Frequently Asked Questions: Pronouns Edition
If you’re here, you probably clicked on the link in my email signature next to the phrase, “They/them personal pronouns.” This means that when referring to me using personal pronouns you should use “they/them.” This is also known as “singular they.” For example, “Dash isn’t here – they’re busy exploring Alpha Centauri.”
Why are you telling me this?
Most people are uncomfortable when someone refers to them with the wrong pronoun or address, and I’m no different. Not only that, but most people are embarrassed and upset if they misgender someone, since it’s considered rude. Since I have an unusual gender that isn’t immediately obvious, it’s easier for everyone if I tell people which pronoun I prefer.
Why singular they?
Gender Identity? You mean your sex?
Nope. Sex is a way of differentiating people biologically. Gender is a much more complicated beast that is usually defined by your society or culture. I don’t identify with, or feel like I belong to, either of the genders that English-speaking cultures generally allow (women and men).
But isn’t singular they bad grammar?
Actually, it isn’t. Singular they has been used as a nongendered pronoun pretty much forever. It fell out of favor due to a popular book on English grammar published in 1745 that recommended using “he” for referring to men and women (link), but it never completely left the English language. You can see this in the works of Shakespeare, Jane Austen, C.S. Lewis, and many more highly respected authors across the centuries.
Singular they is commonly used when talking about an unidentified person. For example, “Someone left their coat here.” This is part of why I prefer to be referred to this way: my gender is unidentified!
Using singular they to refer to you is difficult/confusing/annoying. Can I do something else?
I find several polite activities difficult, confusing, or annoying as well, so I can sympathize. But using anything other than ‘they’ to refer to me is going to make me uncomfortable.
If you really want to, you can try to avoid using personal pronouns to refer to me, but that can get awkward fast. As a last resort, if you absolutely have to, you can use he/him, I guess, but I would rather you didn’t.
Please, whether you understand my gender or not, do not refer to me using she/her.
You sound/look like a woman/man to me.
Well, our culture associates certain physical characteristics with certain genders, so that can happen. Also, that isn’t a question.
I mean, it’s hard to remember because you sound/look like a woman/man. What if I mess up?
That’s okay! Everyone (and I do mean everyone, including my fellow nonbinary friends) takes time to learn and adjust. All I ask is that you try – and if you use the wrong pronoun, just say the sentence again correctly and go on. I know you aren’t being mean and just messed up. To err is human, after all.
Where should I go to learn more about this stuff?
I linked to a few things further up, but here’s some more resources:
Rooster Tails: Queer 101
A long, detailed, friendly comic guide to the basics of nonbinary sexuality, sex, and gender.
Robot Hugs: Pronoun Etiquette
A short comic guide to the basics of pronoun etiquette.
Wikipedia: Singular They — Usage
Lots of quotes from throughout the history of English literature with examples of singular they.
The Republic of Pemberley: singular “their” in Jane Austen and elsewhere: anti-pedantry page
Another lengthy list of examples of classic literature using singular they or their.
What if I have more questions for you?
Email me! I’ll be happy to answer them.