I will roast some chumps before this essay is over.
My topic is the ‘singular they’ and how to balance the legitimate desires of nonbinary individuals to be referenced as ‘they’ with unmet needs for paragraph clarity. After much thought, I am ready to propose a solution.
I am a grammar futurist.
Many progressive allies are more interested in trite modes of virtue-signaling than resolving issues. I should not have to explain that I understand both gender and English or, moreover, that someone can pursue justice and clarity without sacrificing one for the other.
I tried to live with this dissonance, yet I could not fully relinquish my hope: to find a solution that both fulfilled my social values and met my high rhetorical standards. This exigency became a chief obsession during spells of insomnia or as I lost other trains of thought in the drone of machines.
My essay has four parts: 1) two example paragraphs and brief analysis 2) background and reflections which explain how I ‘got here’ 3) three ‘dud’ solutions and one subtle but powerful idea! 4) roasting chumps (tenderly, if possible)
1) The Examples
A) “insta-doggos_123, catta_gram-4eva, and birba-burd05 followed influ_gatorator66. See their posts.”This is a fictional example based on numerous Instagram alerts. “Their” could be referencing influ_gatorator66’s posts, the other three creators’ posts, or the posts of all four creators. Social media handles will often need to be treated as ungendered, so this ambiguity matters in principle, even if in practice Instagram is delighted when we view ALL creators’ posts.
B) “Author1 is a poet and collaborated with Author2 to write Book1. They also wrote Book2, Book3, and Book4. They live in West-Coast-City with their cats and enjoy walking on the beach. They like to sit alone on winter evenings, contemplating big ideas.”This is a simplification of an example taken from the bio of a poet featured online by a poetry foundation. I reached the end of the bio before I grasped that the featured poet is nonbinary. Nonetheless, no number of rereads clarifies whom is referenced by “they” in sentence two. Because of where the pronoun is positioned, “they” could reference only Author1 or both authors. No inferences we make can be supported by the given text. It matters because authors should be properly credited.
I call this phenomenon “number ambiguity”. It’s like Schrödinger’s Cat but instead of a box containing either a living cat or a dead cat (knowable when the box opens), this box contains either one cat or multiple cats and we can never open the box based on the given context.
2) Reflection & Journey
Hypothetical person. Unidentified person. Nonbinary person. Ungendered username: the need for genderless language is unavoidable.
Yet ‘singular they’ can pose obstacles for paragraph clarity. Correction: could be an obstacle without implementing the solution that came to me in the shower last month!
Readers must understand that I was a writing-center tutor several life-times ago. Many or most of my clients were learning English as a second language. ‘They’ is counter-intuitive when referring to a single person, whether that person is hypothetical, unknown, or identifies as nonbinary. Context clues are more difficult to apprehend in a second-language, not to mention the examples above, where context is inadequate for native speakers too.
I reassured these students that nonbinary folks were coming to the rescue. I was aware of exotic nonbinary-singular pronouns like “zhe/ zhim” etc. or “xe, etc.” and thought it was only a matter of time before we received clear indications about which nonbinary pronouns to use and a license to use them in all situations where a person cannot be gendered. I was twenty years old and mostly naïve about social movements and identity politics: a young wordsmith. I am a grammar futurist and always have been! A decade ago, I wanted a neutral pronoun from an ivory tower to resolve this challenge: an edict from an imagined English language HQ. None exists.
As I grew wiser, I appreciated and accepted the desire of nonbinary individuals to be referenced as ‘they’. Nonbinary people are not a hivemind dedicated to redefining gender in language; each is an individual person who wants to interact with other humans without being misgendered. The singular-they is the fastest, smoothest path to social interaction.
Unfortunately, I hear more about the singular-they from virtue-signaling allies than from nonbinary people. Multiple smug memes circulate at all times, belittling concerns about paragraph clarity. I despise how sticklers’ concerns are characterized as bigoted rather than legitimate, a patently unfair assumption. Regressives/conservatives do hide their small-mindedness behind grammatical arguments, at times, but not everyone raising concerns is doing so in bad faith. I think it isn’t fair that nonbinary people are perpetually tied to a known deficiency in the English language and have so much more at stake, here.
