Trans People, Pronouns, and Choosing Between Social Justice and the Chicago Manual of Style

When it comes to the pronouns we use for transgender people, which is more important — treating marginalized people with basic respect, or following the Chicago Manual of Style?

I recently wrote a column for The Humanist magazine, Trans People and Basic Human Respect, in which I made the case (a case that should have been obvious but regretfully isn’t) for treating trans people with basic human respect, including accepting their own evaluation of their own genders, and using the names and pronouns they prefer.

Tom Flynn — executive director of the Council for Secular Humanism, vice president for media at the Center for Inquiry, and editor of Free Inquiry magazine (for which I am a columnist) — has written a reply. He generally applauds the piece, and says that he mostly agrees with it. But when it comes to pronouns, and using the singular “they” for trans people who prefer it, that’s just a bridge too far. Flynn objects to anyone — trans, cis, anyone — using the singular “they,” on the grounds that “it unnecessarily degrades the clarity of our language in regards to number.” (Read Flynn’s piece for a more thorough explanation of his concerns.)

As you might guess, I strongly disagree. That’s putting it mildly. I disagree on grammatical grounds — and far more seriously, I disagree on social justice grounds. Flynn’s understanding of the linguistics behind the singular “they” is just flatly wrong — and his take on the social justice issue is distressingly retrograde.


you the owners manual cover
When it comes to grammar, Flynn is just flatly wrong. The English language is perfectly capable of adapting one pronoun to mean both singular and plural, and speakers/readers of this language are perfectly capable of handling this usage. That’s exactly how we use the word “you”: it’s used to mean both second person singular and second person plural. Yes, this sometimes creates confusion, and some regional dialects have filled this gap with the informal “y’all” and “youse.” But most of the time, most of us simply use “you” to mean both singular and plural — and for centuries we have lived rich, full lives of reasonably accurate communication with this usage. We can usually use context to convey whether we mean singular or plural; when we can’t, we can usually re-cast the sentence or otherwise clarify the meaning. I see no reason that the singular “they” would sow any more confusion and imprecision than the singular “you.”

English also has a long history of pronouns shifting their meaning. “You,” again, is the most obvious example: it wasn’t always both the plural form of the second person pronoun, it used to be the second person plural only, with the now-archaic “thou” taking the second person singular. And as Flynn himself acknowledges, the singular “they” has a long history of literary precedent, including usage by Shakespeare, Thackeray, Austen, and more. The mere fact that the singular “they” has been used in our language for centuries is a pretty good indication that this shift towards using it more, and using it more formally, could be absorbed with very little difficulty.

As for Flynn’s argument that trans people should instead use newly-minted gender-neutral pronouns such as “zie” and “hir” (and yes, I’ll reply to the social justice aspect of this in a bit): I will absolutely use these pronouns when trans people ask me to do so, and I’ll do my best to remember which people prefer which pronouns. But there are many linguists (Steven Pinker is the one I’m familiar with) who think these neologisms are highly unlikely to catch on in the long run. The case made by Pinker and others is that neologisms catch on easily for nouns, verbs, and other types of words that easily drop in and out of sentences — but when it comes to words that perform deep, complicated, largely unconscious grammatical placeholder functions, such as articles and conjunctions and pronouns, neologisms rarely take. For these types of words, it’s much more common for existing words to get subtly altered or shuffled around. If Pinker is right and this is in fact the case, the singular “they” is much more likely than “zie” or “hir” to eventually fall into standard usage.

And in fact, it’s already doing so. The singular “they” is widely used in informal language, not just by and for the trans people who prefer it, but in any situation in which the gender of the person being discussed is either unknown or irrelevant. And it’s been accepted by more than one style manual and grammar guide, including The Cambridge Guide to English Usage, A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language, Garner’s Modern American Usage, and more. Even the Chicago Manual of Style accepts it in casual usage, although not for formal writing.

