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I’ve heard that they is used as a word to refer to people who are non-binary. Since English is not my first language, I’m not sure what the difference is between they and it in these usages.

Of course, I know that it is mainly used for things rather than people. But I’ve simply thought it is more neutral than they. In this context, is it possible to write it to a person? Could this be a rude act? Or is it because it is often not used as a personal pronoun, so it’s confusing?

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  • If the question is simply 'Why shouldn't I use it in this way?', then the answer is 'Because it just isn't done', and the posted answers all essentially amount to that. Behind this trivial question, there lurks, however, a more interesting one: why is there a strong movement that advocates using they as a singular gender-neutral pronoun, and no comparable movement that advocates adopting it for persons? Considered in the abstract (apart from the fact that the singular-they movement has gained considerable momentum) the arguments for and against the two practices are not very different. – jsw29 May 31 at 18:47
  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – tchrist Jun 2 at 18:27
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Indeed, it is rude to refer to a person as "it", which is the pronoun for objects and animals (except sometimes when the animal's sex is known). You shouldn't use it for people.

Singular they (though not universally accepted) has a number of uses:

  • Talking about a generic or unknown person: "Will the owner of the blue car turn off their lights?"
  • Talking about a person you know that the other person doesn't, whose gender isn't particularly relevant: "My friend, they were at the store this one time..."
  • As a personal pronoun. It is widely used even by people who aren't non-binary: for example, people who take up they/them online for anonymity or to not have their gender influence how people perceive them.

On Writing SE I evaluated different pronouns that can be used for a non-binary person. Here's the relevant section on it:

It is the pronoun used for inanimate objects and animals (usually, though even animals are given gendered pronouns when known).

Polls (gender census) indicate that some people want to be referred to as it, though I have never seen this, ever. However, referring to a person as it is almost always intended as an insult, an insult I’ve seen used specifically to make real-life trans people feel less than human.

In the media, the same trope is used over and over again for the same purpose: "It" Is Dehumanizing (there are many, many examples, most of which have nothing to do with gender identity admittedly).


Note:

  • There is a grammatical construct that makes it look like the pronoun it is being used as a person's personal pronoun. It's not. Compare "it's Andy" with "it's me", "it's you", and even "it's Harry and Glenda". It's called "dummy it", which is also used in "it's raining".
  • There is one time it's ok to refer to a person as it, and that's when it's a baby. But when you do know the sex of the baby, it's customary to use the appropriate gendered pronoun. (Though a very small minority of people have decided to just use they/them pronouns for their child from birth, until the child can decide what pronouns to use.)
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    @istist You may want to look at the TVTropes link: tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/… which, like I said, doesn't have much to do with gender identity (also links in my post have now been fixed) – Laurel May 30 at 17:33
  • Why is there a strict distinction between pronouns that refer to people and things? Because referring to somebody (not a baby) by it or thing is an insult—we just don't do it. Consider these lyrics from the Disney song Cruella de Vil: "Cruella De Vil Cruella De Vil If she doesn't scare you No evil thing will" – Peter Shor May 30 at 17:48
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    @istist In English, the personal pronoun it (plus casewise inflections of that word) refers only to things not to beings. This is about marking something for animacy as opposed to inanimacy. – tchrist May 30 at 18:29
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    @PeterShor, I think you made it backwards: it is because the [English] language has such distinction, it can be used as an insult. There are languages without the animacy concept, and they are not even aware such an insult is possible. Some strictly gendered languages have purely grammatical animacy, and one needs to compose a very odd sentence (in the inanimate or neuter gender form) to apply to a human, in order to create a deliberate insult. – Zeus May 31 at 3:29
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    For an example of it being used as a pronoun, Neil Gaiman used "it" when referring to the non-binary character Desire in The Doll's House (1990), though an argument can be made that Desire isn't exactly a person. He later moved on to refer to Desire using "she-he", and finally to using "they". – eirikdaude May 31 at 8:51
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In English, different pronouns are used depending on the animacy of what is referred to. There are three cases:

  • People are referred to using "he," "she," or "they" (or sometimes using invented pronouns).
  • Inanimate objects are referred to using "it."
  • Animals may be referred to either way. If the speaker thinks of the animal as being like a person, then they will usually use "he," "she," or "they." On the other hand, if the speaker thinks of the animal as being like an object, then they will usually use "it." People usually refer to housepets as "he" or "she," but they usually refer to vermin and pests as "it."

Referring to a person using "it" is offensive and extremely rude, because it implies that the person is vermin or an inanimate object instead of a true person.

Why is there a distinction between pronouns referring to people and objects? It's simply part of the meaning of those words. Part of the meaning of the words "he" and "she" is that the thing referred to is a person (or animal), not an inanimate object. Likewise, part of the meaning of the word "it" is that the thing referred to is an inanimate object (or animal), not a person.

