Thanks to great feedback from readers, I realized on Sunday that the style guide I published last week was missing a section. The guide addresses singular they as a generic pronoun for people whose gender is unknown in section 3.1, but it did not explicitly provide guidance on singular they as a personal pronoun.
Therefore, yesterday morning I added a new section: 2.4.4. Respect singular they as a personal pronoun and use it appropriately.
Click through to “The Radical Copyeditor’s Style Guide for Writing About Transgender People” to read the update in full, complete with helpful hyperlinks.
3 thoughts on “Update to Transgender Style Guide: “They” as a Personal Pronoun”
When ‘they’ is really accepted as a third-person singular pronoun, it will be used with singular verbs. Like, “he is; she is; they is.” When talking or writing about me, specifically, please use singular verbs with my ‘they/them/their’ pronouns (e.g. “Oshee is an openly nonbinary person, and I respect that, so I tell people they is nonbinary”). It takes a bit of getting used to, but with a little practice it quite quickly starts to feel normal. Try it!
Hi Oshee — with respect, using singular verbs with singular “they” is not a practice that is being advocated for by the vast majority of trans/non-binary people, and it doesn’t make sense in terms of how singular “they” has been used for centuries in a generic sense (e.g. “every student must take care because they are required to maintain a 3.0 GPA”). The evolution of singular “they” is similar to the evolution of singular “you.” Today, “you” is both plural and singular, but back in the day (15th century), “you” was only plural and “thee” was the singular form. Singular “you” does not take singular verbs, so it doesn’t make any sense for singular “they” to take singular verbs either. The exception to this is African American Vernacular English (AAVE), in which “they is” and “you is” are used. So unless you’re speaking AAVE, there’s no reason to say “they is” and no benefit to doing so.
The third-person-singular forms of the verb to be are “is/was/has been” (not “are/were/have been”). Every other third person singular pronoun (he, she, ze, etc.) takes third-person-singular verbs, so why should the singular form of “they” be an exception? Do we say “ze are”? Of course not! Then why say “they are”?
For centuries, nonbinary people—we have always existed—have been excluded from discussion and rendered invisible by the policing of language. Should we continue to do that just because it has been done for centuries?
Should we follow what the “vast majority”of trans and nonbinary people do (if indeed they do as you claim)? If we had followed the majority, we would never have gotten “they” accepted as a singular pronoun. I am not the vast majority; I am an individual whose pronouns are singular they, not plural they, and I will continue to advocate for respectful use of my pronouns.
My reasons for—and the benefits of—using “they is” when refering to people whose pronouns are singular they/them/their, are: (1) to respect them (and myself) as singular individuals who are just as deserving of respect as anyone else, and (2) to avoid confusion as to whether I’m refering to one person or more than one person.
The benefits are the same: respect for nonbinary identities, and reducing confusion about how many people we’re talking about.
Regardless of whether you agree with anything I’ve written, I will continue to respectfully insist that you use my pronouns, singular they/them/their, with singular verb forms, when refering to me—and to any other nonbinary person who asks you to. Thank you!