Yes, there are some situations in which the singular “they” creates confusion and awkwardness. There are also situations in which the alternatives create confusion and awkwardness. So why is the occasional awkwardness of the singular “they” so much more intolerable than the occasional awkwardness of the alternatives — even when it’s explicitly preferred by many trans people as a sign of respect?

It makes no sense to say that the singular “they” is incorrect simply because it’s incorrect, or because it isn’t in the Chicago Manual of Style. That’s a tautology. In fact, this tautology brings me to the social justice angle of this question: Who gets to decide?

Social Justice

transgender symbol
When we’re asking the question, “Which pronouns should we use to talk with and about trans people,” who has the authority to make that decision? Should it be made by the creators of style manuals — famously conservative when it comes to language, famously tone-deaf when it comes to the ways that language standards are used to marginalize, and all too often dominated by people in positions of privilege? Or should it made by be trans people themselves?

Trans people live in a world where they are constantly misgendered — sometimes mistakenly, but often deliberately and with malice. A depressingly common and non-trivial part of anti-trans bigotry is the patronizing insistence that cis people know better than trans people what their “real” gender is, what their “real” name is, what their “real” pronoun is, etc. This can have devastating practical effects — it can show up in medical treatment, government documents, government policies, employment practices, and more — and it can have devastating psychological and emotional effects. The misgendering itself is harmful — and the meta of the misgendering, the underlying message that “you don’t get to have the basic human right of self-identification, you are too ignorant or sinful or sick to know who and what you are, we know what’s best for you and we will decide for you,” is harmful.

Given that this is the case, is the occasional confusion created by the singular “they” really so important?

Which is the greater priority? Is it more important to support trans people, who get dogpiled with a mountain of “this is what you should call yourself” crap every day of their lives? Is it more important to give them the basic respect of addressing them as they wish to be addressed? Or is it more important to defend the vital principle of the distinct third person plural?

Is the Chicago Manual of Style really the hill you want to die on?

Flynn argues that trans people should use gender-neutral pronouns like “zie” or “hir,” because the singular “they” isn’t clear. Other cisgender people argue the exact opposite: they tell trans people that they shouldn’t use the pronouns “zie” or “hir,” because they aren’t clear. Here’s an idea: Why don’t cisgender people stop telling trans people what pronouns to use? Why don’t we acknowledge that this isn’t about us, and that it isn’t up to us? We don’t even have consensus about which pronouns we prefer — and even if we did, so what? Why should this be our decision? Why should we get to be the grammatical gender police?

The reality is that English is in dire need of a gender-neutral third-person pronoun. We need it to avoid sexism in our language, and we need it to recognize the reality of people who don’t identify on a gender binary. The fact that the singular “they” is somewhat new (except for the fact that it isn’t) isn’t a sign that it’s problematic — it’s simply a sign that our society is increasingly unwilling to accept the sexist and transphobic assumptions behind the default use of gendered pronouns, and is finally recognizing the need for an alternative.

It’s distressing that, out of this entire piece, this one issue is the one Flynn chose to write about. It’s distressing that this piece didn’t inspire him to write, say, his own piece about treating trans people with basic respect. It’s distressing that his response to this piece was that of course trans people should be treated with basic decency and addressed in the way they wish to be addressed — except for this one instance, where he knows better. The “Of course I support trans people” position is in direct contradiction with the “I know better, so use the pronouns I like” position — and it’s distressing that Flynn doesn’t seem to realize that.

Trans People, Pronouns, and Choosing Between Social Justice and the Chicago Manual of Style
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25 thoughts on “Trans People, Pronouns, and Choosing Between Social Justice and the Chicago Manual of Style

  1. 1

    The reality is that English is in dire need of a gender-neutral third-person pronoun.

    Of course, the extant gender-neutral pronoun is even more dehumanising, given it is normally used for inanimate objects.

  2. 4

    Whenever anyone brings up Tom Flynn, I always like to remind them that he thinks any atheist who has any special celebrations in December (whether Solstice, Festivus, Christmas, or Humanlight) is “not a real atheist” and is giving “aid and comfort to the enemy.”

