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Change in gender norms brings a pronoun revolution

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Corey Prachniak-Rincón self-identifies as genderqueer because “male” just doesn’t seem sufficient. Born male and married to a man, Prachniak-Rincón has had various styles over the years — sometimes wearing longer hair and a more feminine look — and a few years ago dropped the masculine pronouns for the more ambiguous, if plural, “they/them/theirs.”

Still, they aren’t attached to “they.” They would adopt another pronoun if one came along. They understand that “they” is difficult.

And if you’re having trouble reading this story right now, they sympathize.

“It can be grammatically awkward for people who aren’t used to practicing this,” Prachniak-Rincón acknowledged. “It’s a change in grammatical structure as well as a change in norms, how they’re conceptualizing gender.”

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Rapidly changing gender norms, resisted by many traditionalists, are prompting changes to the language that can be jarring to almost everybody at first. Words like “them” used to be scolded out of speech when used to refer to a singular, identifiable person or object. Now, they’re being put to work as benign stand-ins for individuals whose gender identities are not that easily described.

Some gender-nonconforming individuals fully embrace the pronoun “they.” Others who reject the strict confines of traditional gender roles use it by default.

“If there were some new, popular nonbinary form to emerge, I would probably jump on the bandwagon for the sake of simplicity and camaraderie,” said Prachniak-Rincón.

Alternatives have been nominated for consideration. Consider “ze,” a gender-neutral pronoun that has been eagerly proposed but rarely heard in conversation. Ze becomes “hir” in the objective – as in, “listen to hir” – and “hirs” in the possessive. It also pairs with the alternative “zir” and “zirs.”

Ze has been used at Wesleyan University for over a decade, and each semester Harvard students fill out a registration form that lets them pick a pronoun from a list including “ze,” “e,” and “they.”

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Though many proposed pronouns haven’t caught on, what has become increasingly common is the practice of choosing – and declaring – one’s preferred pronouns.

Some literally wear their pronouns on their sleeve: High school students lobbying for comprehensive sex education on Beacon Hill last month wore nametags that spelled everything out. (“Emma, she/her/hers.”)

Pronoun declarers are not all gender-nonconforming people who want to clarify assumptions, though. Many are cisgender (the opposite of transgender), heterosexual allies who are trying to nudge people past the long-held assumptions that there are only two genders and one “normal.”

Even state bureaucrats are now being asked to do the same. The Massachusetts Commission on LGBTQ Youth, for which Prachniak-Rincón serves as director, issued guidance in December urging state agencies to encourage their employees to share their pronouns on business cards, e-mail signatures, and in meetings.

“It helps people to have better relationships with their co-workers and clients when you’re not making assumptions,” said Prachniak-Rincón. “People feel really guilty when they make an error. This gives them the tools so they don’t have to apologize after the fact.”

The independent agency can’t order state employees to buy in, and Governor Charlie Baker’s administration has not pressed the issue. But some offices of state government are now offering a third gender option for those who feel they don’t authentically fit either of the traditional choices, male or female.

The Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education was one of the first in the nation to offer students the option of being identified as “non-binary” in the 2016-17 school year. And a new computer system at the Registry of Motor Vehicles could allow motorists to choose a “non-binary” gender option, though not immediately; that feature will be phased in after the system is fully implemented, said MassDOT spokeswoman Jacquelyn Goddard.

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The trend is spreading. Vermont’s Department of Motor Vehicles is introducing a nonbinary gender option, and Washington State began offering a “Gender X” on birth certificates. New York City schools last year required teachers to use students’ pronouns of choice. And Facebook began offering users a selection of more than 50 gender options, including gender fluid, gender variant, a-gender and bi-gender. (For those stupefied by the number, which has grown over time, note that many of the terms are redundant.)

Such developments are met by howls of protest from many corners of society. “How crazy is it?” the Traditional Values Coalition, which lobbies Congress for Bible-based values, mused in a 2016 fund-raising e-mail. “New York state makes allowances for 31 different varieties of genders. Not ice cream — genders.”

But there are traditionalists in language, too, and many are more troubled by changing grammar norms than changing gender mores. Grammarians tend to resist new usage that upends customs — like the traditional use of plural and singular forms.

“Each person’s language is their means of interacting with their world in so many ways,” said Emily Brewster, an associate editor for Merriam-Webster, the dictionary publisher based in Springfield. “We all have a lot at stake personally in our language. It’s perfectly reasonable people feel proprietary over it.”

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Around this time two years ago, “they” broke through when it was named Word of the Year for 2015 by the American Dialect Society. Its use as a singular, gender-neutral pronoun has been accepted by The New York Times and the Washington Post (though not the Boston Globe), and Merriam-Webster has only considered it a “word we’re watching” since 2016.

Lexicographers like Brewster track word usage across society, logging citations in print and social media and monitoring popular understanding.

To win inclusion in the dictionary, the singular “they” has to show up with some regularity in writers’ published copy. That indicates that editors have come to trust that readers are familiar enough with the usage to let it pass.

“Readers are expected to encounter it and move through it unflinchingly,” Brewster said.

Its usage in the singular is also not as new as it seems, Brewster noted. The singular “they” appears in the 1611 version of the King James Bible; in Chaucer; in Shakespeare’s poem “The Rape of Lucrece.”

And it has been abused in casual speech, from time immemorial. (Think: “Someone left their coat here.”)

The application of the word to describe a single, specific person, with a seemingly identifiable gender, is what’s new for many. Brewster noted that language adapts and it’s particularly flexible with pronouns.

In fact, the singular “you” made the same conversion that the singular “they” is aiming for today, she noted. But that usage has been appearing since the 13th century, so it now seems perfectly normal to us.

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Such precedents make Brewster think that society will have an easier time accommodating “them” than the all-new “zir.”

“ ‘They,’ I think, will be easiest for all of us to adopt it if we think about it a little bit less,” said Brewster.

But it’s not easy for a lot of people, acknowledged Jeff Perrotti, a onetime English teacher who now serves as director of the Massachusetts Safe Schools Program for LGBTQ Students. Some people get so tangled up in their pronouns that they stumble into doubly awkward phrases like, “give it to they,” he said.

“You don’t have to forget everything that you learned about grammar,” Perrotti said. “The object form still works. It’s not like this slippery slope.”

Brewster increased her own comfort with the singular “they” by swapping it into readings of her children’s picture books. (She also noted along the way how frequently writers default to masculine pronouns for animal characters that are unnamed and gender-unspecified.)

“It sounds really strange and it will probably, for everyone who’s an adult now, for the rest of their lives,” said Brewster. “And for later generations, it won’t be strange at all.”


Stephanie Ebbert can be reached at Stephanie.Ebbert @globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @StephanieEbbert.