July 10, 2023
Writer: Rafael Reyes
Researcher: Rafael Reyes
Graphics: Jia Moral, Bill Fuentes
Words play a significant role in expressing one’s identity and thoughts. As an individual, we resonate with specific words—nouns and adjectives that best encapsulates who we are and what we think. The same goes to our experiences; there are a plethora of words we can use to capture what we felt in the moment. But what if we’re able to precisely describe something yet there’s no existing word that captures it?
Like water, the languages of the world can take many shapes. Language evolves over the course of history. New words are created, spread around, accepted, and become assimilated into the daily lingo of the masses. Technology facilitates the shift in language use in levels never imagined before . Any facet of the language we speak today can suddenly change tomorrow, and that has been the case for English pronouns for a long time.
The Singular They/Them
During our formal education, we were taught the usual pronouns as a way to represent living and non-living beings. Males are referred to as “he”, females referred to as “she”, inanimate objects as “it”, and groups of people as “we/they” depending on whether the speaker is included. These rules for English pronouns are fairly straightforward until you have to represent someone whose gender is unknown. In the sentence “Everyone should try ___ best”, where “everyone” can refer to a number of people with differing genders, English speakers have informally agreed to using “they” to fill in the blank .
There is a growing trend in the use of “they” as a singular pronoun, similar to “he/she”. It finds use as reflective of their identity (personal pronoun), as a pronoun for all (universal pronoun), or a pronoun to use if the speaker doesn’t know the gender of who they’re referring to (indefinite pronoun) [2, 3]. The initial sightings of this trend goes back to centuries ago, but it’s now gaining more traction alongside the movement towards gender fluidity . In fact, “they” was Merriam-Webster’s 2019 Word of the Year  as a result of the topic making it into national news about equality legislation, pop music with Sam Smith’s preferred pronouns of “they/them”, and the American Psychological Association embracing the singular “they” in professional writing .
For those unfamiliar with the various gender movements, the battle for accepting the use of singular “they” sounds superficial. It might even sound petty because it’s just one word in a sentence that’s being changed. Why fight for the singular they/them? What’s in it for those advocating for this change? How does that affect the rest of the world?
Identity and Representation
The fight for they/them and the movement towards preferred pronouns both share two common goals: embracing identity and proper representation.
Knowing ourselves is the age-old maxim of Greek philosopher Socrates and the philosophers who came after him. Because we know who we are, we also have an idea of how we want to be viewed, treated, and respected by those around us. When others do respect us and affirm our identities, we become empowered; being acknowledged with our preferred pronouns is related to higher self-esteem and confidence . The inverse is also suggested, based on the results of a 2021 study on gender diverse workplace support .
As part of the movement towards gender inclusivity, the singular “they” is an improvement on the pronoun options for unknown genders. In the past, people referred to those unsure of genders as “s/he”, “he or she”, and “he/she” . Shifting towards the singular “they” reduces the wordiness of having to speak three syllables to just one. Furthermore, it eliminates the gender binary that “s/he” or “he or she” perpetuates by virtue of not using the traditionally established gender pronouns . It naturally flows alongside the use of singular “they” as a personal, non-binary pronoun.
Like many social movements in history, everyone ultimately benefits from fostering change that is anchored on human-centered values such as respect and dignity. Preferred pronouns don’t just revolve around the non-binary, but also those who traditionally identify as males/females. They, too, want to be respected and feel validated for who they are. For some, their gender identity is what they want to be respected the most, to the point they include their pronouns in email signatures, Twitter bios, and Zoom meeting nicknames .
With these developments in identity expression, the classic Golden Rule of “Do unto others as you would want done to you” falls short because it is limited to the world view that you may have. A proposed Platinum Rule goes along the lines of “Do unto others as *they* would want done to them” . The new rule implies it is courtesy to learn how other people want to be treated, from the people themselves . After all, is there a person in the world who doesn’t want to be treated right?
- Pre-Session Q: What are your preferred pronouns?
- Why are pronouns intertwined with gender identity?
- How do our choice of words affect others’ perspective of themselves?
- What can we do in our own communities to affirm the identity of those around us?
- LanguageWire. (n.d.). Discover how language evolves through advances in technology. Retrieved July 7, 2023, from https://www.languagewire.com/en/blog/how-language-evolves
- Saguy, A. C., & Williams, J. A. (2022). A little word that means a lot: A reassessment of singular they in a new era of gender politics. Gender & Society, 36(1), 5–31.
- Bradley, E. D. (2020). The influence of linguistic and social attitudes on grammaticality judgments of singular ‘they.’ Language Sciences, 78, 101272. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.langsci.2020.101272
- Arnold, J. E., Mayo, H. C., & Dong, L. (2021). My pronouns are they/them: Talking about pronouns changes how pronouns are understood. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 28(5), 1688–1697. https://doi.org/10.3758/s13423-021-01905-0
- Lee, C. (2019, October 31). Welcome, singular “they.” APA Style Blog; American Psychological Association. https://apastyle.apa.org/blog/singular-they
- Huffman, A. H., Mills, M. J., Howes, S. S., & Albritton, M. D. (2021). Workplace support and affirming behaviors: Moving toward a transgender, gender diverse, and non-binary friendly workplace. International Journal of Transgender Health, 22(3), 225–242. https://doi.org/10.1080/26895269.2020.1861575