  3. 5

    Flynn objects to anyone — trans, cis, anyone — using the singular “they,” on the grounds that “it unnecessarily degrades the clarity of our language in regards to number

    He’s also insisting on using thou, thee, thy, right?
    Because “you” isn’t any clearer on the number either.
    I’ll usually reply that if the sigular they was good enough for Will Shakespeare and Jane Austen it’s damn good enough for me. The only thing I’m never sure of is “themself”, to indicate a singular.

  4. 6

    Slightly off-topic; I’m currently reading Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie, which just won a Hugo and a shopping-cart-ful of other awards.

    One of the ideas in the book is that the language used by most characters in the book uses gender-neutral pronouns for people by default (it’s not that sex doesn’t matter to people; it does; just not enough to make a big grammatical deal about).
    On top of which, Leckie decided against using “they” or “zie” or the like. Instead, she just uses “she”. Everyone is “she”. Every once in a while, it’ll come up that “she” is someone’s father, or characters will slip into another language, one in which it’s correct to refer to her as “he”. But the vast majority of the time, it doesn’t matter to the story what people have between their legs.

  5. Pen

    It’s nice that English is even potentially adaptable. In relation to Ancillary Justice, mentioned @6, I saw a really cool thing Ann Leckie posted about conversations with translators and how they were going to tackle her book. She didn’t mention French, but it’s a language with compulsory genderisation for everything. Imagine having to deal with the questions she never had to answer: do you leave gender where it is for inanimate objects or ‘feminise’ everything? Imagine the effect of her decision amplified by the feminisation running through all adjectives and some verbs. I wonder, are there any languages which don’t have any gender, in which the effect of her book just can’t be approximated?

  6. 11


    (and on a more general linguistic note)

    French and in fact most Indo-European languages have gender, but don’t conflate grammatical gender with denotational/semantic gender. That is, in French one of my favorite examples is pen (la plume, f.) and pencil (e crayon, m.). There is no logical reason for this. There is no traditional use by pens and pencils for men and women or anything like that. Similarly, the car (la voiture) is feminine while truck (le camion) is masculine. Point is, the assignment of gender grammatically speaking has got to the point where it is just about random, at least when referring to inanimate objects. Russian has a neuter gender, but here again it’s hard to match up the grammatical gender with anything that makes the remotest sense.

    Even for living things French can be pretty random — kangaroos are masculine but platypus is a feminine noun. For people, both French and Spanish are more flexible and random than people think.

    In fact, grammatical gender and semantic gender for the most part don’t match.

    Then there is Japanese, which has no grammatical gender at all. Neither does Chinese.

    Anyhow, about English: English has plenty of gender-neutral constructions and used to have grammatical gender, back when Grendel and Beowulf were around, but we stripped it off for the most part. Just like thee and thou disappeared sometime around 1750 (one BTW was the object and one was the subject/ dative I think) there were a lot of gender-specific pronouns — he, heo (which is modern she IIRC), et cetera. By my count Old English had six pronouns to say “that person over there” depending on their sex, and what function in a sentence the pronoun was serving.

    As you know we’ve lost most of those (modern English only retains the smallest evidence of cases, we only retain the obvious Germanic plurals in words like “children.”)

    There are lots of easy simple ways to be gender neutral (“He” was once such in some constructions). “they” as a singular generalized pronoun is one good way to do it.

    As to sexism in language generally, count me as one who thinks the relationship isn’t as one to one as people think. A lot of the time we end up rehashing the old Sapir-Worf hypothesis (a famous fictional treatment is the language Pravic, which appears in LeGuin’s novel The Dispossessed). I honestly don’t think the relation between how we use gender in language and how our gender conceptions are constructed is as easy as what pronouns we use. As I mentioned, Japanese lacks grammatical gender entirely and unlike Arabic or Hebrew there’s no difference between the referents for a man and a woman when you are speaking to a person. And yet it is a pretty sexist society.

