THIRD-PERSON SINGULAR “THEY” – THE BEAUTY OF LANGUAGE PART 4

I’m not going to touch on the “correctness” of the use of “they” as a preferred pronoun – I enjoy arguments over prescriptive vs. descriptive use of language, but that’s been done elsewhere.

I want to talk about why the use of “they” to describe an individual (in a gender-neutral sense) has practical uses for everyone; it’s not just useful for trans* and non-binary individuals. That’s not an apology – when we recognise rights for a minority, the change often improves things for everyone.

Scenarios in which third-person singular “they” has its uses:

Number One

So, there’s the obvious reason of “they” being fairly inoffensive if you’re ‘not sure’ of someone’s gender identity (it’s a balancing act between asking and waiting to be told, sometimes – none of us are perfect, and we sometimes find ourselves in social situations that we have no clue how to navigate). It’s better to be vague than wrong in my book.

Number Two

In my work, I deal with colleagues and collaborators from all over the world. Plenty of these people have names that I’ve never encountered before. And the rules that divide names into “masculine” and “feminine” in English don’t necessarily apply elsewhere. Sometimes you just don’t know – especially if you’ve not met yet, or have only ever communicated by email. In this situation, I again go for ambiguity over misgendering – it saves a lot of embarrassment.

Number Three

Now it’s time to get political. Third-person singular “they” is useful for eliminating the default designation of a professional as male. In my line of work, we will talk about “the architect”, “the builder”, “the electrician”, etc, without knowing the individual we’re describing (maybe they’ve not yet been appointed, perhaps we’ve not dealt with them until now for contractual reasons, perhaps we’re talking about a profession in general terms). Trouble is, there’s often a default to male, which

  1. Feeds into the perception that there are “male jobs” and “female jobs”, which belongs in the 1950s;
  2. Is wrong more often than our use of language implies, e.g.

“when you saw the nurse today, what did she say about your [insert embarrassing bodily ailment here]?”

“Er, HE said to put this cream on it and come back in two weeks.”

Number Four

Just, why not? Seeing as we’ve already established that it’s not grammatically heinous (to most of us), we could use it in far more interactions than we presently do. No reason why you couldn’t interchange “he” and “she” with “they” – unless the person you’re describing has expressly said that they (um,) do not want this. We might find its use becoming more commonplace as we step away from the use of pronouns at all (in our work email signatures, and those of many firms, honorifics are omitted completely, and sometimes post-nominals too). Tom Scott has produced a video on this, in the link below. He does a load of other stuff on language and esoteric knowledge – you should check out some of his other stuff if you have the time.

None of us know what the future holds, and we don’t know if there will be a rise in gender non-conformity or an abolition of gender. But what we do know is that we can find ways to address people without putting our foot in our mouth.

ENGLISH PEOPLE AND THE WEATHER

I had a very interesting conversation with an overseas student during Freshers Week this year, about how English people perceive the cold. You often don’t realise things about your own culture unless someone from outside the culture points them out to you. A few things came to light:

1. The English see it as a contest as to how long they can wait before putting the heating on. Presumably because we have a reputation for being thrifty – fuel costs are high as a percentage of income, but compared to the rest of Europe, our unit fuel costs are lower.

2. No matter how cold it is, if it’s a traditionally ‘warm’ month, like April, the heating’s not going on until it’s a month deemed more deserving of burning fuel.  It’s like we have no regard for our own internal thermometer.  There might be icicles indoors, but that heating’s not going on until 1st October.

3. You can never have too many jumpers. If it’s literally freezing in your house, just jumper up some more. My current home is well-insulated and has a decent heating system (which I’m not afraid to use!), but in my parents’ home, we used to wear a ridiculous number of woollen layers, all to cut down on fuel bills.

4. Which contradicts the fact that English people tend to dress for the month, rather than the actual weather conditions.  It’s July? Bikini time! But it’s snowing? That cannot be. Bikini time! The number of people I see in ‘summer’ braving the icy cold in shorts and sandals just because it’s supposed to be hot runs into the hundreds, easily. This is the most creative piece of wishful thinking I have encountered, as I’m pretty sure that putting on a summer dress isn’t actually going to make the sun come out, no matter how much you want this to be true.

5. And as a result, the British (because let’s face it, there are parts of the UK that are colder than England) are sometimes perceived as being quite resistant to the cold. Are we really? Or are we just resistant to common sense?

Given how variable the British weather is, and how frequently we talk about it (like, All The Time – we’re not good with small talk but mention the outdoors and we can go on for hours), you’d have thought we’d have figured it out by now. But the truth is, each morning I cannot decide on the most appropriate outfit, and so I just guess / select something that looks / feels “right” and hope I don’t end up too uncomfortable.

Number 4 might happen because we don’t really have well-defined seasons. On the whole, winter is cold and summer is warm, but there is a lot of variation from day-to-day, and because the temperature doesn’t vary by more than about 15°C across the year, it’s difficult to define what a day in the British Spring, Summer, Autumn or Winter might be like.

Where I live, in the North of England, you could go outside and (devoid of all other knowledge, uh, like what the date is), you wouldn’t be able to tell what month it was. It’s weird, and strangely predictable and unpredictable at the same time.

And most of the time, I pretend it’s warm and sunny and end up freezing my butt off.  Maybe I should put on an extra jumper…