Needlessly gendered pronouns out of style

Making way for they/them


     When you think about personal pronouns, the two that likely come to mind are she and he, the two common gendered pronouns for the English language, and for many, the “default” pronouns. However, these are not the only singular pronouns commonly used in the English language. 

     One of the Merriam-Webster Dictionary’s definitions of the word “they” is: “used to refer to a single person whose gender identity is nonbinary.” This indicator of the word as a singular personal pronoun on the level with he and she is a step in the right direction for many people who are nonbinary. 

     The usage of the singular pronoun “they” has been common since the 14th century, according to the Oxford Dictionary. However, it is only recently that it has changed from the pronoun of someone of an unknown gender to something in use by those whose gender identities rest outside of the binary. 

     The word they is likely Scandinavian in origin, as it relates to Old Scandinavian words such as þeir, þǽr, and þau, which are masculine, feminine, and neutral, respectively, according to the Oxford Dictionary. The sound made by the letter þ is a th sound, the letter is called Thorn. 

     The usage of they as an identifier of a person of unknown gender has been around for much longer. An example of this longevity was from the Mercurius Pragmaticus in 1653 which states, “if any one of them so elected members die, the part which they serve for, have liberty to [choose] and present another.” This longevity lends itself to the establishment of they as a gender-neutral pronoun.

     The addition of they as a widely accepted gender-neutral pronoun would allow people who feel alienated by the constant gendering of our society to feel more accepted. Some places are making these changes on their own, but without people advocating for more neutral language, many others will likely never make the switch. 

     MLA format is one body who is advocating for further acceptance of respecting someone’s pronouns and identity, as the organization encourages writers to “ always follow the personal pronouns of individuals they write about,” and continues their preference of the singular they when compared to forms of “he or she” such as (s)he or his/her, stating that “this use of singular they, until very recently discouraged in academic writing and other formal contexts, allows writers to omit gendered pronouns from a sentence.”

     They is not the only pronoun frequently employed by nonbinary and gender nonconforming individuals, neopronouns are also used. Neopronouns are pronouns that have not had an extensive history of use, some of which are zie/zim, fae/faer, and ey/em. However, this is not a comprehensive list of neopronouns. Many neopronouns are chosen, or in some cases established, by the owner, which can help the person using them with their dysphoria and/or sense of security.

     Unlike the pronoun they as a singular, neopronouns are accepted less in non-LGBTQ+ spaces, as established by a 2019 study by Evan D Bradley, Julia Salkind, Ally Moore, and Sofi Teitsort. They found that ze, the neopronoun tested, was not consistently associated with an image of a nonbinary person. However, the researchers reached the conclusion that “wider awareness could lead to rapid acceptance and use.” 

     Using someone’s proper pronouns, while it may seem difficult at first, is a sign of respect. People who fall under the trans and nonbinary umbrellas likely have to deal with misgendering and other forms of disrespect daily, by using someone’s proper pronouns it is possible to make them feel safer and more welcome in their environment. The continued development of neopronouns and the singular they are key players in helping people feel comfortable in their own skin, and in their community.