    In fact using the pronoun “he” and “she” and “you” at all to most Japanese speakers sounds forced and weird (and even borderline rude in some cases). The words that refer to he and she are basically literally translated as “that person.”

    (This doesn’t mean that Japanese lacks cultural references to gender, but it takes on a very different form than it does in English, and for the most part seems to be more about how one refers to oneself).

    I just want to stress that the term “gender” when speaking of languages is a really poor misnomer a lot of the time. I am not sure what its origins are — I suspect it dates from a time when “masculine” and “feminine” had rather different meanings or connotations than what they have now.

  7. 12

    It makes no sense to say that the singular “they” is incorrect simply because it’s incorrect, or because it isn’t in the Chicago Manual of Style.

    And on a minor note, US grammarians =/= English-language grammarians around the world, let alone English speakers around the world.

  8. 13

    Thanks for writing this, Greta. As a trans person who prefers “singular they”, it’s great to see more cis people who get the point that using preferred pronouns is not about making cis people feel comfy or not, it’s about respecting the lived realities of trans people. As I’m a trans male, I’ve reluctantly told people they can call me “he” instead of “they” just to get through the day without having to give a lesson on grammar and respect to everyone I meet, but I really prefer not to be referred to with any gendered terms at all, including Sir or Mister (both of which I also accept reluctantly).

    On the issue of zie/hir not being as natural to use as singular they, I’ve read that is because pronouns are a “closed class”, which are much harder to expand in the language than nouns. So when a person claims that it should be as simple to learn a person’s preferred pronoun as their (given or chosen) name, I unfortunately can’t quite agree with that, because for unusual pronouns it does take a bit more effort to get them right consistently. That’s why I’m really hoping singular they becomes more widely accepted. But if someone does prefer zie or another pronoun I will make my best effort to use that for them.

  9. Pen

    @Jesse – and while humans are masculine, persons are feminine. When males are spoken of as persons they are ‘she’ or ‘her’.

    For those who read French, I found this . They have also invented some gender free pronouns, but the whole business with agreements remains clunky.

  10. 16

    @Pen – yeah, Spanish seems more flexible in that if you refer to a female dog it’s feminine while a male one is masculine, but generally it doesn’t always match either. I don’t know what Spanish-speakers do to be gender-neutral, even though I speak it, because I am not a native speaker and I never had to have a conversation about gender free language politics in that language. So I dunno what “sounds right.”

    I wonder how much of it is also an artifact of French, Spanish and a lot of other Romance languages losing the neuter gender that was present in Latin… I can’t think of any living Romance languages that retain it. (Anyone know? Romanian? Bueller?)

  11. 17

    As to sexism in language generally, count me as one who thinks the relationship isn’t as one to one as people think. A lot of the time we end up rehashing the old Sapir-Worf hypothesis (a famous fictional treatment is the language Pravic, which appears in LeGuin’s novel The Dispossessed). I honestly don’t think the relation between how we use gender in language and how our gender conceptions are constructed is as easy as what pronouns we use.

    jesse @ #11: Even if the Sapir-Worf hypothesis is 100% incorrect (and my understanding is that it mostly is, but that there are a few areas where it isn’t entirely, and sexist/ racist/ other marginalizing language is among them) — even if the way we use language has zero effect on how we think — there is an important difference the language we use, and the language we hear. Even if using words like “fireman,” “policeman,” “he” as the default third person singular pronoun, etc, have no effect on the people using the words, it still has an effect on the people hearing the words, hundreds of times a day, every day of our lives. Talk with some trans people about the demoralizing effect of being misgendered — or some women about the demoralizing effect of heating entire classes of employment defined as “not including you” — if you don’t believe me.

  12. 18

    Words mean what people use them to mean. As Greta and Giliell mention above, “singular they” has been used at least as far back as Shakespeare. So, it has seemed natural to at least some people for at least that long. I’d bet that it has seemed awkward or inappropriate to some (many) people for at least that long too.

