17

I recently had somebody tell me that a mutual friend of ours who is genderqueer prefers that people refer to him/her using the gender-indefinite pronoun they.

In some cases, this almost seems okay:

Kris left their umbrella at our house.

On the other hand, if Kris is sitting right next to you, it feels very odd to say

They (meaning just Kris) would like more cake.

Or even odder,

Kris would like some more cake, can you please pass it to they/them?"

Are these usages grammatically correct? Are they in the process of becoming grammatically correct? Are there more correct alternatives?

marked as duplicate by tchrist, Chenmunka, Robusto, Mitch, Dan Bron Oct 31 '14 at 14:53

This question has been asked before and already has an answer. If those answers do not fully address your question, please ask a new question.

  • 3
    Good question, and one where you can't find the answer in a dictionary! – Mari-Lou A Oct 28 '14 at 5:51
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    Previously: Is there a correct gender-neutral, singular pronoun (“his” versus “her” versus “their”)? Accepted answer: Yes, singular they is perfectly grammatical. – Rahul Oct 28 '14 at 7:41
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    This is, of course, just another twist on the whole gender-and-pronouns problem. English hasn't yet invented an agreed-upon set of singular personal pronouns that don't imply gender. Probably we must wait for one of the Arbiters of English such as the New York Times, Newsweek, London Times, etc, to decree a solution. (Don't hold your breath waiting for The New Yorker to do this, though -- they just stopped using "thou" last week.) – Hot Licks Oct 28 '14 at 12:12
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    Lest it be missed, the very wikipedia page you linked has this section which deals with your question, and among other things links to this: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Singular_they. – Digital Chris Oct 28 '14 at 15:46
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    It might be worth noting that even "you" is technically plural. Makes it more acceptable to use they in this manner. – Anon343224user Oct 28 '14 at 16:27
16

I think the reason for your friend's preference is that using either the male or female pronouns implicitly pigeon-holes the person in question as either one or the other. However, all of the examples you give seem to me to be forced, and to shout out loud "Hey, look at how sensitive I'm being! I'm not calling Kris either male or female!"

There are sensible alternatives to all of these examples that do not break any grammatical rules.

"Kris left their umbrella at our house" : Kris left an umbrella at our house (yes, it could technically then be somebody else's umbrella that was left behind, but would you really know?)

"They [Kris] would like more cake." : Kris would like some more cake.

"Kris would like some more cake, can you please pass it to they?" : Could you please pass the cake? Kris would like some more.

While my dictionary (Chambers 1990) does have a secondary definition of "they" as "he or she", it also says that this usage is "with pl. verb", as in "there are lots of people; they are happy". "They is" would not be correct.

  • 3
    Hooray! Someone who has understood the OP's dilemma. – Mari-Lou A Oct 28 '14 at 5:47
  • 4
    Personally, I would find they to be more insensitive, as if the person isn't really an individual. However, the singular they is continually used in literature and in speech. (Did you see what I did?) – Mari-Lou A Oct 28 '14 at 6:12
  • 20
    Rewording every single sentence to avoid pronouns could be seen as equally forced. (Especially when the alternative is one specifically requested by the referent.) – Rahul Oct 28 '14 at 7:37
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    How about, "Dammit, Kris, get the cake out of your mouth and ask for food yourself." – Jason C Oct 28 '14 at 15:17
  • 2
    "Kris left an umbrella" removes information about the ownership of the umbrella. "Kris left their umbrella" suggests it is the umbrella of Kris that was left, whereas if "Kris left an umbrella" the umbrella may or may not belong to Kris. – user53089 Oct 29 '14 at 5:14
14

I don't know anybody who declares themself to be a non-binary person or genderqueer. In fact, I'm not ashamed to admit I had to look up those terms. But if a person prefers to be not categorized as being one sex or the other, for whatever reason, we should respect their decision. And I believe this is the key issue, if your friend prefers the singular they then use that term whenever they are in your presence.

I'm sure they would be more offended or hurt if you deliberately preferred one gender pronoun, or worse still, used the supposedly politically correct "he or she" as in

He or she would like more cake

Now, how awful would that be?

Themself

[THIRD PERSON SINGULAR] Used instead of ‘himself’ or ‘herself’ to refer to a person of unspecified sex:
I hope no-one else ever finds themself in this position.

They
[SINGULAR] Used to refer to a person of unspecified sex: ask a friend if they could help

I nearly forgot.

Is the singular they grammatically correct? Well, yes. Will people object to your using it in speech, I doubt it. We use the singular they in our speech all the time. Would I use it in writing, it depends. If it were a formal letter or paper, probably not. Is the following phrase confusing, insensitive, or ungrammatical?

Kris would like some more cake, can you please pass it to them?

I don't think so, because the sentence begins with the person's first name, which makes it clear you are referring to a friend and to an individual.

