March 31, 2016

They is “the grammatical equivalent of a shrug”


Screen Shot 2016-03-30 at 11.16.50 AMIn December, we wrote about the gender neutral honorific “Mx.,” which is under consideration for inclusion in the Oxford English Dictionary but has not yet made it into style guides at places like the New York Times.

A more obvious adoption, which the Washington Post welcomed late last year, is the substitution of “they” for the third person singular, which many of us use anyway when gender is unknown or irrelevant. (“Looks like someone dropped their keys.”)

In her piece for the New York Times magazine, Amanda Hess suggests that while “they” and “their” might feel like the most natural solution—and one that could offer “a shortcut on the way to acceptance” of gender fluidity—it also kind of elides the question altogether. As clunky as they might seem, pronouns like “xe,” “xim,” and “xir” might actually create more meaningful room for an alternative to the gender binary.

“Think of genderqueer people who are confident in their knowledge of their own gender identity as one that simply doesn’t fit the boxes of ‘he’ or ‘she,’” Hess writes. “Calling all of them ‘they’ can make it sound as if someone’s gender is unknowable; it’s the grammatical equivalent of a shrug.”



Taylor Sperry is a former Melville House editor.