    Here is a prominent linguist weighing in on the issue as regards people’s preferred pronouns. There are many other posts on that blog (Language Log) discussing the issue of singular they. Here is a list.

    Of course, being linguists doesn’t mean these people have authority to dictate correct usage, and they’re not trying to. But it does suggest that they have particular insight into how language actually works. And, like most linguists, they acknowledge the dictum I opened with: words mean what people use them to mean. And my impression is that singular they is becoming a more frequent usage of that pronoun family (they, them, their, …). So, although it isn’t an ideal solution to the communicative difficulties we face, it is probably the most easily-understood solution.

  13. 19

    Okay, this is coming at the topic a bit sideways, but bear with me. I did a course in copyediting a while back and one of the most powerful things I got out of it was the idea of having my own house style sheet. I decided that as an author, I would have my own style sheet that I use for times when I’m paying the copyeditor (usually that’s me, and I pay myself in chocolate and deep tissue massages.)

    Here’s a decent guide to setting up your own style sheet:

    I use CMS as my base because it falls on the side of clarity, as opposed to AP Style which falls on the side of brevity. For instance, in CMS you write “U.S.” and in AP you write “US” to save the space of those two stops. (That’s a really bad example for me because I prefer the clean lines of AP in regards to initializations such as these, but whatever. The point is it’s your style sheet so make the decisions you like.)

    The nice thing about AP is the usage section. Because AP is geared toward journalism, its usage section has to be quickly updatable. That’s why they were able to strike out the usage of the name for the Washington football team very quickly. They also updated their guidelines for reporting on mass shooters as “mentally ill” after a reported used the testimony of a layperson not in a position to make a diagnosis.

    In the case of pronouns, my style sheet allows the use of “they/them” for unspecified third person singular. It’s right there in the style sheet. And when I hand it to a copyeditor, I expect them to abide by it. Otherwise no chocolate for them.

  14. 20

    I write a lot, some of it casual, some scientific. Because of the scientific bent, I like my casual writing to be correct, and the use of “they” for first person singular when gender is unknown or irrelevant has always troubled me: it seems to be technically wrong, but it *feels* right. So, based on this post, I shall go forth and use it enthusiastically.

    I appreciate the difficulty with remembering to use new words like “zie” and “hir”, and in all honesty they really don’t roll off the fingers. But I’m cis, why should my opinion matter? Really.

  15. 21

    I didn’t realise that Flynn writes an opinion column helpfully entitled ‘advocatus diaboli’, which instantly informs me his speciality must be making defences for the indefensible. If that wasn’t enough, one particularly transphobic commenter on that thread wants to contort themself into a pretzel to defend ‘it’ as an appropriate pronoun for referring to ‘transgenders’, also citing the very low prevalence of gender diverse people as a reason not to bother changing anything. With that sort of high-quality insight, I wondered if the commenter hailed from that forum which shall not be named, which in response to a comment I once wrote about gender-neutral pronouns, decided to adopt a deliberately transphobic amalgam of letters taken from the words s(he), h(e), and it.
    It’s hard to quantify the damage of how having to deal with misgendering on a regular basis chips away at your self-esteem, but I rather agree with this being a very long-term education issue. On my blog when I first came out as trans I encouraged people to use ‘zie’ as my first preference. Since then my expectations have gradually eroded, as even people I expected to be able to accustom themselves to invented pronouns shrank from attempting to use them in writing, while I have yet to meet anyone in my daily life who comfortably utilises them in everyday speech.
    Just as the Bechdel test has been criticised for setting a minimally low bar for representation of women in films, I now belatedly have extremely low expectations for people misgendering me – don’t call me by the pronouns corresponding with my birth assignment, and don’t call me ‘it’ or any of the other transphobic ones – and even with that low standard to pass, I still find myself frequently disappointed.

  16. 22

    This post — and the comments — are really helpful. Thank you. I’m a 50-ish, cis writer/editor, deeply invested in language and its power to convey ideas.

    geocatherder @20, I also wrestle with the tension between “correct” grammar and “right” usage (“right” meaning, doing what is right, treating people with respect and dignity). I expect that (in English) the singular “they” will ultimately be more successful than “zie,” etc., simply because of the complex way in which pronouns are used and perceived.

