They isnt new.
Many nonbinary people, who dont identify as male or female, have been using the pronouns they and them for years. Being able to use a pronoun thats not he or she is really affirming and really welcoming and freeing for many people, Addison Rose Vincent, acting executive director of the nonprofit Intersex & Genderqueer Recognition Project, told Vox.
And when people use they and them pronouns, theyre tapping into a long history they has been used as a singular pronoun in English since the late 1300s, if not before.
Despite this background, the pronoun has received pushback, with grammar sticklers arguing that its incorrect English and right-wing commentators dismissing its use as mere political correctness. University of Toronto professor Jordan Peterson, for example, proclaimed in 2016, I dont recognize another persons right to determine what pronouns I use to address them.
But recently, they has been getting a new level of mainstream recognition. In September, Merriam-Webster added the singular pronoun they, used to refer to a single person whose gender identity is nonbinary, or to a person whose gender is unknown or is intentionally not revealed. And earlier this month, the publication went a step further and chose the pronoun as its Word of the Year. Meanwhile, this October, the American Psychological Association (APA) endorsed the use of the singular they in scholarly writing.
For groups like the APA, the change is about recognizing that the pronouns he and she dont describe all Americans. We wanted to be sure that our entire community knows that we see you, we hear you, we value you, Emily Ayubi, director of APA Style, told Vox. And for some nonbinary people, the changes are a sign that mainstream publications and groups are finally catching up to where they already are.
Its really important for these organizations to take a stance, Vincent said, but at the same time, we dont necessarily need the approval or validation of anyone else to be who we are.
The first known use of the singular they occurs in the 1375 poem William and the Werewolf, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. Each man hurried ... till they drew near ... where William and his darling were lying together, reads the relevant part of the poem, using a modern English translation. But its likely that the pronoun was in use long before then, writes Dennis Baron at the OED blog. In fact, the singular they didnt fall out of favor until the 18th century, when grammarians started discouraging its use, according to Baron.
Over time, he or she (often just he) became more common. For example, someone might say a person should enjoy his or her vacation.
But, as Baltimore Sun copy editor John E. McIntyre noted, 19th- and 20th-century writers from Jane Austen to W.H. Auden still used the singular they. And while some people used they to describe a person whose gender was unknown or to conceal that persons gender nonbinary people began using the pronoun as well.
For people who dont identify as male or female, it was difficult to navigate having to choose between he and she, Vincent said, since neither applied. Instead, many nonbinary people use the pronouns they and them meaning its correct to say, They went to the store rather than She (or he) went to the store.
They and them arent the only pronouns nonbinary people use others have included ze and hir. But for people who do use those pronouns, its a way of reclaiming a history of the English language in which they has long been used in a gender-neutral way, Vincent said.
As the use of they became more visible, right-wing critics began to push back against its use. Among the most famous was Peterson, a psychology professor whos hailed by conservatives and libertarians as a member of the intellectual dark web. In response to a 2016 Canadian bill banning discrimination on the basis of gender identity or expression, Peterson announced, Im not using the words that other people require me to use. Especially if theyre made up by radical left-wing ideologues.
Others have argued against the singular they on grammatical rather than political grounds. New Yorker copy editor Mary Norris, for example, called it just wrong in her 2015 book Between You & Me. (However, she also said in a 2016 interview that when it comes to pronouns, You should call people what they want to be called.)
Ultimately, critics of singular they are increasingly in the minority as more publications and groups like the APA endorse the use of the pronoun. Writers are using it in two main scenarios, which Chelsea Lee outlined in an APA Style blog post in October: when referring to a generic person whose gender is unknown or irrelevant to the context and when referring to a specific, known person who uses they as their pronoun.
While the APA endorses the use of correct pronouns to refer to specific people, it also supports using they in a general context, as in the sentence, Each student submitted their art portfolio to the committee. Using their in this case, rather than his or her, acknowledges that some students might not use he or she pronouns.
The APA change is important because scholars in psychology and other fields, as well as librarians, authors, and editors, look to the organizations guidelines for advice, Ayubi said. The groups goal in making the change was to help ensure that everyone across the academy is using affirming and inclusive language, Ayubi added. We feel that its important for all readers to see themselves in academic works.
The APA was also joining a growing list of publications that use the singular they. The Washington Post officially sanctioned the use of the pronoun in 2015; the Associated Press began allowing its use in limited cases in 2017. Vox has long had a policy of using the correct pronouns for all people, but has now updated its style guide to recommend the use of they in generic contexts rather than he or she.
The shift by the APA is part of a broader one in American society, as more companies, nonprofits, and individuals who do identify as male or female recognize something that nonbinary people have been saying for some time: The pronouns he and she dont include everybody. That shift includes a move by people of all genders to list pronouns in their social media bios and email signatures, to point out that pronouns arent always obvious and shouldnt be taken for granted. Several Democratic presidential candidates, for example, including Elizabeth Warren, Pete Buttigieg, and Julin Castro, include their pronouns in their Twitter bios.
In general, thats good practice for everybody, Vincent said. Whenever and wherever you introduce yourself with your name, introduce yourself with your own gender pronouns if possible, they advised. You never know the impact that youll make on a nonbinary or trans person, who might feel a little bit safer talking to you, they explained. (Its not always safe for nonbinary or trans people to be open about their gender identity, and some have made the point that pronoun-sharing in academic settings, for example, shouldnt be required.)
And even though nonbinary people dont need a stamp of approval from the outside, changes by the APA and others are a positive step forward, Vincent said. It really helps to have these bigger organizations, especially those that are around mental health and grammar and writing, to be able to be behind us now.
Overall, they said, its about time.
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