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Nonbinary thinking

Q: The company I work for has hired a person who identifies as gender nonbinary, and prefers to be referred to as “they” rather than “he” or “she.” Our new hire adds that a simple, sensitive, and inclusive solution would be to use plural pronouns for everyone. At the risk of sounding like Archie Bunker, geez Louise, this is counter to my 50-plus years of English education! Am I wrong?

A: No, you’re not wrong. It’s silly to use “they” for someone who’s happy to be called “he” or “she.” And the binary majority might not consider the usage simple, sensitive, or inclusive. (We’ll discuss the nonbinary use of “they” later in this post.)

Several months ago we wrote about changing views on the use of the plural pronoun “they” in reference to an indefinite, unknown person.

A sentence like “Someone forgot their umbrella” is now considered standard English, even though “they” is plural and an indefinite pronoun like “someone” is technically singular—that is, it takes a singular verb: “someone is.”

The indefinite singular use of “they” is not new, as we wrote in that post. It’s been common in English writing since the early 1300s, and was considered perfectly normal until 18th-century grammarians took exception to it.

In spite of the admonitions, however, English speakers have continued to use “they” (along with “them,” “their,” and “theirs”) in reference to an unknown “someone,” “everybody,” “anybody” and the rest.

As we’ve said many times, common usage will out! Those old prohibitions are no longer recognized by linguists and lexicographers, and we accept their view (though we prefer to reword our own writing to avoid the plural “they” for indefinite pronouns).

Your question, however, leads us to a different singular use of “they.” Because it is gender-neutral, “they” has recently been adopted as the pronoun of choice by many people who identify as nonbinary—that is, neither male nor female.

We’ll invent an office-type example of this usage, with “Robin” as our nonbinary person: “If Robin is at their desk, please ask them to come to the meeting, since they expressed an interest.”

This nonbinary “they” (we’ll call it #2) is very different from the indefinite “they” (call it #1) that we discussed above.

The #1 “they” represents an unknown person (as in “Someone forgot their umbrella”), but the #2 “they” is a known person who doesn’t want to be referred to as a “he” or a “she.”

As of today, all the major dictionaries recognize the #1 “they” as standard English, but the #2 “they” is mentioned by only one. This is to be expected, since #1 has been around for 700 years while #2 is still unfamiliar to many English speakers.

The only standard dictionary to tackle the subject—at least so far—is The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.). Its entry for “they” includes this definition: “Used as a singular personal pronoun for someone who does not identify as either male or female.”

American Heritage doesn’t label the usage as nonstandard. But it adds this warning in a usage note: “The recent use of singular they for a known person who identifies as neither male nor female remains controversial.”

In fact, the dictionary says a majority of its usage panel was against this new “they” at last report:

“As of 2015 only 27 percent of the Panelists accepted Scout was born male, but now they do not identify as either traditional gender. With regard to this last sentence, the Panel’s responses showed a clear generational shift: the approval rate was 4 percent among Panelists born before 1945 and 40 percent among Panelists born later.”

Dictionaries may lag, but the nonbinary use of “they” has been accepted by the Associated Press and the Chicago Manual of Style, which are looked to as guides by many news organizations and book publishers.

Last March both announced new policies on “they,” allowing its use in reference to a known person who doesn’t identify as either male or female.

AP said in its announcement that the change was “spurred in large part by expanding journalistic coverage of transgender and gender-nonbinary issues.”

The new AP Stylebook recommends using “the person’s name in place of a pronoun, or otherwise reword the sentence, whenever possible,” but adds: “If they/them/their use is essential, explain in the text that the person prefers a gender-neutral pronoun. Be sure that the phrasing does not imply more than one person.”

The newly published 17th edition of the Chicago Manual has this: “For references to a specific person, the choice of pronoun may depend on the individual. Some people identify not with a gender-specific pronoun but instead with the pronoun they and its forms or some other gender-neutral singular pronoun; any such preferences should generally be respected.”

Oddly, both AP and the Chicago Manual only grudgingly accept the use of “they” for an unknown person, a usage that is no longer questioned in dictionaries.

When used in reference to an unknown person, Chicago says, “they and their have become common in informal usage, but neither is considered fully acceptable in formal writing.”

Yet they thoroughly embrace the nonbinary usage, a much newer, potentially confusing, and more grammatically radical use of “they.” And, as we’ve said, a use that has made it into only one standard dictionary so far—with a warning.

What’s our advice? Well, as things stand, the nonbinary use of “they” for a known person is accepted by some usage authorities and not by others. Only time will tell whether it will become common in ordinary English.

In the meantime, companies that want to be sensitive to the wishes of nonbinary employees might follow the examples of AP and the Chicago Manual.

If a pronoun is necessary, use “they,” “them,” and “their” for an employee who has that preference. But clarity is just as important as sensitivity. Be sure to make clear when “they” refers to only one person and when it refers to several people.

And when “they” is the subject of a verb, the verb is always plural, even in reference to a single person: “Robin says they are coming to the lunch meeting, so order them a sandwich.”

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