    Regarding knowing how people wish to be addressed: It is always appropriate to ask people how they wish to be addressed, and this is not just a gender issue. When my daughter was younger and we were getting acquainted with other adults, I advised her to ask her new older friends, “How would you like me to address you?” And the answers varied a great deal – some adults didn’t mind a child’s calling them by first names or nicknames; others wanted a child to address them as “Mr. Smith” or “Dr. Jones,” etc. The important thing was that we asked, and never assumed.

    Recently when I was paying for my purchases at a store, the young man at the cash register addressed me as “Miss.” I look my age, with grey hair – I haven’t been a “miss for nearly 40 years. Since the store had just opened in my neighborhood, I felt OK with offering some feedback. I said, kindly and with a smile, “Not all older women want to be called ‘Miss,’ you know – maybe just leave it off unless you know what is preferred. I don’t like it.” Well, he called me “Miss” at least twice more as we finished the transaction! Perhaps he’d been trained to do so, but I felt angry and I have not been back to the store since. It’s not as serious an issue as refusing to use preferred pronouns, of course, but it gave me a tiny, tiny hint of what it might be like to have one’s wishes about personal identifiers ignored or ridiculed.

  17. Ani

    Thanks for writing both this and the original article, Greta. I love writing and I’ve thought about the importance of having a gender-neutral pronoun, in order to be more inclusive. I’ve tried using singular “they”. Although I used to wonder if it was the “correct” way to write, I feel comfortable using it now. Ultimately, it was about valuing inclusiveness over being by-the-book.

    I wanted to comment on the following part from your article in The Humanist.

    When people get married and change their names, when they get doctorates and change their honorifics, or when they stop wanting to be called by their childhood nicknames, we usually try to keep up. Is it really that much harder to try to keep track of trans people’s preferred names and pronouns?

    I think this shows how much of the resistance to using the pronouns that a transgender person prefers is due to discrimination (both personal and societal). In instances in which people accept that a chance in a person’s name or title is totally fine, we’re willing to change our words right away. People even sometimes intentionally use the new name/title, as a mark of respect or congratulations, making a point of calling a married person by their spouse’s last name after marriage, calling someone by their new title when they graduate or get promoted, and so on.

  18. 24

    The singular “they” is already widely adopted in formal usage, and has been for at least a decade. I’ve been reading and writing reports for UN, NGO and governmental agencies for many years, and “they” is often simply a shorthand for “he or she”. As the OP points out for informal usage, it serves when a person’s gender is unknown or irrelevant. But, more importantly, I am increasingly directed to use it in contract work as governments, UN staff and others are becoming more aware that gender is not simply a binary thing. “He or she” is just not an adequate or appropriate phrase anymore. The formal use of “they” in singular form is already common and widespread, and not unusual at all.

  19. 25

    ‘They’ looks a lot better than ‘s/he,’ and unless you’re talking about a group within the same converstation where you use the singular ‘they,’ you don’t have to worry much about clarity. At the end of the day, I’m going to try to use they if someone asks me, just out of respect for that person. Yeah, I might mess it up, but it gets easier with practice and I’m used to sounding a bit toung-tied! 🙂

    I’m trans and sometimes I prefer ‘they’ but I’d really like ‘he.’ However I don’t even bother asking or correcting people, becuase I haven’t got the mental energy with all the other shit knocking around in my head when I’m in public, among strangers. Safety is a concern too.

    As far as ‘zie’ and ‘hir’ go, I really don’t think it’s that tough after you use them a couple of times. Most of these neologisms follow the same conjugation (declension?) through the cases…right? I don’t know, but I think trying and getting it wrong is better than not even trying. Looking back, I think I messed up yesterday, but ver partner was so happy I even tried, he didn’t seem to care. It’s a simple thing to do to be polite and respectful.

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