There is a real clarity problem with the singular-they in writing… … …but not in speaking or audio-rich media. I’ve never encountered such a problem when channels are rich with cues. We do understand each other when we talk. It’s only in pure text that we crash into the horns of the dilemma: number ambiguities that disrupt function and clarity.
The most asinine thing that smug allies say is “singular-they predates singular-you”. That is true but we should follow that to its logical conclusion: a legitimate ‘yall’!
As a grammar futurist, I support making ‘yall’ English’s official second-person plural. ‘You’ functions as a second-person singular, since ‘thou’ is practically extinct. “You” continued to be formal and plural, among nobility and bourgeois, but we know damn well what America’s favorite second-person plural has been for more than a century. The word arose organically from the linguistic need to distinguish singular from plural— American’s of humble origins naturally resolved number ambiguity by contracting ‘you all’ into ‘y’all’ (which I would further simplify to ‘yall’). The (gendered) yankee counter-part ‘you guys’ is also an organic solution to number ambiguity. Omitting the apostrophe in ‘yall’ simplifies the creation of a plural possessive form: yall’s.
Objections to ‘yall’ are uselessly originalist; it’s extant and mirrors the function of second-person plural pronouns in other languages. I would sacrifice ‘whom’ to bring ‘yall’ into everyone’s vocabulary, since substituting ‘who’ rarely causes confusion about which person is which and how many people are discussed in a block of text. The need to distinguish singular from plural, which gave rise to ‘yall’, is what made a singular-they seem untenable to me.
Yet I want to have human interactions too. The smug allies are my friends. Being on the progressive bandwagon feels good. When smart and well-intentioned people fall into stupid &/or toxic patterns, as a group, what is a stickler to do?
The only way I felt comfortable breaking my silence about ‘they’ was if I found a solution that promised never to hurt nonbinary people but, importantly, I could use to stop the progressive bandwagon from hurtling over a cliff into a snarky abyss.
The Status Quo: To use context to clarify which ‘they’ is referenced. With the right information, I could rewrite example A & B to reflect that information without changing anything about English. This is not tenable because it requires both adept writing skills and the presence of mind to use them. Cell phone alerts need to stay brief, not be replete with context. Example B (in its original form) passed under the eyes of experienced editors without being detected because the need for context went undetected by those who already had background information. There had to be a more economic and fool-proof way!
The Clever Kludge: Change the verb agreement so that it is singular: “they is” “they goes” “they writes”, swapping they for s/he without changing the verb agreement. This is an awful idea! Firstly, it doesn’t help in the past tense. Secondly, it sound like shit to native speakers’ ears. We would never use this solution enough to ingrain it in our offspring. This kludge fails both aurally and logically.
The Harmonizer: Say this with me: “zey, zem, zeir, zeirs, zey’re“. Does that not sound like “they, them, their, theirs, they’re” but with a fun French accent? Verb agreement could stay the same. Our ears would adjust quickly. With time and training, high school and college students could learn to use these exotic, nongendered pronouns. All this was mostly true of previous exotic pronouns, too, and a path to widespread adoption never opened. In essence, this solution is just a new spin on a solution which failed to take root before; it’s more organic but not nearly organic enough.
The Silver Bullet [the winner]: Add an apostrophe to the end of ‘they’ whenever an individual person is indicated: they’, them’, their’, theirs’, (theyre’ might not work but contractions are optional).
I was taking a shower when it dawned on me. For several minutes I laughed incredulously. This is not a solution that makes me look sophisticated. I thought I’d made an obvious error but I hadn’t. “Well, we could just as easily put a heart next to each ‘they’ or make every ‘they’ purple…”
Yes! Any small thing we can do to distinguish a singular-they from a plural-they is necessary and sufficient. An apostrophe is the smallest, easiest way to flag a singular-they. I had a genius, minimalist epiphany!