If you don't know a nonbinary person's pronouns, then you should definitely refer to them using "they"; referring to them using "it" would be extremely rude.

(Of course, as GArthurBrown points out in a comment, there are a lot of common phrases where the word "it" seems to refer to a person. The examples he gave are: "Who is it?" "It's Joe?" "Oh, it's the guy from the auto shop." "It's a boy!" The way that I would think of these sentences is that the word "it" refers not to a person, but to a position that a person is in, such as "standing on the doorstep," "calling me on the phone," or "newly born.")

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    "Who is it?" "It's Joe?" "Oh, it's the guy from the auto shop." "It's a boy!" – GArthurBrown May 30 at 23:41
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    @GArthurBrown Perhaps read the other answer to understand part of why your comment doesn't apply. There are several types of it in English. The it in your example is a form of dummy it. – Araucaria - Not here any more. May 31 at 1:35
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    You have an interesting point of view to think of those sentences as "a position that a person is in". I don't think that's how I think of it, or grammatically what it means, but I can't find fault with it in terms of when you'd use it, and it seems pretty cool. – Hello Goodbye May 31 at 2:17
  • @Araucaria-Nothereanymore. That is why I did not make this comment on the other answer. Comments are in regard to the answer or comment they reply to. – GArthurBrown May 31 at 3:21
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You will still, rarely, hear people call babies “it” without any negative connotations. This is a vestige of the Old English word for child having once been grammatically neuter, and was more common in the past. The King James Bible does this sometimes (“Take this child away, and nurse it for me ....”) and so does Shakespeare (“If ever he have child, abortive be it, prodigious, and untimely brought to light, whose ugly and unnatural aspect may fright the hopeful mother at the view ....”) A quick Web search turned up current examples like, “Parents with a new baby are almost always asked, ‘Is it a boy or a girl?’”

I’ve never heard of anyone requesting to be called “it,” but I suppose someone eventually will, to be different.

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If a non-binary person is introducing themself to others, they will state their pronoun. And if you're not sure of someone's pronoun, you could always ask them — it's just as socially acceptable as asking someone their name.

IME non-binary people's most frequent choice of pronoun is "they". Some choose a neo-pronoun. I don't know anybody who prefers "it".

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As others have said, "it" is predominantly used for non-human items, and sometimes for animals. On top of that, historically "it" has been used in a dehumanizing way, because of that nonhuman/subhuman association. There's even a book "A Child Called It" that handles the implicit dehumanization of the word (as well as other forms of mistreatment/abuse). That said, I do personally know a few people who have reclaimed it/itself pronouns for themselves - ie people have used "it" for those people in a mean way, and they embrace it instead of letting the word hurt them (note my use of they/them here is plural, for just one of these friends I would talk about it choosing not to let the word "it" hurt it). The polite thing to do is to use "they" for a person of unknown gender, use "they" for anyone who asks you to use they for themself, and use "it" only if someone has asked for that pronoun for itself. And of course use "he" and "she" for the masses that prefer gendered pronouns for themselves. If you know someone's pronouns, use exactly the ones that person has asked for.

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All languages have the resources to distinguish between the male and the female among animal species. It has, after all, always been fundamental to reproduction and until comparatively recently, to social organisation. So it is not surprising that languages have a male and a female gender. Some, like Greek and Latin, had a separate 'non-gender' (in both cases, the word for 'neither', 'oudeteros' <ουδετερος> in Greek and 'neuter' in Latin). AS has already been said, matters got confused as genders were used for the inanimate as well as for the animate. English is one of the languages that, though it does not have gender as a general feature of nouns and adjectives, unlike the European romance languages, and yet, unlike those and other languages, does have a neuter form of its 'personal pronoun'.

I am not aware of any language that has the resources to cater for multiple or binary gender identity. Biologically, the difference between make and female is clear, with comparatively rare exceptions. So the problem is how a language can adapt to the still controversial idea that there are some people who do not wish to be identified by one of the two 'standard' genders. The answer, I'm afraid, is that it cannot. First of all, the idea of non-binary gender is far from widely enough accepted to be integrated into everyday conversation or even formal writing. Second, there is no resource in the language for 'both'. You could use the term 'ambo' to designate the identity itself, but that does not supply a recognisable personal pronoun. There is none available.

So should we resort to the standard gender-avoidance strategy of the genderless plural 'They/them/their'? Well, we could. The trouble is that in that case we should have to become accustomed to the use of this generally plural pronoun as the immediate subject of a singular verb. But how can this happen by any natural evolution, when the English speaking world is far from accord on the distinctions that lie behind it? The alternative, the use of the neuter pronoun, which you mention, poses much the same problem.

If there is a solution, it is probably that the binary person's name will have to be used when their grammatical role is as subject of a verb, and 'them' and 'their' elsewhere. I am not proposing this: only predicting that that this is more likely to have linguistic legs than any alternative.

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