My son B has been maturing by leaps and bounds the past couple of months. It’s like he’s having a massive mental growth spurt.
As a result, he is increasingly finding out what it means to be him, and learning how to be more assertive about the boundaries between himself and others. At the same time he’s also expanding his experience to include more and more of the world around him. All this seems to suddenly be happening at a faster pace than ever before.
It’s fascinating. It’s also hard to keep up with. One day he’s a boy and the next day he’s a young man.
Until recently, when B felt like debating with me, it was usually either about a movie or about some completely theoretical, often rather far-fetched situation. So I would debate with him, focusing on logically sound arguments, since the main point was to have a debate–to enjoy the sport of it. The topic was almost of secondary importance.
A few days ago he began talking about non-binary people, and how a friend of his at school is non-binary and doesn’t want to be referred to as “she” anymore, but as “they”. I immediately began arguing in the cerebral way I have always argued with him, mostly just for the sport of it.
And being a librarian and a person with a master’s degree in English and a translator of Dutch into English, my argument was based on the fact that it is grammatically incorrect to use a plural pronoun like “they” to refer to a single person, and the non-binary community should come up with a new, non-binary singular pronoun. “They” was already taken as a plural pronoun.
B’s response was that it wasn’t grammatically incorrect, that people had been using “they” to refer to individuals since the Middle Ages, so it was not at all silly for non-binary people to want to use “they” as their new singular pronoun.
Of course, I argued that the fact that people have been making a grammatical mistake since the Middle Ages doesn’t mean that it should stop being considered a mistake. After all, there’s a reason for grammar. Without grammar rules, communication is less effective, and could even end in total confusion.
(For example, when I read a web article about non-binary pronouns, I found a suggestion to use “it” instead of “he” or “she”. And then a sentence as example of how that would work: “I told John a joke and it laughed.” Grammatically that’s just absolute nonsense–jokes don’t laugh. )
B claimed that using “they” wouldn’t be confusing.
So if someone uses “they” to refer to a single person, does that mean the speaker–or writer–is making a common grammar mistake or that the person referred to is non-binary? And what verb do you use with a traditionally plural pronoun if it’s suddenly used to refer to one person? “Hey, did you see Jessica?” “Oh yes, They was walking that way five minutes ago.” Or, “Oh yes, they were walking that way five minutes ago.” The first answer sounds really wrong, and the second answer might lead the person asking about Jessica to wonder if the question was misunderstood.
B kept insisting that using “they” as a singular pronoun wasn’t grammatically incorrect.
“Yes it is.”
“No, it isn’t.”
“Yes, it is.”
“No, it isn’t”
“Yes, it is.”
“No, it isn’t.”
“Yes, it is.”
“Okay, then you’re being biased against non-binary people.”
Now let me point out that this conversation didn’t actually take place this way. We were going back and forth a lot. In reality I repeated myself over and over. Including the part where I said that it’s obviously time to have a pronoun for non-binary people, that I completely understand the need, but that they should come up with a new one because “they” was already taken as plural.
“But why can’t you just refer to them in the way that they want to be referred as?”
First things first, of course, so I pointed out that y0u can’t end a sentence with “as”. I was still taking this lightly, you see, and me pointing out grammar mistakes in the heat of an argument has always been good for a chuckle. But not this time.
And then, to answer B’s question, I came back to, “Because it’s not grammatically correct.” I again named all the pitfalls of using “they” as a singular pronoun, pointing out how it would lead to very silly sentences.
Well, B got very upset. Most of which wasn’t clear enough to me in the heat of the argument, which I was enjoying thoroughly. After talking with B that evening, T pointed out to me that B was extremely disappointed in both my apparent inability to look beyond grammar rules and my dismissive attitude toward what non-binary people themselves want. It was quite shocking for him to find that out about me.
And then I realized that B had actually been arguing a point mainly because he wanted to let everyone know about the way his friend wanted people to refer to, uh, them. Because he cared about his friend. This was real to him in a way his previous debates with me had never been.
Of course, the last thing I want in the world is for my son to be disappointed in me. And of course I’m not biased against non-binary people and I would never want to be considered biased. So I relented. Somewhat. I told him that, though it’s grammatically incorrect, I will refer to his friend as “they” if that’s what they want, though I feel sure that at some point the non-binary community will have to agree on a new singular pronoun.
Phew! I narrowly escaped being despised by my son!
I’m telling this on the one hand to illustrate how fast teenage boys can change and how hard it can be for a parent to keep up, because B was coming from a very different place than I was used to.
On the other hand, I’m telling this because it’s a fascinating topic. It’s not often that avoiding bias requires a language group to decide what pronoun to use. Different nouns, yes. but those are easy. Instead of referring to black people as “negroes”, we say “black people” or, in the US, “African-Americans”, although that doesn’t include black people who aren’t American. Changing the language related to race never involved grammar.
So what do you think? Do you feel that it’s okay to use “they” as a singular pronoun to refer to non-binary people, do you have a preference for any of the suggestions in this article, or do you have some suggestions of your own? And what’s going on with this in other languages?
Let me know.