Sources: Oxford Dictionaries

9

There are already several good answers, but just to add a few more cents, I would summarise the situation as:

  • Singular they is long-established, and indisputably grammatical, for referring either to a generic person (“If anyone disagrees, they should speak now.”) or persons of unknown gender (“Did you hear, there’s a new hire arriving tomorrow!  I wonder what they’re like?”). Contrary to some other answers, it doesn’t carry any connotations of plurality, lack of individuality, or the like.  (The Wikipedia article gives plenty of examples.)

  • When referring to a specific person of known gender, it’s less clear-cut.  For many speakers, it’s ungrammatical in such contexts (not prescriptively, but in the descriptivist sense that they would never say it, and find it jarring to hear/read).  However, this is perhaps changing; some speakers seem to find it OK.  Language has an interesting post on this, with good discussion in comments; Peter Shor’s answer to this question, and its comments, also exhibit speakers from both camps.

  • In any case, though, respecting someone’s choice of pronouns is surely worth making a small grammatical stretch for.  Personal experience: I used to be on the side of finding singular they with known referent ungrammatical; I also have a friend who prefers to go by they, and after just a little time using it, it came to feel perfectly normal.  (I’ve found the same thing with Spivak pronouns and similar. I was honestly slightly surprised by how quickly I got accustomed to them; I hadn’t expected it before using them regularly myself.)

  • 1
    I believe that "feeling of acceptability" is basically unrelated to any formal grammar definition, so thank you very much for reporting on your speed of adaptation! It's surprising - the received wisdom used to be that open-class words (like 'boombox' and 'snowclone') changed easily and often, but closed-class words (like pronouns) didn't. Seems that's maybe not quite true, or is cultural but not true for individuals. – Spike0xff Oct 29 '14 at 15:53
5

I grew up using the singular they, and in my grammar you should not use it for anybody who has been referenced by their name.

So this is wrong:

*Kris phoned, and they said you should return their call.

But this is fine:

Somebody called Kris phoned, and they said you should return their call.

On the other hand, if Kris wants to be called "they", you should try to overcome your natural grammatical instincts and call them "they". Although I would find it somewhat difficult, I would find it easier than calling them zhe or ey.

  • One possible scenario for using it even when referenced by name is when the speaker still doesn’t know the gender. “Hey Bob, you got a message on your answering machine from some Chris-person. I couldn’t even tell whether Chris was a man or a woman, but you’re supposed to call them back as soon as you can.” Maybe. – tchrist Oct 28 '14 at 14:05
  • @tchrist: I think I'd count that as grammatical. – Peter Shor Oct 28 '14 at 14:08
  • 2
    I frequently say something like "Kris phoned and said you should return their call," without feeling a hint of either gender-related or singular-plural awkwardness. It's not even something I think about, I do it even when there would be no difficulty inserting one of he or she. – Glen_b Oct 29 '14 at 1:00
5

As someone who is also non-binary and prefers "they" pronouns, the accepted answer is correct, but I'd like to point out that the examples replaced are also perfectly fine (with the exception of the third one, the correct usage there would be "can you please pass it to them").

May I also suggest simply asking your friend (privately) about their pronouns? I'm sure they wouldn't mind, and that would remove any confusion introduced by having a mutual friend tell you about this.

  • 1
    Agree. Seems to me that if the particular person expresses a preference, you should follow that preference. – Joe Oct 29 '14 at 14:51
  • Actually the accepted answer disagrees with using the singular they for non-binary persons, even when that person expressedly prefers that pronoun. – Mari-Lou A Oct 29 '14 at 16:30
4

It's "pass it to them", since "them" is the objective case of "they". Otherwise your three examples are all grammatically correct.

Suppose you meet some one you think is a woman but turns out to be a man. It is not grammatically incorrect to say "She is very smart". It's just semantically incorrect. In Peanuts Marcie refers to Patty as "Sir". That's not grammatically incorrect, it's just odd.

If

They would like more cake.

sounds odd, it's not because of the grammar. It's just that you're not used to calling (or hearing called) someone whose gender you think you know using a gender indefinite pronoun.

As a matter of politeness, you should probably call people as they want to be called. It's no different than addressing a transgendered person using the pronoun they prefer.

1

I cannot answer to the grammatical appropriateness of they (though others here seem to indicate it is becoming more acceptable). I can also agree with Dave Mulligan's answer that using the name ("Kris") in many situations would be most appropriate.

However, there are also other levels of appropriateness. I do not know how popular this opinion might be, but I value my freedom to classify a person as I want to and use the speech I want to refer to that person, no matter how they may want to be classified. That is, they have their right to classify themselves, but I have my own right to classify him or her differently (and classify him or her into a gender).

To me, this is entirely appropriate on other, non-grammatical levels (possibly philosophical, scientific, religious, etc., given circumstances), and if for no other reason that my perception.

And since it has long been grammatically appropriate to use "he" as a general or generic reference, (the Wikipedia article notes 18th century in textbooks, but examples in various languages go back thousands of years; see below), I may appropriately choose to do so still if I am seeking to make a generic reference (such would probably not be the case in the example given).

