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.
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?
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.