Opinion: An argument for the singular use of they/them pronouns

Photo by Claire Keener

As a new semester begins and introductions in classes take place, I can’t help but notice a lack of understanding when it comes to pronouns. 

Whether a professor tells their students they can share their pronouns as part of their introduction right alongside their year and major, or a student chooses to share without prompting, it always raises a few eyebrows and most likely leaves questions unasked. 

Generally, I see peers and professors alike struggling to use they/them pronouns properly for those who identify with said pronouns. People who use these pronouns are often misgendered and invalidated, even though the person misgendering and invalidating them may have no ill intent. 

However, the harm of misgendering someone, or using the wrong pronouns for someone, is not minimal. 

[Photo of the pronoun options on Canvas, the learning management system that Boise State uses]
Photo by Claire Keener | The Arbiter

Unfortunately, in some cases, ill intent might actually be the cause of misgendering. There is a lot of disbelief surrounding the validity of they/them pronouns; many people claim the pronouns go against proper grammar and language rules. How can one person be “they,” when we tend to hear “they” used for more than one individual? 

The answer is simple. If you take a look back at the first paragraph, you can see it right there; when referring to someone of unknown gender (“a professor”), I use the singular “they.” 

Sure, I could’ve said “whether a professor tells his or her students,” but we really don’t talk like that, do we? Basically, we use singular they/them pronouns for people all the time without even knowing, and this has been the case as long as the English language has existed.

In fact, The Oxford English Dictionary traces the singular “they” all the way back to 1375, in a medieval romance “William and the Werewolf.” The modern English translation reads, “Each man hurried … till they drew near … where William and his darling were lying together.” Emily Dickinson also often used the singular “they” in her writings. 

Many more examples exist of the singular “they” being used since the late 14th century, which shows very clearly that it is correct, has been used for centuries and is just a part of our language. Those still struggling to come to terms with using they/them for one person should catch up — because refusing to use them is simply a sign of ignorance and narrowmindedness. 

Putting the history lesson aside, we should not have to justify something as simple as a preferred pronoun with such a lesson. Consider the simplicity of using they/them pronouns for someone who asks you to. Though many will claim it’s incorrect, stupid or outright wrong, it truly is not a big deal to just use the pronouns someone asks you to. 

Only one person gets to decide what their pronouns are. Telling someone they are wrong for using they/them pronouns is not only wrong itself, but incredibly hurtful. Transgender people go through more than enough without having to deal with others telling them something they know is true — something deeply personal and important — is wrong. 

If you are someone who hasn’t used they/them pronouns for those who identify with those pronouns, for whatever reason, consider how you would feel if someone called you by the wrong pronouns. 

It’s not a fun feeling, is it? When you do that to a trans person, you are invalidating them, but more importantly, you may be harming them and endangering their mental wellbeing; overall, you perhaps are just being a jerk over something you truly don’t understand. 

Why would a person go through the trouble of saying they use they/them pronouns if it’s not “real”? Despite what some may think, they/them pronouns are not made up. Being nonbinary is not made up; both of these identities, no matter how new they may seem, are real.

And sure, it’s a new, possibly never-heard-of concept for some. However, it’s very important to try and understand, respect and use people’s pronouns correctly, no matter your level of knowledge surrounding the topic.

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