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:
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.
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.
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
- Feeds into the perception that there are “male jobs” and “female jobs”, which belongs in the 1950s;
- 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.”
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.