Language evolves, but that evolution is preferably gradual and organic, giving people time to adjust to new ways of using and understanding words. Most people now use flight attendant rather than stewardess, for example, even though the latter was for decades the acceptable term.
Even a relatively radical neologism can gain acceptance over time: the honorific Ms. was initially adopted by feminists as a way of protesting the use of Mrs. or Miss. In 1972, the editors of the inaugural issue of Ms. Magazine argued that it should be used “as a standard form of address by women who want to be recognized as individuals, rather than being identified by their relationship with a man.” But it was 14 years before the New York Times adopted the term, and even longer before it became merely an unobjectionable option for women to use to describe themselves.
This week, dictionary-maker Merriam-Webster announced that its editors had chosen they as its word of the year for 2019. It was chosen not for its traditional use as a plural pronoun but in its newly adopted use by gender “non-binary” people as a singular pronoun. “A surge in searches for the definition of an old-school pronoun signals a new, non-binary meaning,” the New York Times noted.
As the Times reported, Merriam-Webster’s editor-at-large Peter Sokolowski offered several examples to justify the dictionary’s choice, and they were revealing of the politics behind it: “During a House Judiciary Committee hearing, Representative Pramila Jayapal noted that ‘they’ is her child’s pronoun; the singer Sam Smith announced that their pronouns are ‘they’ and ‘them’; and the American Psychological Association recommended that singular ‘they’ be used in academic writing to refer to a person whose gender is unknown or who uses it.”
This shouldn’t surprise anyone who has followed the goings-on at Merriam-Webster in recent years; the dictionary has been burnishing its progressive credentials through its word-of-the-year choices for some time: the dictionary staff’s 2017 pick was “feminism,” and in 2018 it was “justice.” Runners-up for this year’s word included impeachment-related terms such as “quid pro quo.”
Progressives on social media praised the choice as a much-needed acknowledgment of trans and non-binary inclusivity and acceptance. But should a grammatical debate begin and end with statements about identity politics? As well, if the world needs a new gender-neutral pronoun, why create unnecessary confusion by co-opting a useful and established word like they when there are other alternatives?
As Jonathan Rauch argued in The Atlantic about the acronym LGBTQ, which has endured endless additions to incorporate an increasing number of sexual preferences, such efforts at inclusivity ultimate yield something unwieldy as a descriptive tool. He proposed an elegant solution to this proliferation problem with LGBTQ: use “Q” as a catchall term for all non-heterosexual people.
“Give it any etymology you wish,” Rauch wrote. “Regardless, the term would be understood to encompass sexual minorities of all stripes. When we speak of ourselves as individuals, we would use gay or lesbian or transgender or whatever applies. When we need a blanket term, we would simply call ourselves Q. As in: the Q population and Q equality. Q is simple and inclusive, and carries minimal baggage.”
The larger question left unexplored by everyone celebrating the use of the non-binary they is the expectation behind it: That it is an unalloyed good for people to constantly signal their personal preferences. There’s also an undertone of cultural bullying in the insistence that everyone immediately conform to this new use of other people’s preferred pronouns. This isn’t the accommodation of society to people with physical disabilities or other challenges over which they have no control. It is rather a new kind of individualism in extremis.
As British pop star Sam Smith told the BBC earlier this year when he came out as non-binary and said his preferred pronouns are “they/them,” “I understand there will be many mistakes and misgendering, but all I ask is you please please try. I hope you can see me like I see myself now.” As nice as it is to assume the world will see each of us as we see ourselves (in our complicated individual glory), it’s misguided to assume that such changes can be dictated from above by cultural elites (or dictionaries) rather than gathering support slowly and steadily over time through common use.
Of course, many of the people celebrating they as word of the year clearly see its use as a requirement, not a suggestion. The American Psychological Association (APA) states that any discomfort with the awkward construction of using they as a singular pronoun would not be tolerated: “If you are writing about a person who uses ‘they’ as their pronoun, then yes, you have to use it. Respectful and inclusive language is important. And it’s part of APA Style,” the organization noted.
In 2016, the New York City Commission on Human Rights declared that “refusal to use a transgender employee’s preferred name, pronoun, or title may constitute unlawful gender-based harassment.” Indeed, we are not supposed to even use the phrase “preferred pronouns” because pronoun use isn’t optional any longer. As Trans Student Education Resources notes, “We also do not use ‘preferred pronouns’ due to people generally not having a pronoun ‘preference’ but simply having ‘pronouns.’ Using ‘preferred’ can accidentally insinuate that using the correct pronouns for someone is optional.”
Even linguists now insist that questioning the viability of they is tantamount to discrimination. “Linguists have long critiqued prescriptive ways of viewing language, not only because non-standard ways of using language are systematic and rule-governed, but also because linguistic prescriptivism perpetuates discrimination in our society,” argues Devin Grammon of the University of Oregon. “Those who label the use of singular they as ‘wrong’ do so from the viewpoint of prescriptive grammar rather than descriptive grammar,” he argued. “The use of singular they is only ‘wrong’ from a viewpoint that promotes standard language as superior to all other varieties and ways of using language.”
But sometimes standard language use is superior, at least in the sense that it promotes a shared understanding of the clearest way to convey often-complicated ideas and meanings. And not all changes in language are positive (as the ubiquitous use of the F-word in public life and popular culture attests).
Fans of non-binary language could learn something from the past successes and failures of feminists’ attempts to alter language. Coopting the pronoun they, which has longstanding use in the English language, rather than embracing a new term, is the non-binary equivalent of the radical feminists who insisted that women be officially spelled as womyn. Like those attempts to remove “men” from any word that described women, they looks awkward as written and sounds jarring when spoken. There was both cultural and linguistic good sense in Americans’ rejection of these more radical extremes, just as there was good sense in their eventual embrace of Ms. as an everyday honorific.
Like so many practical applications of identity politics, however, it is not persuasion but compulsory acceptance that is demanded, even with grammar. The unfortunate effect is the unnecessary alienation of many Americans who are otherwise tolerant of people’s individual preferences, and even open to creating new words to describe them, but who prefer that a pronoun just be a pronoun.