What's up with the singular 'they' these days?

Dear English language: You know I value how you let us communicate clearly while accommodating variations. As your friend, I was so glad when you embraced the singular "they" as a gender-neutral pronoun. But now people are asking me about the singular "they" again. Are things OK between you two? What's going on? Whatever you decide, I'm here for you.

My name is Karin, and my pronouns are she, her, and hers. Sound familiar?

It might not. Once upon a time - say, two years ago - many of us didn't think much about which pronoun we used. Women used "she," men used "he"; the end. Not long ago I went to bat for the widespread adoption of the singular "they" for situations when gender is not known or not important. Jane Austen and Shakespeare used the singular "they," as did other esteemed writers well into the 20th century despite grammarians' best efforts. Unlike some other languages, English doesn't typically gender its nouns; why not embrace a genderless pronoun for people?

There has been resistance, of course, because "they" is still technically a plural pronoun, and so to classically trained ears "they" sounds like a mismatch when paired with a singular noun. Yet with surprising speed, the singular "they" has caught on. In 2016 the American Dialect Society chose the singular "they" as its Word of the Year.

But fame has come at a cost. The singular "they" is being used not only in situations where an individual's gender is unknown or irrelevant, but also in what can seem like the exact opposite: to refer to particular, known individuals who do not identify themselves as either male or female and want to make that fact clear.

Wait, what?

Yes. The singular "they" now means three things: (1) the familiar gender-neutral plural ("the students should bring their backpacks"); (2) the reaffirmed gender-neutral singular ("each student should bring their backpack"), and (3) the shiny new non-binary singular ("Davon will bring their backpack").

The fact that there are people who do not identify as male or female should not be surprising. I've been drawing breath these past couple of decades and have managed to notice binary male/ female gender designation has gone the way of broadcast television; it's still out there, accompanied by a lot of alternatives. Consider that garden of alternatives, and imagine the situation of folks who are transgender and intersex, for example; they live in a world where they are assigned a male/female gender at birth that may or may not match the gender they identify with as they get older. "He" and "she" don't quite reflect the facts on the ground.

What's a writer to do? How about what a good writer always does: accurately reflect the facts while respecting both our readers and the people we write about. The challenge right now is that some of the people we write about - the individuals who want to refer to themselves as "they", not "he" or "she" - have a preference that is at odds with traditional grammar (and therefore with many of us word-nerd readers). Readers don't want change, but others in society are insisting on it. Whose preference gets honored?

Usually I go with the reader; anything that is familiar, simple, and clear wins. But sometimes reader preferences must yield to a higher objective, and here, I think transgender allies have the better argument. The use of binary he/she pronouns to refer to people who do not identify as he/she is not only inaccurate but can also be disrespectful, alienating, and even scary (because transgender people become victims of violence more often than most of us). If what's familiar to my reader is alienating to the person I am writing about, then the reality is that I am not helping one side to better understand the other.

So here are my tips for legal writers, revised and updated to reflectâ?¦ well, reality.

The easiest choice is still to write around the trilemma whenever you can. If you can make a sentence plural and use "they" in its most widely accepted sense, do it. A columnist should avoid annoying their readers becomes Columnists should avoid annoying their readers. Another good option is to simply drop the possessive pronoun (his, her, their), or substitute an article (a, an, the), as in: A writer should avoid distracting readers; A writer should avoid distracting the readers.

Before you write about a specific individual, do your diligence. In practice, this means learning how people refer to themselves-through their spoken and written words and through communications with people close to them. (Speaking of diligence, if you'd like to signal to transgender and intersex clients and witnesses that they can talk safely with you about their gender identity, I am reliably informed that there are two socially acceptable ways of doing it. The first and easiest is to include your pronouns when you introduce yourself (see above). It's also okay to ask people "What are your pronouns?")

Recognize that you are on the frontiers of inclusion, and help your reader join you there. When introducing someone who uses a pronoun other than "he" or "she," try dropping in an early footnote or a parenthetical note that "X uses the pronoun they." If lawyers are good at one thing, it's leaving tracks for readers to refer back to-so offer your readers that assistance as a courtesy. And speaking of the frontiers of inclusionâ?¦

Remember that these tips come from the Ciano Manual of Style; until the real style manuals catch up, your mileage may vary so please draft accordingly. I welcome everyone's feedback and thoughts on how to write gender clearly, succinctly, and respectfully. Whatever you decide, I'm here for you.

Published: Fri, May 11, 2018

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