The Singular “They” Is Grammatically Correct, Dammit

Hello!

I just read your identity pronoun piece on Medium and I would like to converse with you about a few questions I have.

My child is currently identifying as non-binary. My only issue is from a grammar stand point. I struggle with referring to an individual in a plural way due to years of grammar education. I truly feel that I (and possibly others) may catch on quicker if it didn’t seem like we were being incorrect with the grammar by being correct in addressing the person.

I truly ask this with an open heart and mind. Do you think due to the creation of the subset — or acknowledgement as it were- that it may be easier for those outside the set to be mindful and those in the set to become recognized?

I look forward to your commentary.

Regards,
Renee’


This is a real email that I received, though I did edit it to be shorter. 

Here is my reply.


Hi Renee’,

I hear ya with the kind intention of this question. You’re not alone in asking it — many, many people do not like the use of the “singular they” as a nonbinary pronoun.

Here are a few resources for you.

Other options for third person pronouns:

Many transgender, gender non-confirming (GNC), and nonbinary folks in the US have been using pronouns aside from he or she for decades. Ze, hir, zir, xie, ey, and per are just a few that some of my community has used over the years. Here is a table of many of the different third-person gender pronouns used in English.

In GNC communities, people choose which pronoun they feel best fits them and resonates for them. The use of the singular they was always one of many, but it is only recently that it has become widely accepted in the mainstream English speaking / US environment.

Why singular they is okay:

Singular they was declared the word of the year by the American Dialect Society in 2015.

It has been in consistent use as a third person singular pronoun since the 1300s. Shakespeare, Chaucer, and Emily Dickinson all use it in their work. The wikipedia entry on it breaks it down quite well. Here is another longer history of the usage of the singular they.

Whether or not you realize it, most people already use the singular they. It is just used more generically, rather than individually. Teen Vogue has a good write-up of the common questions asked about nonbinary pronouns.

Because singular they has been used for so long, it is generally the easiest third person nonbinary pronoun for people to grasp.

Which do you think is easier to say?

  • they went to the store
  • ze went to the store
  • pe went to the store

On changing language:

I get that it’s hard to change the use of something that has always been one way. But language changes all the time. Here’s a list of TED talks that discuss how language is fluid and changes.

Language is solidified by those in power. Those who have been in power have been (are) cisgender people. But language is more of a living thing that both reflects and shapes cultural norms. Changing the language changes the oppression of marginalized people.

Using singular ‘they’ also helps with another major feminist linguistic issue: the way we default to using he/him pronouns as general examples in English. Using they/them solves that problem, and is much less awkward than using “s/he” or “she or he,” and challenges the use of maleness as the norm.

Here are two books for you:

A Quick & Easy Guide to
They/Them Pronouns
The Gender Book


Perhaps this part is the most important:

It takes uncomfortable change to be inclusive and supportive of marginalized people.

Yes, it can be uncomfortable to use the singular they. Yes, it means you will probably mess up as you are getting used to it, and perhaps hurt some people’s feelings, and perhaps have to apologize and learn and do better, and that is uncomfortable. But it is essential to try in order to make a world that can be more welcoming, inclusive, and celebratory of marginalized and oppressed folks.

This is a very clear, very concrete way that nonbinary people are asking to be supportive. Please do it.

Last, but not least:

Please consider doing your own Google research before asking nonbinary people, such as myself, to do research and explain things to you. This has taken an hour of my time that I could be otherwise working for money, being with my friends, or creating my own art.

I decided to do this for you because I am going to use this as my next article and make it public. But next time, please use Google — or a librarian, whose job it is to help you find information! — and educate yourself. There are thousands and thousands of articles, videos, and offerings online that already explain the things you’re asking me.

Things you could Google for additional research:

  • how to use the singular they
  • why use singular they
  • history of singular they
  • is singular they grammatically correct
  • how to be supportive of nonbinary people
  • alternative third person pronouns
  • use of singular they in literature
  • changing language over time

Asking nonbinary people to do work to educate cis people is a form of emotional labor that costs us time, effort, and energy. It is incredibly common for nonbinary people to be asked to educate cis people, and it is exhausting.

Next time you ask for labor like this, at least offer to compensate. I do coach people on gender, sexuality, and relationship issues, and I would be happy to consider coach you further. Contact me if you wish to pursue that.

In conclusion: 

If you agree with me, great. Please share this.

Perhaps you do not agree with me, and you’re one of those people who only uses “cool” to describe temperature. But if you insist on prioritizing grammar rules above honoring nonbinary people, I insist on thinking you’re a jerk.

Sincerely,
Sinclair

Pronouns: they/them

PS: If you appreciate the time I put into this article, please consider supporting me on Patreon or making a PayPal donation to my email address, [email protected]

Dear (Cis) People Who Put Your Pronouns On Your “Hello My Name Is” Name Tag

Dear cis people who put your pronouns on your “hello my name is” name tags:

Thank you.

