I have been told by a number of LGBTQ activists that there is a growing minority of people who publically identify as not being either a man or a woman, and who are therefore uncomfortable with any of ‘he’, ‘she’, ‘his’ or ‘her’ etc. being used to refer to them. I don’t want to sound dismissive or patronising by using a sentence beginning “I have been told…”. It’s just that I’ve never met anyone who cares about this: I’ve just had a lot of men and women tell me or write that another group of people care about it. I was formerly quite dismissive of these issues. I’ve changed my mind a little.

I’ve always been willing to make some effort to call someone by a particular non-standard pronoun if they ask me to (though no-one ever has). If someone would like to be a ‘they’ rather than a ‘he’ or a ‘she’, I consider this to be a request not dissimilar to them asking to be called by a new name, whether or not they’ve legally changed it. It’s a basic part of respecting the people we’re around.

However for a long time I was suspicious of using the singular ‘they’ in place of ‘he or she’ to describe some unknown individual. Though I didn’t notice myself using the singular ‘they’ orally, writing a singular ‘they’ instead of ‘he or she’ feels like writing something grammatically wrong. As an English teacher I know this feeling well and am confident that I am not misidentifying some other emotional response. (I suspect that it is an aesthetic reaction.)

I should resist this. The singular ‘they’ is grammatically correct in contemporary English. The emotional response is just incorrect, and I have been making an effort to note where appropriate in my English lessons that using ‘they’ in the singular is now okay. If I’m writing a notice addressing some unknown individual, I now make an effort to write ‘they’ instead of ‘he or she’. I’m taking it on trust that some people really are deeply offended by my failing to do so. My outdated emotional reaction is not good enough reason to not make this effort to say ‘they’.[1]

This all being said, I am suspicious of how worthwhile it is to have so very many young progressive writing and thinking about pronouns. Deep inequality and injustice not relating to pronouns is something that we stub out toe against every single day that we go out into our contemporary society. I’ve yet to have the evidence presented to me that pronouns are worth our time. They might well be seen as a distraction from the real issues of the day. The capitalist hegemony is not really challenged by talking about pronouns.


[1] I still use ‘he’ or ‘she’ when talking about an example person in non-fiction: when I’m not potentially addressing any existant person. I might write “if someone came across this, she’d be upset”. This is because I think it’d be a bad idea to ignore my own aesthetic judgements when writing, as it might take away from the flow of my personal writing style.