(they/them): Who Gives a S/he/it?

Call me old-fashioned or out-of-step or even reactionary, but I just cannot abide the use of “(they/them)” as the pronoun of choice that is increasingly popular among younger people who do not specifically identify as either male or female.

The thinking behind this custom rejects the idea that there are only two genders (called the gender binary) which compels people who feel they are either male or female to use the pronouns “he” and “she.” But people who don’t feel that they fit into one of these two groups are called non-binary and, being non-binary, they feel the need—or claim the right—to pick the identity that feels right for them, hence their use of “they/them.”

But there has to be a better choice because, while it may no longer be grammatically incorrect to use they/them as singular anymore, I still get confused about it.

Consider:

“They are married to their husband,” which suggests a polygamous relationship while “They are married to their wife” connotes a polyandrous relationship.

And if my wife tells me that “They’re coming for dinner” I’d assume we’re talking about the need to set more than one additional place setting.

I’d accept it, grudgingly, if “they/them” went with the singular verb as in “They is attending the UW.” No matter how grammatically grating it is to the ear, at least we would know we’re talking about a single individual.

But who talks about themselves in the third person anyway? You see, now I’m falling into another apparent grammatical trap by using “who” singular with “themselves” plural. I’ve done this often instead of using the awkward “s/he”, “him/her” and “his/hers” when trying to be inclusive. However, according to articles in the Guardian, this usage isn’t new – the saying “Everybody loves their own mother” has been used since around late 1300. Both Jane Austen and Geoffrey Chaucer – who died in 1400 – used pronouns that way.

I know that what we are really talking about here is the right of non-binary people to assert their own identity and not be forced to identify in ways that the majority deems appropriate—but surely there must be a better way than this.

I’m not sure why the rest of us need to know, on first meeting, that a person is non-binary. My gay friends don’t put their sexual identity in parentheses after their names, nor do I. Why should non-binary people?

One could, I suppose, go with “s/he/it”—my pronoun of choice for God (which is pronounced the way a good ole boy says “shit”—no offense intended, Big G) but “it” doesn’t feel right to use with another human being and besides, there is no objective form for this compound pronoun her/his/its.

My solution to this dilemma, were anyone to listen to me, is simple. Use the pronouns that fit with how the person presents, just as we do with biracial people. Barak Obama may choose to be white but he presents as black and we would assume that is how he identifies until he were to tell us that he is not what he appears. The same with non-binary people: they are what they appear until and unless we are informed otherwise. And in most circumstances, would we really care about their gender identity anyway?

At least let me finish my cocktail before you tell me this information.

The real issue has to do with our prejudices against non-binary and non-heterosexual people and our preconceptions about gender. But this is an issue that no use of pronouns in parentheses will fix.

One thought on “(they/them): Who Gives a S/he/it?


  1. Interesting. I like using the name of the person, the name they have chosen to be called. My sister was named Kathleen at birth but as a young teen decided to call herself after our maternal grandmother and has since been known as Genelle. I’ve always felt if we use a person’s name, not their gender or ethnicity as a description it is more true and less confusing. Just my way.

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