When you do that, I feel more comfortable putting my pronouns — they/them. I feel more comfortable being visibly out as nonbinary. I feel more comfortable asking people to use the pronouns that feel most like me, that make me feel most seen and whole, instead of just resolving to be mis-gendered and mis-represented and whatever who cares anyway.

(Maybe I do, somewhere, a little.)

When we’re doing the socializing part of whatever event we’re at, and we are introduced, I automatically feel warmer toward you — regardless of your gender or presentation. I feel much more comfortable talking to you, because you already tell me you know a little about gender.

Thank you.

It is an ongoing cultural struggle right now to break our eyes open to more than the two binary gender roles. We are all still learning. Nonbinary and trans folks are still evolving the language and culture, and educators are still figuring out the best ways to communicate the theory and compassion. It’s a challenge to undo the cultural systems that have been normalized all our lives.

And yet, we must. If we want to support everyone to live their best lives, we must. If we want to be honoring of everyone, we must.

Other great places to include your pronouns:

  • Your email signature. Example: “Sinclair Sexsmith¶ Pronouns: they, them, theirs, themself¶ [email protected] | @mrsexsmith | Facebook | Patreon”
  • Social media bio, on Twitter or Facebook or etc. Example: “Writer. White non-binary butch feminist dominant. They/them.” You could also periodically put a post up on your social media, “Just for the record, I use they/them pronouns. Also, I grew up in Alaska, my favorite flower is red gerbera daisies and my favorite number is 12.”
  • Regular bio, if you’re a performer, writer, teacher of some sort and you have a bio you send around, include them there! Example: “Sinclair Sexsmith (they/them) is a writer and queer nonbinary butch dominant.”
  • Introductions at a meeting or workshop, if they say “Go around & say your names.” They don’t have to invite you to include your pronoun in your intro in order to include it! Example: “I’m Sinclair, I use they/them pronouns.”
  • Any time you’re speaking in front of a group! Example: “Hi! I’m excited to have you at this poetry reading today, thanks for coming to the Bluestockings Bookstore. I’m Sinclair, I use they/them pronouns — but you probably already know that, since you’re here!”
  • Can you think of other places I haven’t listed here? I’m sure there are others. Leave ’em in the comments!

If you don’t know someone’s pronouns, ask!

This is an important skill to cultivate. We have probably all heard this, but there are plenty of times we — all of us, myself included — feel awkward asking, and so we don’t. But it’s never too late — ask at any point during the conversation.

It’s not a faux pas if you have to stop in the middle of a sentence, just ask.

“Sorry, what are your pronouns?”

“Oh I didn’t get your pronouns, what are they?”

“Will you remind me your pronouns please?”

If you mess up, no big deal. We all do.

You’re not a bad person if you mess it up. You’re not a bad ally, or a bad person. You’re practicing. Maybe you got the wrong info, or maybe that person just changed their pronouns.

Just start again.

The #1 thing to remember: don’t make it about you. Apologize, move on, try again.

“The other day, she — “
“They use they pronouns.”
“Oh, they. Okay. The other day, they …”

That thing where people say, “Omigod, I’m SO sorry! I really care about pronouns! I’m trying so hard! I’m not used to it! Forgive me!!!!” — that makes it such a bigger deal than it is. Treat it like mispronouncing someone’s name — it’s a little disrespectful, so be sure to be sensitive, but it’s ultimately no big deal.

Just acknowledge, apologize, have a redo, and do better in the future.

It gets easier with practice & time.

You’ll get it. Keep at it. Practice saying and expressing your pronouns whenever you can. Practice asking. The more cis people can ask and practice with each other, the more of the burden it takes off of trans and nonbinary folks to do the education work themselves.

There’s one more thing I want you to know:

It feels so good when people get it right.

It can make my whole day brighter when I hear someone use they/them pronouns.

Honestly, I rarely hear it myself, because if I’m standing there, it’s the least likely place for someone to refer to me in the third person. But sometimes it happens in an introduction, or a story. And it still surprises me sometimes.

I feel vulnerable, and cared for, and seen.

On Gender Perception, or: Break Your Eyes Open to Genderqueers

This essay, as with pretty much everything I write, is purely my own experience and my best understanding. I’m not trying to tell you what you should or shouldn’t care about, just sharing what my process has been around gender perception and genderqueerness.

For a little more than three years, I’ve been using they/them/theirs/themself pronouns. Notice that I’m avoiding saying that I “prefer” they/them pronouns, because, as many gender activists have been discussing lately, it’s not exactly a “preference.” I prefer green grapes to red grapes, I prefer almond milk to soy milk. But the accurate pronoun for my gender identity is they/them/theirs/themself.

