, laughs and says, “Anyway, that’s how I met the editors.”
Things have changed since 2013. As trans and nonbinary people have gained more public visibility, so has the singular “they.” The Washington Post sanctioned its use in 2015, the same year that the singular “they” was voted the Word of the Year by the American Dialect Society. In 2017, the Associated Press Stylebook and the Chicago Manual of Style, the guiding lights for almost all published writing in America today, both allowed the use of the singular “they” for individuals who, like Herrera, do not use the pronouns “he” or “she” to identify themselves. Jennifer Lopez has been lauded in the checkout-stand glossies for using the singular “they” to refer to her sister’s child in an Instagram post. More and more college campuses ask students and faculty to share the pronouns they want to be identified by — “he,” “she,” “they,” or something else entirely.
This has, unsurprisingly, spurred a backlash. Sure, new words come into our language, but when people think the old ones are getting messed with, they see a cultural and grammatical decline. A recent Wall Street Journal opinion piece, entitled “The Transgender Language War,” even declared that, for “those with a religious conviction that sex is both biological and binary, God’s purposeful creation,” the singular “they” is a “sacrilege no less than bowing to idols in the town square.”
But whether social conservatives like a term, or newsroom copydesks permit its use, matters far less to linguists than whether people use it with ease in everyday conversation. For the average person, using a gender-neutral term such “firefighter” requires no more mental gymnastics than saying “fireman.” Yet the pronouns we use in English seem more deeply embedded in the structure of our language than these more specific occupational terms. But as fixed as our pronouns seem to be, many English speakers have felt that they don’t quite work for everyone. Unlike some languages, like Cantonese and Finnish, the English singular third-person pronouns have grammatical gender; when you want to talk about someone , different pronouns are available to indicate that person’s gender. “He” and “she” seem straightforward; “it” applies primarily to inanimate objects and sometimes animals. So what do we use when we might want to refer to any person regardless of gender? Or, as seems to be the modern case, a person who is neither “he” nor “she”?
“Nature abhors a vacuum,” says Dennis Baron, a professor of English and linguistics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, “so let’s fill it with something.” English speakers have tried to fill the pronoun gap with invented and genderless alternatives to “he” and “she.” In the course of researching the history of pronouns for his forthcoming book, Baron has gleaned 250 proposed pronouns going back as far as the late 1700s, including “hiser” (ca. 1850), “thon” (1858), “ze” (1888), “hir” (1930), and “ve” (1970).
But the abundance of invented pronouns catalogued by Baron raises an important if nagging question: If there’s such a need for them, why haven’t we adopted any of them? The answer may lie in one four-letter word that has been proclaimed to both be a shining light of lexical flexibility and a harbinger of grammatical doom: the singular “they.” In all its uses, it is centuries older and more established than most people realize.
* * *
There are two intertwined singular “they”s in use. The first is what linguists call the epicene “they” — the “they” we use when the gender of the referent isn’t known or relevant to the sentence at hand: “Everyone should bring their own notebook to school.” The second is the use of “they” as a personal pronoun by people whose identity is neither male nor female. Critics malign both of these “they”s as recent inventions, but neither of them is.
The epicene “they” is more familiar to people, and no wonder: It has been in consistent use in English prose since the late 1300s, even as grammarians and language writers rail against it as ungrammatical and sloppy. The written record bears this out: The epicene “they” has been used by Chaucer, Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, George Bernard Shaw, and dozens of other writers who are both grammatical and precise. In speech, epicene “they” is so common that linguists groan whenever someone takes up arms against it again. All the major American dictionaries (including the one where I worked for 20 years) enter this particular use of “they” and defend it in their usage notes as entirely, blandly normal.
Yet even though English speakers have deployed the epicene “they” for the better part of a millennium, self-appointed grammarians began stigmatizing this usage in the 1700s. And when “they” was prohibited, it left an epicene-shaped hole in the language, and invented pronoun mania — “thon,” “ze,” and more — swept the English-speaking world.
It’s easy to think that the creation of new and alternative pronouns in the 19th century was just lexical backfilling, but that’s an oversimplification. Baron notes that one of the arguments made by 18th- and 19th-century suffragists was that the courts should take a more expansive and inclusive view of the pronoun “he” in laws and amendments. They used the grammar of the day against itself: If “he” were truly a gender-neutral pronoun that referred generally to any person, as many said, then why is it only read as such in laws or statutes that are somehow punitive, like tax or criminal statutes, and not also in laws or statutes that grant rights like voting? Pronouns were political and were wrapped up in what Baron calls “the evolving thinking of gender.”
