Grey Matter Episode 1: The Problem With Them

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“The Problem With Them”
by Kaitlin Puccio

In spoken, colloquial English, using the word “they” when referring to a singular individual of nondescript, unknown, or immaterial gender has been widely accepted. In written English, it has only become accepted relatively recently. Previously, in formal writing, following a word like “someone” would be a phrase such as “he or she,” “s/he,” or “one.”

For example, “If someone offers to buy groceries for their mother, they should not expect to be reimbursed.” “They” is grammatically improper, given that it is referring to a singular “someone.” Proper grammar handles this in three possible ways. First: “If someone offers to buy groceries for one’s mother, one should not expect to be reimbursed.” This use of “one” is very formal and thus inappropriate for most modern professional writing. Second: “If someone offers to buy groceries for his mother, he should not expect to be reimbursed.” This uses “he” to refer to man in general, using the Old English definition of man, which included men, women, and children. That is, it was a neutral word used to refer to a person. Third would be where the writer chooses to use “he” or “she” in the first instance of pronoun use after “someone,” and then uses the opposite pronoun in a subsequent example, for equality’s sake.

In order to make sentences less cumbersome, “they” and “them” became acceptable pronouns to use in conjunction with words like “someone.” “They” and “them” were disjunctive in those sentences, a replacement of “he or she” (“or” being the disjunctive term, as in “either, or”), used because the gender of the individual was unknown and unimportant to the idea expressed. Sentences that used these replacement words were still clear and readable, such as in the example of someone buying groceries for their mother.

Today, however, where “they” and “them” mean “neither” instead of “either,” writing has become unintelligible. Nonbinary individuals who use “they/them” pronouns in large part do not identify as male or female. There is no “or.” Or, more specifically, “not or” applies to them, in Boolean logic. Where gender is binary—male or female—and certain individuals are neither male nor female, “they” and “them” cannot be replacement words for “he or she” (or “him or her”).

The move to use “they/them” pronouns seems to be rooted in the use of “they” to refer to “someone” where the use of “he or she” is undesirable, whether because the gender is unknown or the automatic use of “he” seems too exclusive of women. But its mutation from a malleable catchall for either men or women to an opaque war cry for neither men nor women has become both a grammatical and a politically divisive issue.

Common language helps humans communicate. Where “they” can mean “he or she” and also “neither he nor she” (which is logically incompatible with “he or she”), there is no longer a common language, and communication becomes difficult.

The real problem potentially lies not in the pronoun, however. Political arguments will at times rest on the absurdity of the idea that nonbinary individuals become suddenly plural. But they/them, again, was borne from the generally accepted “they” following “someone” in colloquial English, and adulterated to mean not “he or she,” but “not he and not she.”

The idea behind the use of they/them, however, is not automatically invalid because of a grammatical and logical quandary. Nonbinary individuals use “they” because it doesn’t specify a gender. “They” could be replaced with “one,” as in, “One walks to the store with reusable bags in tow.” It is gender non-specific, grammatically correct, and represents an accurate number of individuals to which it refers.

However, it may be perceived as reducing an individual so far as to strip all identity. Where “he” and “she” commonly indicate personhood, “one” may not in modern English. Using “one” over time, though, may similarly indicate personhood in English (it already does in other languages) as it becomes commonplace, because it is a more natural linguistic match for nonbinary individuals.

If the issue of “plurality” and grammar are removed from the conversation about nonbinary individuals, the true issue can be addressed: By asking and demanding to be referred to as they/them, what do they ultimately want?

The pronoun is just a word; what the pronoun represents is the idea of an identity outside of a socially constructed norm. By asking the entire population of English speakers to reject certain foundational terms in the common language, nonbinary individuals may be asking for something else entirely. Perhaps recognition. Perhaps equality. Perhaps validation. Perhaps nothing at all. Removing the grammatical argument against the perversion of pronouns will allow the underlying needs of nonbinary individuals to surface. Perhaps then politicians can address the actual concerns of these particular constituents rather than obsequiously throw mutilated dictionaries at a social cause.

Copyright © 2023 Kaitlin Puccio