Same word + new meaning = different confusion

Nonbinary pride flag

Happy 2020! It’s the start of a brand-new decade that’s sure to bring changes we can’t yet imagine. Turning points like this inspire language observers of every ilk to focus on how our common lexicon has evolved during the past ten years. Various language-focused organizations revealed their selections for 2019 Word of the Year (WOTY) over recent months, and now the American Dialect Society (ADS) has picked its own winner, “(my) pronouns.” The organization also announced its official Word of the Decade: singular “they.”

Both are surprising in a way. It is quite unusual for pronouns to garner buckets of attention or undergo a dramatic change in meaning. “They” isn’t an unfamiliar word by any stretch of the imagination, but its use as a singular pronoun is relatively novel (although it was also Merriam Webster’s 2019 WOTY and ADS’ annual selection way back in 2015).

Some brave souls have long used “they” in place of “he” or “she” when the gender of the person in question is unknown. (e.g. Please have your accountant review the numbers today if they have time.) Others have yearned to do so but remained unable to overcome the guilt and shame it would create, knowing such behavior would incur the disapproval of English teachers everywhere. Rules or no rules, there’s a reasonable argument to be made that in the absence of a gender-neutral singular pronoun it’s perfectly okay to use “they” to refer to one person.

But that’s not what’s happening here. Singular “they” isn’t being universally welcomed as a logical response to the lack of a better alternative. Or rather, it is, but from a gender-identity perspective rather than a grammatical one. “They” can now indicate that the individual to which the word refers identifies as nonbinary (neither male nor female).

The selection of “they” for Word of the Decade signifies broad acceptance of non-traditional gender identification as a thing, whether or not one happens to approve of it. Languages morph along with our shared understanding of the physical world as well as the human experience, and identifying as nonbinary is now so commonplace that English speakers need a way to linguistically accommodate the phenomenon.

That reality is similarly illustrated by the 2019 ADS WOTY, “(my) pronouns.” In many social contexts, especially among the young, standard forms of introduction both in person and in writing include announcing one’s pronoun preferences:

  • “Hi, I’m Elvira; my pronouns are she/her.”
  • “It’s nice to meet you, Elvira. I go by Elvis, he/him.”
  • “This is Shelby; they/them.”

Acknowledging variations in gender identity is no longer a behavior limited to the fringes of society. It’s basic etiquette, so formulating standard protocols for handling communications involving nonbinary folks is to everyone’s advantage. That’s why I’d never quibble about the disagreement in number inherent to the singular “they.”

I would, however, argue that while helpful in solving one social stumbling block, the singular “they” creates another. In the past, when people opted for “they” because they didn’t know someone’s gender, it was a clear admission that the speaker/writer lacked this bit of data. But now that “they” can also carry a specific meaning, using it in a singular sense creates doubt of another sort.

Does “they,” when referring to one person, mean that this person’s gender is known to be nonbinary or does it mean the speaker/writer doesn’t know the individual personally and has no clue as to his/her/their gender? There’s no way to tell!

Of course, in one sense it doesn’t matter. Civilized people offer respect and kindness to others no matter what their gender may be. But in a business context, for example, it’s awkward to have to keep guessing or drafting cumbersome sentences to avoid gender-specific pronouns – which is precisely why syntax scofflaws began using singular “they” in the first place, long before nonbinary gender identification was ever acknowledged in polite society.

As the 2010s transition to the 2020s, it’s clear we’re making significant strides towards a society that accepts diversity in all its forms. But just as obvious is the fact that we’ve got a long way to go in terms of perfecting that whole pronoun thing.

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Sarah Warlick

Sarah Warlick founded Proof Positive Content to provide professional service firms with high-quality content that resonates with their target audiences. Sarah's writing appears in books, on the websites of over a dozen Top 100 Accounting Firms and in Accounting Today, Forbes and other leading publications, but usually under another name. Ghostwriters rarely get the glory - their clients do!