Complex views of gender go back further than many people think. Many indigenous and non-Western cultures have long had a gender category for those who don’t identify as either male or female, but there’s been an in-between even in the heteronormative West. There’s a 17th-century literature about “hermaphrodites,” many of whom we would today describe as trans or nonbinary — people whose gender is different from the one they were assigned at birth. The pronouns given to these so-called hermaphrodites varied. Medical texts, thinking of them as a blend of two genders, called individuals “them.” Legal and general texts often assigned the person the pronoun that best matched their outward gender expression, but in cases where that wasn’t clear, they were called “it.” “It” shocks today, but there are even less humane alternatives on the record. One legal text from 1787 discusses a well-known court case involving an individual called “Betty John” for their mixed-gender appearance; the author introduces Betty John as “the animal.”
* * *
Flexibility on matters of gender makes some people uncomfortable, and grammatical purity becomes a scapegoat upon which the sins of the singular “they” are heaped. But grammar is subject to change. The nonbinary “they” isn’t even the first pronoun shift that English has gone through: During the 17th century, ”you” underwent a similar change that has also been attributed to the politics of respect.
Lal Zimman, a sociocultural linguist and professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, who focuses on trans and nonbinary linguistics, writes that prior to the 17th century, English had a familiar second-person pronoun that also happened to be singular (“thee/thou”), and a more formal second-person pronoun that also happened to be plural (“ye/you”). During the 17th century, a number of factors disrupted the status quo for pronouns. A rising lower class mimicked the language used by the elite ruling class — who, in a mirror of what we think of as the “royal ‘we,’ ” preferred “ye” and “you”). A counter-movement, bound up with the rise of Puritan and Quaker egalitarianism, claimed the banner of “plain language” and stuck with the unpretentious informal singular “thee.”
In the end, upward mobility proved more popular than Quakerism, and the formal plural pronoun “you” replaced all forms of the second-person pronoun. Is it possible that we’ll eventually see the elimination of “he,” “she,” and “it” in favor of “they”? The royal “you” began with the tiny ruling class of 17th-century Britain —
a much smaller population than the number of trans and nonbinary people in the English-speaking world today.
Linguists are lousy clairvoyants, but one thing is clear: “We can’t always find simple one-to-one connections between changes in linguistic structure and cultural change,” writes Zimman, “but linguistic change always happens in a social context where the older forms have one set of meanings and the newer forms have another.” He concludes, “Pronouns have always been political, and that’s not going to change.”
But even trans and nonbinary activists recognize that some of the invented pronouns face a nonpolitical hurdle to acceptance: They just aren’t that familiar to people. Willy Wilkinson is the author of “Born on the Edge of Race and Gender: A Voice for Cultural Competency” and has been an educator and activist in the trans movement in San Francisco for decades. “Back in the ’90s, the language was different,” he says. The default gender-neutral pronoun in his community at the time was not the singular “they,” but “ze.” “But possession was weird,” he continued. “It was ‘hir,’ pronounced like ‘here,’ or ‘zir’— ‘Ze walked into the room, is that hir bottle, or zir bottle?’ It was awkward. It was about asking people to navigate a secret language that most people didn’t understand.”
Wilkinson’s experience is that more people are using the singular “they” because it’s familiar to people, and creates less of a barrier for communication. Herrera agrees. “I didn’t feel comfortable using some of the pronouns created over time — to me, it felt overly complicated.”
To linguists, language changes over time, subject to any number of social, political, and geographic factors. Trans and nonbinary people who use alternate pronouns see the absurdity of expecting every part of the language to remain fixed. Keshy Jeong, an animator and a worker-owner of the Los Angeles Worm Farm Collective who uses “they,” scoffs at the singular “they” naysayers. “Those people probably read Shakespeare in school, but they aren’t arguing ‘Why don’t we talk like Shakespeare anymore’? Because things change. It’s 2018.” Baron puts it succinctly: “The battle against singular ‘they’ is over.”
And whatever the fate of coinages such as “ze,” singular “they” will keep doing what it’s been doing at least since the 1700s: showing courtesy toward other people on their own terms. “The language will follow the culture of respecting people,” says Jeong, “and vice versa.”
Kory Stamper is a lexicographer and the author of “Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries.”