For example, Vern S. Poythress examined non-Biblical Greek texts (some "writings of Plutarch and Philo"), concluding:

Specific evidence nevertheless supports the idea that in Greek a male “flavor” attaches to occurrences of third person masculine pronouns and other masculine forms referring to human beings in a generic statement. This evidence favors the conclusion that use of masculine singular in English provides an appropriate match in meaning.

And early in the article had noted as well that:

Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek show here [in some Biblical texts] a pattern similar to English: the occurrence of the generic masculine sets up a perception that a male example is being used to express a general principle

So grammatical precedent for the generic "he" is well founded, should one choose to continue to use it.

Whether one considers the arguments for not using it in a generic sense valid or not, and also in any specific instance for classifying, is really up to the one speaking/writing, not the one being referred to. It is the one communicating that is attempting to convey his or her thoughts about the matter, not the target referent's thoughts on the matter (unless that happens to be the goal of the one communicating).

And in the example, even being friends, one might disagree with the other's self-perception, and have to weigh whether it is appropriate or not to honor his or her perception over one's own.

  • 2
    Whether you believe it or not, calling someone by a word influences them. In addition, whether you intend "genderless he" or "genered he" is impossible to tell: so it sounds to the person being referred to that you are being insensitive. Names are very similar: I ask people to call me Joe, not Joey, Joseph, Jdog. That's generally agreed to be my choice, and it would be very rude to call me by another name, wouldn't it? – Joe Oct 29 '14 at 14:55
  • @Joe: I do believe "a word influences," and also that choosing to not follow the choice may be perceived as rude by the referent. But it is precisely the "influence" of language that would be why I, as communicator, may choose to use a gendered "he" or "she" anyway, because from my perspective, it is more important to help that individual (and others) realize he or she does have a gender (even in those rare cases scientifically hard to determine), whether they choose to acknowledge it or not. Hence why "appropriateness" has other levels than grammatical a communicator might consider. – ScottS Oct 29 '14 at 15:44
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    That is incredibly insensitive and condescending. – Joe Oct 29 '14 at 15:51
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    @Joe: As my answer noted, "I do not know how popular this opinion might be," which was a rhetorical way of saying I know it is not popular opinion to consider such matters as expressing what one perceives as truth (which many consider relative) over hurting the feelings of others (which many consider sacrosanct) in the use of language. Yet that is precisely my point, that as the one communicating, I believe I have an obligation to speak truth as I understand it, above the obligation to "be sensitive." If I can do both, great! But in this case, without using the individual's name, not likely. – ScottS Oct 29 '14 at 16:13
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    I'm not going to continue this as it's not productive - but you should strongly reconsider whether you are in a place to tell someone else what they are or are not. – Joe Oct 29 '14 at 16:14
-1

Wouldn't "It" be more appropriate since it is non-gender and singular?

"My friend is here. It is hungry and wants cake." "It left an umbrella at my house.

  • 9
    Unfortunately, in addition to being ungendered and singular, “it” has a long history as the pronoun of choice for objects and monsters. – Tyler James Young Oct 28 '14 at 18:17
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    I tell people to call me "it", but so far no one has acquiesced. It's an unfortunate side-effect of being a person. – Keen Oct 28 '14 at 18:34
-6

My main gripe is the gratuitous change of number that sometimes happens when someone is trying to avoid gender-specific pronouns.

Example:
[old way] "Everybody has at least three dollars in his wallet." Formerly, when the gender of the antecedent was not specified the pronoun was forced to masculine.

[misguided attempt at gender neutrality] "Everybody has at least three dollars in their wallet." Everybody is singular in number, which is why we do not say, "Everybody are going to the movies."

[how I would do it] "Everybody has at least three dollars in its wallet." Gender is forced to neuter using an already-existing pronoun, and singular number is preserved.

The following may prove useful to the OP. http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gender-specific_and_gender-neutral_pronouns
http://genderneutralpronoun.wordpress.com

  • 3
    You've completely missed the point. The subject in question (Kris) is asking to be referred by the pronoun, they. The OP is unsure if this usage is grammatically acceptable, or if there are better alternatives. – Mari-Lou A Oct 28 '14 at 5:44
  • 1
    Ma'am, I don't agree that I've missed the point at all. The OP's buddy merely doesn't identify with a gender. I shall bend over backwards to honor that preference -- It's easy enough to do. -- but I draw the line at referring to the chap as if "they" were a collective rather than an individual. – Senex Ægypti Parvi Oct 28 '14 at 6:11
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    That comment is more relevant and pertinent than the answer posted. – Mari-Lou A Oct 28 '14 at 6:15
  • 2
    -1 Many genderqueer/non-binary individuals prefer the use of singular they. It's not gratuitous if it is the person's stated preference. – Roger Oct 28 '14 at 13:18
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    To show exactly how important I view my being repeatedly downvoted on this issue -- in spite of having adhered strictly to the truth in the post -- I shall now attempt to repeatedly downvote myself. Furthermore, I invite others to downvote me, as well. – Senex Ægypti Parvi Oct 28 '14 at 18:54

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