I am They as You are They


My use of “they” over “he” or “she” has greatly increased over these last few years.

I use “they” when I don’t know the gender of the person or when the gender of the person is irrelevant.

Further, by “know the gender,” I used to mean my perception of a person’s gender and now I mean that I know because they have told me. This includes people who present as specifically male or as specifically female.

While I identify as cis male and my preferred gender pronouns are he, him, and his, I have a second mailbox that I use for certain work that I do. In the past year, I have started referring to myself as “they” in my out-of-office messages for that mailbox because my gender is not relevant to my work in that capacity. But I would find it odd to refer to myself as “they” in an out-of-office message referring to myself in the account bearing my name, because I am writing in my capacity as myself, and I identify as gendered.

As to morphology, for a single person of unknown gender, non-gendered, or irrelevant gender:
they are/were
(“they is” strikes me as ungrammatical)
but
themself
(“themselves” strikes me as ungrammatical”).

Idiosyncratic, I know.

As someone whose preferred diminutive is often mispelled and whose family name is often mispronounced, I am sympathetic to those who have a preferred form of address. That said, I am not perfect and can make mistakes, which I would and have apologized for.

Actually, pronouns are less fraught for me than nouns.

For a period in my life, I was equally comfortable calling both males and females “you guys.” But now I feel uncomfortable using the term as it implies I am making an assumption about their gender. And it’s a very ingrained term for me which I struggle to eliminate from my speech.

A pair of fraught nouns for me are “Sir” and “Ma’am.” As someone who has reached an age where I am sirred a lot more than I used to be, but who strives to be egalitarian – or at least grant the illusion to myself that I am – I tend to say “Sir” or “Ma’am” back. But I find I randomly (and entirely inadvertently) choose what seems in retrospect from their voice to be the the wrong one, especially when it’s dark or I don’t get a good look at the person I’m saying it to (and that’s before we get to the question of whether the person sirring me is non-binary). I’d love to have an equivalent non-gendered term so that I can continue to feel egalitarian while being respectful of the other person’s gender identity. (That leaves aside the matter that they have assumed my gender by sirring me, even though their assumption happens to be correct.)

[added December 16, 2017:]

Mr. and Mrs./Ms. are also fraught for me, and I wind up salutating unknown people in emails by their full name, even as they continue to address me as Mr., again an assumption, even though a correct one. I’m given to understand there is an Mx. salutation, but it’s not well known enough and I’m not clear whether it is to be used strictly for non-binary people or whether it is also to be used when the gender identity of the addressee is unknown. Hopefully, time will make it as common as Ms. and I won’t have to wonder about such things but for now it is going to have to be sufficient for me that I am following the front of the curve on “they.”

Just yesterday, I found myself using “they” to someone’s boss to refer to some work that person had done, even though I believed the person I was referring to identified as male. And I had a microsecond of mental hesitation before I did it, but their gender wasn’t relevant to the work so I went ahead. If the boss or their assistant were surprised at this, they didn’t show it.

And last night in a dream, while I was trying to find an abandoned bagel which I had taken a bite from and left in a small paper bag in a book store among other abandoned bagels in small paper bags, someone who appeared male told me that they were using “they” more often and I replied that I was doing the same.

I daresay that I now use singular “they” more often than I use “he” or “she,” that it is no longer a matter of ensuring that I do not misgender anyone, but an acceptance that the distinction is no longer necessary in spoken English any more than it is in spoken Chinese. Of course, this is even further ahead of the curve, but by such small steps “Her Martianus and Valentinus onfengon rice, and ricsodon seofon winter.” changed to “In this year Martianus and Valentinus succeeded to kingship, and ruled seven years.”

For those who bemoan a loss of clarity, language deals. The loss of the “you” singular/plural distinction begat “y’all,” something that I occasionally employ despite not being a Southerner, because it is useful. (As a former Pittsburgher, I’d rather be saying “yinz,” but most people wouldn’t understand me.) If I want to be more formal, I might say “you all.” Perhaps we will eventually reserve “they” as singular, and use “they all” when we want to be clear that we are using the plural. And maybe “we” for exclusive “we” and “we all” for inclusive we. (English doesn’t currently make the inclusive/exclusive distinction, but some languages, such as Hokkien (Min Nan) and Cherokee, do.)

We are in an interesting new age. I don’t regret it, even as I don’t always get it right.

(This has been my reaction to an essay A letter saying they won filed by Geoffrey K. Pullum under Names, singular “they”, Syntax, as well as a response If you can’t say something nice… by Kirby Conrod, both in the Language Log blog. There have been additional follow-up posts on that blog as well.)

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