Using a pronoun outside of the standard gender binary is a lot of work on a daily basis. Sure, I do spend most of my time inside of genderqueer and trans communities, and many of those folks are super smart about gender and either ask about pronouns or already know mine, and like to call people what they like to be called. I’m surprised how good it makes me feel when people get my pronouns right, actually. And because often I don’t hear people talking about me—which is the only time they really refer to me in the third person—I don’t hear it very often. The recent Sweet & Rough blog tour is a thrilling example: it pretty much brought tears to my eyes every time the folks on the tour referred to me using they and them. My inner kid—you know, the one who thinks I’ll never be understood or seen or valued—gets all hopeful and touched, and feels vulnerable and seen. I think things like, “Really? You see me like that?” and “You get it! Omg you get it!” and “Are you just humoring me? Or do you really get it?” and “Ergh, I hope it isn’t too much trouble for you to understand that!” and … I feel such relief. My shoulders relax and my body lets go of just a little bit of the tension I always carry.

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Am I mad at the system? Fuck yes. Am I working on changing it? Absolutely.
Every day I encounter a world that doesn’t see the in-between, and that either addresses me as “sir” or groups me in as part of the table full of “ladies,” aka queers of sometimes five different gender identities. I suppose worse still is “miss,” but that just gets me on a feminist rant about women having multiple honorifics dependent on their marital status and all men are addressed as “mister.” And then I remember that the second wave popularized “Ms”—oh right, we already fought this fight, except that clearly it hasn’t permeated society enough because this guy in front of me is still calling me “miss.”

Am I mad at the system? Fuck yes. Am I working on changing it? Absolutely. Are these moments microagressions? Fuck yes. Do the little needles that are microagressions add up, becoming a seeping wound by the end of any given day? Yeah. Could I just take my toys and go home and become a hermit to avoid dealing with this? Yeah. And sometimes I do, and sometimes I really want to.

But after three years of really claiming the identity of genderqueer … honestly? Being misgendered doesn’t bother me as much anymore.

I rarely correct the pronouns people use for me. I tell them if they ask, absolutely. I have lots of conversations about why they/them is the best choice for me, why I use it rather than ze/hir or other gender neutral pronouns, or why it’s grammatically correct despite the rules saying it is plural.

(Short version: I believe language is fluid, and our uses of it change over the years. I find it to be the least awkward in speech and written flow because we’re already used to it as a pronoun in other contexts. If people want to prioritize holding tight to grammar rules instead of smashing the gender binary and evolving our language to reflect the changes and include thousands of folks who are in-betweeners, well then, I guess I have to reevaluate just how close I want to be with that person. As much as I get a boner for really strict grammarians, to see the rules as so rigid that they cannot be malleable to include folks who are marginalized out of our language is not the kind of poet activist I want to be.)

When all those folks out there in the world out there misgender me, calling me sir or ma’am or ladies or she or bro or miss or whatever they might be using, I let it go. It might prick me for a moment, so I store that away as fuel for my activism, and then I try to remember: I don’t need their validation.

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It might prick me for a moment, so I store that away as fuel for my activism, and then I try to remember: I don’t need their validation.
I have so much validation from my genderqueer and trans communities, from my family of origin, from friends far and wide, and from folks I never would’ve expected to step up and be an ally. I feel so seen and honored, so often. I recognize that my position is possibly a unique one, where I really haven’t had any fallout from coming out genderqueer to my family or at my job (which, ahem, is what I’m doing right now). I know many folks don’t have that kind of acceptance from their families of origin, or their closest friends, or coworkers, or the communities in the cities where they live, or even sometimes their partners. But many of us do get lots of support, too.

Because I have so much validation from my close, inner circle communities, and even validation from broader queer worlds, and hell, from more and more people even outside of my inner circle, I don’t need the validation of the bus driver or the guy at the deli counter or the barista at the coffee shop. I just don’t. They don’t see me as genderqueer? Okay, whatever. Or hey, maybe they DO see me as genderqueer, but they don’t really have language and words for it, and even though they’re feeling that hey-you’re-not-quite-the-usual-kind-of-person-with-breasts thing, it doesn’t occur to them that that means not to use the term “lady” to address me. I am interested in doing more activism to educate folks in service professions to use words that aren’t so starkly gendered to address people who are in-between. (I even have a super secret project in the works about this.)

But I don’t need them to understand my gender in order for my gender to be real, seen, valid, and honored in the world.

It’s the difference I suppose between “gender identity” and “gender perception.” It’s only in the last 100 years that the concept of one’s “sex” has been divided into “sex and gender.” As gender theory has evolved, there are many words within the concept of “gender” and what it is. Gender identity is generally (I mistyped it as “genderally”) the identity that I see myself as. For example, I see myself as genderqueer, trans, and butch. Gender expression is usually how you’re expressing your gender verbally and with energy, and gender presentation is usually how you have decorated your body and the visual presentation of it. For me, that’s usually butch and masculine.

