Welcome they/them pronouns

Charlotte Ury, Editorial Board

I would like to preface this article by saying that I am a cisgender woman who uses “she/her” pronouns. There will be experiences of those who don’t fit the conventional gender standards that I cannot speak for and I will not attempt to.

My intentions are to explain and provide background on the use of “they/them” to those who don’t understand its usage or struggle to use the pronouns in conversation.

In order to understand why people criticize the use of they/them, I read as many articles as I could from both nonbinary writers and those who are hesitant or against the use of nonbinary pronouns.

From what I found there seem to be four major arguments against “they/them” pronouns: they’re hard to understand; grammar doesn’t support them; it’s a fad that’ll die out in a few years; and finally the most heinous of all—just plain homophobia.

I will not waste my time trying to debate with those who argue against the existence of unconventional gender identities because I will not give a platform for such hateful ideas. The truth is that there is no debate here: LGBTQ+ people will exist whether you want them to or not––and they have the same fundamental right to safety and freedom of expression as everyone else.

The prevailing reason that people refuse to acknowledge, validate, or use “they/them” pronouns seems to be rooted in fear rather than hate. Change can be really scary, especially when it happens to be on a national scale and in seemingly a very little amount of time.

Except, nonbinary people have existed for thousands of years. There have been recorded examples of cultures using multiple genders and “they/them” has been used in countries worldwide. Using different pronouns and identifying outside of the gender norm has always existed for as long as human civilization and the development of culture has existed, even if you’ve never seen or heard it before. 

The Mesopotamians had the third gender “Hijra.” These people were believed to be above gender and were chosen as holy servants to serve the Gods.

In Polynesian culture, “mahu” is a highly-respected gender between male or female. The Navajo, a Native American people in the Southwestern United States, have a gender called “nadleeh” which refers to people who transitioned or were in between gender norms (the Tempest)

Dennis Baron, a professor of English at the University of Illinois, has written on how  English speakers have suggested and integrated nearly 250 different pronouns since the 1780s (The Atlantic).

What this means is that nonbinary pronouns aren’t a new “fad” that teenagers are doing to get attention. The history of nonbinary identity predates most civilizations today. Just because it’s not common in your culture or way of life does not discredit nonbinary existence.


The second prevalent issue with “they/them” pronouns is that they don’t respect grammar. However, the singular “they” is not a grammatical crime. We use “they” as a pronoun in most people’s daily speech patterns, regardless of the gender identity of whoever they are talking to or about. We most often use the singular “they” to refer to someone who is unknown, or whose gender is irrelevant or unimportant.

The singular “they” isn’t a new development either; in the 1594 Shakespearean play “The Comedy of Errors”, he wrote, “There’s not a man I meet but doth salute me / As if I were their well-acquainted friend”. Jane Austen uses the singular “they” 75 times in Pride and Prejudice (1813).

Although there are clear examples of they/them being used in a singular sense in the past and today, some might argue that it’s still incorrect. However, with the way our language is developing that notion is becoming more and more false.

Language is a constantly evolving system. Languages grow to reflect our society and eventually they change over time. 

Scientists have found that “grammar structures change on average faster than vocabulary” (Science Daily). Until the 17th century, “you” was still used as a plural pronoun but we would hardly think to use it that way today (La Illinois).

We grow as a society, and we change the way we speak as time goes on. When was the last time you spoke in Old English? Words and grammar change constantly, even if you don’t notice them in your lifespan.

Using new pronouns for someone who’s gone by different pronouns can be hard, especially for those who have known that person for years. However, it’s much better to make an effort rather than completely ignoring their pronouns as a whole.

If you use the wrong pronouns, or accidentally misgender someone, correct yourself, apologize and move on. As long as you acknowledge you made a mistake and correct yourself, you don’t need to apologize so much that you make yourself appear the victim.

Continuously misgendering someone despite knowing their pronouns, however, is a different story. You’re showing a lack of basic respect for someone’s identity and that can be demoralizing.

Using “they/them” pronouns isn’t first nature for a lot of people, and that’s okay. Change is hard and confusing, and for those who have never heard of people outside of the gender binary, completely new. Yet, we must all make an effort to respect people’s pronouns. We must support people’s identities.