This is already how we use apostrophes! Dogs, dog’s, and dogs’ use the same letters but the absence or placement of an apostrophe helps us sort both number and possession. ‘Its’ is possessive but lacks an apostrophe because, by an arbitrary convention, an apostrophe is assigned to a contraction: ‘it’s’. If an apostrophe on the end of ‘they’ seems arbitrary it’s because it really is arbitrary. There is nothing wrong with using an arbitrary apostrophe to cue readers; in fact, it is both necessary and sufficient.
- Adding an apostrophe changes nothing about how the words are spoken. Thus, it does not create a new problem where there was no problem before.
- I believe this honors the wishes of nonbinary people to be called they(‘). I’m not sure how it will/would be received, at first, but this small addition may not be too much to tolerate.
- The apostrophe resolves number ambiguities in paragraphs. The presence of the apostrophe indicates a singular-they, not plural: one person who is hypothetical, unknown, or identifying as nonbinary. Eureka!
As for adoption, they’ could trickle into the language by being adopted by influential individuals and organizations. Perhaps an eccentric best-selling author could be the first, since their’ sales and reputation are unlikely to be affected by such a small change. Maybe an organization like the ACLU could write they’ into their media policy — and release a communique detailing why and how to use they’. Tenured English professors might fight it but tenure-track professors and PhDs could seize on they’ as an opportunity to distinguish themselves– to demonstrate that they can pursue justice and clarity at the same time! Likewise with politicians and lawyers.
Having they’ as part of our toolkit is unlikely to change how we communicate via text or on the Internet. That’s fine. Many people make-do with only a crescent wrench, since it adjusts to many situations. Mechanics are often in situations that require a socket-wrench– having they’ in my vocabulary would be like getting a new socket that fits snugly on a nut I have been trying to turn for a long time. I can almost hear the socket-wrench ratcheting: such a sweet, satisfying sound!
This is a true singular-they: they’. *ratchet noises*
To Roast but not Burn…
I am indulging in open self-congratulation with no need to feel morally justified. I need no affirmations, anymore. Despite my human limitations, I persisted in the belief that I could find a solution that satisfied both social and rhetorical challenges. I am worthy. Instead of being lifted onto the progressive bandwagon, I am riding a winged horse.
A certain subset of people advanced a false dichotomy. Many of the memes I saw posited that someone with concerns about singular-they cared more about language than people, as if these are mutually exclusive. People shamed sticklers as if a love for people and writing could not be reconciled. They were wrong: punctuation has delivered us again! Our friend punctuation is ready to honor the wishes of nonbinary neighbors, ensure excellent paragraph construction, and steamroll smug memes. Hail the new apostrophe.
The choice was not between acceptance and language. The choice was between peer-pressure and true clarity.
What I have left to say is meant to lightly roast but not burn, per se. Progressives need to be more careful. Most arguments I saw favoring a singular-they (sans-apostrophe) seemed unpersuasive to conservatives and weren’t the only or best way to show solidarity with nonbinary people. Frankly, the snark is a product of group-think and yall look ridiculous now. They/them/their pronouns became just another panel in the liberal silo, just another badge in the progressiveness-contest among insiders, and just another way to feel hip.
Thank goodness we can end all that with an apostrophe! By adding an apostrophe to a singular-they (but never a plural-they; we’re making a distinction) we can distinguish between two different words. They are homonyms. I’ll repeat: they and they’ are two separate words communicating concepts which are similar but distinct because of number.
My original draft had more invective but that seemed extraneous. Believe me when I say that I am not a good person virtue-signaling. I am a flawed person relishing the fact that I discovered the solution all the “better” people need. I’m not a hero… I’m an anti-hero.
When I titled this piece “They’ Could Make it Work” I didn’t commit an error. The apostrophe is intentional. I spoke of nonbinary, unknown, and hypothetical they’ in the preceding paragraphs. I now present the archetypical they’. This is the they’ I yearn to meet: a reader who ‘gets it’. This person is willing to fully digest the case I have submitted and celebrate its merits. They’ will find a listener who ‘gets it’. Now that I have pioneered a new use of the apostrophe, my ideal reader feels more real than ever. Yes they’ can.
Finally, its off my chest.