Gender perception is how others see your gender.

perception
“Gender Perception” page from The Gender Book

I do understand that gender perception is a serious source of distress for many folks, feeling that if the world doesn’t see and reflect that I am a certain gender, then I am not that gender. It can be devastating to not be recognized, I do understand that. But for whatever reason, it’s not that important to me.

Or wait—let me rephrase that. It’s very, very important to me to be seen and recognized and understood by my communities and my lovers and my family, and sometimes it takes a lot of work to educate and inform and correct and encourage folks to do so. But it’s not that important to me that the world at large understand and get my gender identity and pronouns right this minute. I just understand that the majority of people haven’t deconstructed the gender binary in a way where they can even see beyond it.

Remember that part in the HBO series Six Feet Under, where Claire, in art school, is trying to “break her eye open,” to see new perspectives and outside of her habits? Most people haven’t broken their eyes open to see more genders, yet.

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Most people haven’t broken their eyes open to see more genders, yet.
When it comes to my communities and inner circles, seeing me and reflecting that they see me is important to me. And that’s partly because of validation, yeah, but it’s also because of intimacy. The more they really see me, the more I feel like we are close and that they really get who I am and how I work in the world. That makes me feel vulnerable, touched, and honored. So really, my genderqueer identity and in-between marginalized place and pronoun use mostly matter for intimate relationships and moments.

I want to encourage that process of breaking your eye open to see more genders for everyone, not just within my communities of radical sex and gender minorities. But the frustration I feel when the larger society doesn’t get my gender stems from my unrealistic expectation. In a way, it’s just arguing with reality.

I’d love to figure out a way to address those misgenderings more easily in the moment, but usually it takes more than just, “hey, don’t call me lady,” for someone’s eyes to break open.

Right now, I can’t change this thing—this problem that the larger culture hasn’t broken their eyes open to more genders yet. I’m doing what I can, and being part of movements that are trying to get that culture broken open, and it is happening right now, the effects are huge and frequent. I can’t change this thing, but I can change my relationship to this thing. I can choose to funnel the pinpricks of not-belonging into more activism and work. I can keep encouraging people to break their eyes open to myriad genders, and I can look to my communities as a source of my validation and intimacy around my gender identity.

Illustration of “Gender Perception” by The Gender Book, reprinted with permission

On Bruises and Lasting Marks, Guest Post by Kristen

Written by Kristen. Follow her on Twitter @kitchentop.

I love getting marked up. I love the little dark fingerprints that fade to yellow on my upper arms, the purple signs of a shoulder bite, the teeth marks on my inner thighs. I don’t crave pain the way some masochists do. I like rough sex and I like when Sinclair brings it all to me, when they hold down my chest with all their weight while their cock’s inside, when they pin my arm behind me without worrying about whether they’re yanking too hard. I like deep, hard punching, especially across my wings, my shoulder blades and upper back, and I like a spanking, and I like when the feeling of floating, when I know I can handle more.

But what I really like are the bruises, bigger and more colorful in the light of day. I like the memory of what we did last night blooming on my skin as I strip for the morning’s shower. I like a big bouquet of them, spread across my shoulders and neck and thighs, proof that someone wanted me so badly they had to grab and bite and sometimes break skin. I like to show them off; when we lived apart, I would text Sinclair pictures of my bruises and we’d both shiver a little at the memory, and sometimes they post them here for the rest of the world to see.

There’s a funny competitive thing among kinky people – “Look how badass I am! I can take more pain than you – just look at the bruises!” – that I sometimes fall prey to. But it does feel like a badge of honor, a symbol of how far I went, how difficult it can be to let your mind go so that pain and pleasure meld and you can’t tell the difference anymore.

And for me it’s something more: yes, I chose this. My feminist boyfriend gave me bruises because I explicitly consented to them, because they made us both feel good, and I am allowed to choose that if I want to. In fact, with informed, aware consent, I can choose whatever I want. It might not be something you would choose for yourself, but that’s real choice, isn’t it? If I can choose to satisfy my desires with freaky shit you’d never want to do, or get a full-sleeve tattoo or plugs in my earlobes, I’m actually thinking through what I want – and getting it – instead of going along with what the world says I should want.

Bruises take work, to give and get. That giant purple mass on my upper arm required consent, negotiation, and enough endorphins (probably generated by some orgasms) that my body was primed to receive pain, courage, and hard biting. That splay of dark angel wings on my back probably took an hour, strong arms, a carefully timed warmup, and significant exertion. They are not evidence of anger or victimhood; they are evidence of skill.