Okay, I’m confused. No doubt you are too, if you’re over thirty, live in a rural community, are conservative, traditional, stay away from entertainment news, or are a strict English grammarian.
I’m talking about the new use of “they” or “them,” as singular pronouns. For example, “please run back into the restaurant for me. Our server was exceptional and I forgot to tip they.”
This change for most of us, is confusing and we don’t like it. Some of us will rebel. Some others will complain at the “unnecessary” complication. Yet others will be hateful about it, and will make fun of “they.”
The “we,” I’m speaking about are those of us who grew up understanding the pronouns, “they” and “them,” as properly used only in the plural context of, more than one. But it is my understanding that the use of they and them in the singular, referring to individuals, has been around since the 1950s.
Starting a sentence with but isn’t strictly grammatically correct, either. But here we are!
Sometimes we writers can best express ourselves by stretching the rules. Just because we grew up with something as “truth,” doesn’t make it right, nor true.
Some of us grew up hearing ain’t, hain’t, yuns, yoons, yous-guys, and all manner of modifications of a certain “eff-word” that are neither right nor truth, but to us it was usual, customary, acceptable in our sphere, and alright. You’ve heard, “it’s just an expression.”
Culture is expressed through language. Certain words are used in support of culture. When culture changes, our language changes to accommodate it.
My news-loving spouse keeps me supplied with entertainment trivia which he sees smattered across his various news-feeds. Recently he mentioned a young celebrity had announced that “they” was heretofore going to refer to “themself,” according to the non-binary pronoun, “they” instead of “she.”
To many of “us,” this use of English language, feels wrong. But moving along, what is non-binary anyway?
Non-binary, abbreviated, “Enby,” is the classification of gender identity that is outside the gender binary, a system of two – male or female. Non-binary includes a gender spectrum with many possibilities that are peculiar, to say the least, to the traditionalist.
In order to accommodate this classification, and to avoid the oft-used as pejorative, pronoun, “it,” we must use the already on the books use of “they” and “them,” in the singular. I recall “back in the day,” it was rude to refer to the unknown gender of ones gestating child, as “it.”
It was considered dehumanizing, to use “it” in this way. With the advent of the routine ultrasound, to determine gender, we made obsolete the need for referring to our unborn, as “it.” Shortly thereafter, we began gender-reveal events. It was, briefly in history, cool to celebrate our unborn as her or him; he or she.
It is my understanding that we are going back to the future, still abandoning the pejorative pronoun “it,” to refer to the unborn as well as non-binary individuals. But now it’s becoming just as culturally taboo to identify folks either born or unborn, as he or she.
Traditional English teachers are asked to “get over it,” when attempting to enforce the rules we grew up with about the matter. In fact, “cisgender” persons, those of us who identify with the gender to which we were born, should get used to using “they” and “them” in the singular to refer to all others.
“A comfort zone is a beautiful place but nothing grows there.” I’ve always been interested in growth. Stagnation or even dormancy are unappealing concepts to me. So, bye-bye comfort zone, I guess.
For the sake of better communication with and understanding of marginalized subcultures within my own, I’m willing to try to accommodate these linguistic changes. I will make mistakes however and shouldn’t be bullied by a wider culture that doesn’t walk in my shoes.
Also, as an outsider to the numerical minority, transgender community, the linguistic changes I’ve outlined above will have little to no meaning in my everyday life. The key, however, is that to the insider, the new use of the pronouns, “they” and “them” resonates profoundly.
I’m all for personal expression. I’m a writer, for goodness’ sake. I believe everyone should be free to express their personality, their beliefs and opinions, and their soul, in any way they see fit.
The next time I observe an individual of ambiguous gender, I can intelligently refer to such a person with the pronoun, “they” and its derivatives. “Wasn’t their hair style unique?” “Their makeup was striking, wasn’t it?”
We should all be protected to express our identity without fear of retribution. It is my belief that we will never be “equal,” the same as others. Equality is wishful thinking, a myth, and nonsense, in my opinion. But I’m equally passionate that we can and should treat others, all others, equitably, with fairness and justice.
In closing, I’m going to combine a couple of quotes rolling around in my head. One of them is from the Pledge of Allegiance: “… with liberty and justice for all” …. The other is from, well you know, “and to all a good night.”