singular they and respecting an individual’s pronoun preferencePosted: January 30, 2023 Filed under: Blogging, Language, Society, Writing Leave a comment
I have long attempted to be aware and sensitive in my writing. I have a copy on my shelf of Handbook of Nonsexist Writing. It was published in 1980, and I have a paperback edition published in 1981. Perhaps parts of it are dated, but it shows that consciousness and inclusiveness in writing is not a new topic. As the world has become aware that gender identity is not always a binary matter the subject has become more visible. No doubt the pandemic lockdown gave this a boost when we were all on Zoom and many of us put our preferred pronouns next to our name. That has become a convention on LinkedIn as well.
I discovered that writing in a conscious manner is not necessarily as easy as it might seem. I recently reviewed the book How Far the Light Reaches by Sabrina Imbler. Imbler identifies as nonbinary and uses the pronouns they/their/them. I attempted to respect that in my review. I thought I had done a pretty good job but searched on “she” and “her” just to be sure. Was I wrong! The review contained female pronouns throughout that I had to correct. I even wrote, “Imbler identifies as nonbinary and I use her pronouns of choice.” (And yes, I fixed that as well before hitting the Publish button).
Some people still get their knickers in a knot about singular they, but for many of us that ship has sailed. The seventeenth edition of The Chicago Manual of Style states, “When referring specifically to a person who does not identify with a gender-specific pronoun, however, they and its forms are often preferred.” and “In general, a person’s stated preference for a specific pronoun should be respected.” But Chicago hedges its bets. Section 5 is the “Style and Usage” section written by Bryan A. Garner. Garner writes, “For now, unless you are given guidelines to the contrary, be wary of using these forms in a singular sense.” Garner does, to his credit, repeat the assertion that a person’s preference is to be honored.
In the fifth edition of his Modern English Usage, published just last November, Garner provides a detailed history and analysis of the singular they. He concludes with some rather circumspect advice:
How future generations will deal with disambiguating they as either singular or plural in Standard Written English remains to be seen. Only time will tell. In the meantime, careful writers using the singular they must take care to avoid ambiguities, miscues, and awkwardness.
Of course, I’m not making any revelations in saying that singular they is nothing new. Grammarians and linguists have been making this point for a very long time. An article on the Oxford English Dictionary web site states that the usage goes back to at least 1375. I have seen it mentioned many times that Shakespeare used singular they and that he used it more than once. For example, an essay on the old Language Log web site at the University of Pennsylvania cites two examples, including this one:
There’s not a man I meet but doth salute me
As if I were their well-acquainted friend
There are plenty of other examples throughout literature, and much ink has been spilled (or many electrons rearranged) on the subject, so I won’t go on beating a horse that should be dead.
In a world filled with people like Ron DeSantis, where we are fighting battles that should have long ago been won, the least we can do is honor the wishes of our nonbinary
brothers and sisters siblings.
And if I slip up kindly let me know.