On grammar and transphobia (with an idea for an experiment)

Many people take a dislike to the word they or their being used to refer to a single individual (as in “You say you met a rather interesting individual today? Could you tell me more about them?”) or with antecedents that normally take singular agreement (as in “Could everyone raise their hand, please?”).

This usage tends to be referred to as “singular they” and it has a most venerable history (it was used by Shakespeare and the translators of the King James Bible, among many others, and continues to be used by respected writers and speakers). It is also clearly useful: by using “they” in such circumstances, we don’t have to use a word like he or she that implies a particular gender. Some people prefer not to employ it, and are welcome to their preferences. To accuse those who do of “grammatical incorrectness”, however, betrays either a failure to understand what grammar is or an ignorance of English.

Whatever their origin, the relevant assumptions seem to be, first, that any noun or pronoun in English must belong exclusively to one of two categories (singular and plural), and, second, that a pronoun in one category must not be used to refer to an antecedent in the other.

Now, these assumptions look rather a lot like some assumptions that occur elsewhere: specifically, that every human being must belong exclusively to one or two categories (male and female). There’s a further, closely related, assumption that any person with two x chromosomes should be referred to as “she”, while a person with an x and a y chromosome should be referred to as “he” (even if this contradicts their wishes, or their own sense of identity).

Which leads me to think we should expect a very high correlation between transphobia and opposition to singular they. Not only does singular they itself violate the exclusive-category assumption noted above, but it also allows a speaker to avoid assigning human beings to the male or the female category. I think there’s a clever experiment waiting to be devised.

Some readers may point out that this usage leads to “they” being ambiguous, since it will not be clear whether it is being used to refer to one individual or several. This is true, but not a very good argument against employing the usage (and no argument at all for calling it “ungrammatical”): cases of genuine ambiguity are rather rare, and there are fairly straightforward ways of avoiding them when they arise.


Filed under Language, Sexuality and gender, Thoughts and rants

4 responses to “On grammar and transphobia (with an idea for an experiment)

  1. I love using “they” or “their” to avoid sexing. Speaking Chinese at one time, I found their neutral pronoun (ta) very nice indeed.

  2. sybaris

    Singular “they” ought to supplant gendered pronouns entirely. Alongside other reasons, the protocol of preferred pronouns wouldn’t be a problem anymore between trans and non-trans. As it goes, it’s a bit awkward, I reckon.

  3. @sybaris: absolutely. I meant to add that this awkwardness isn’t only about uncertainty. That is, it’s not just a matter of not knowing whether a given person prefers to be referred to as he or she. That’s easily enough resolved, after all. The more difficult case is where people identify as neither or both, in which case a non-gendered pronoun is the only option.

  4. sybaris

    @garicgymro Agreed. I think there’s a broader problem here, also. If we accept that sex and gender are separate, then a neutral pronoun like singular “they” ought to be the default in all cases anyway.

    Certainly for a lot of the transsexual community, this is not accepted as true, which I tentatively suggest explains the desire to transition in the first place. This is only one subset of transgender, but I think it’s an important issue.

    That the idea of subscribing to one category or another is present in the trans community itself is perhaps unhelpful to the idea that a “de-sexing” is an acceptable linguistic strategy. More importantly, it might mess up the correlation in your proposed experiment.

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