The rise of the pronouns

Pronouns, that most boringest part of ‘parts of speech‘, the substitute of the grammar world, dutifully standing in for other, cooler words, has been given a new lease of life. Until recently if you wanted to say ‘Tom likes pronouns and Tom uses them every day.’ and not sound like someone pretending to be a human being, you could simply switch the subsequent ‘Toms’ for ‘he’ and you’d be all set.

Someone left  ______ phone in the classroom. 

Traditional grammarians and the kind of people who would insist you say “I figuratively died!” in case they get confused, argue that as ‘someone’ is singular, the pronoun should also be singular. ‘she’, ‘he’ and ‘it’ were the choices on the table but surprisingly(!) they went for ‘he’ as “the Masculine gender is more worthy than the Feminine. ho-hum. Thus our sentence would read ”someone left his phone in the classroom.’

Ironically, as Henry Hitchens notes it was a woman who promoted the idea that the singular pronoun should be male. Ann fisher, author of the popular A New Grammar (1745) believed that ‘he, him and his’ could be used ‘to cover both male and female in general statements.’

In modern times ‘singular they‘ has become increasingly acceptable, to the extent that almost everyone reading this would accept ‘Someone left their phone in the classroom’. Singular they also neatly solves the gender neutral pronoun issue. When talking about a generic subject such as:

A teacher who talks too much will alienate their students.

And so with even style guides accepting ‘singular they‘ it seemed as if the war was over. But in recent years there has been a disturbance in the force, as if millions of grammarians suddenly cried out in terror…
the current pronouns of English
The recent and quite dramatic media focus on Trans rights and ‘gender nonconforming’ people has shaken pronouns from their moribund slumber. The peak of media focus on trans issues was when 66 year old former Olympian Bruce Jenner announced that ‘for all intents and purposes, I’m a woman.’ Bruce became Caitlyn and he became she.
Those who opposed or mocked this transition were accused of ‘misgendering‘ -the crime of using the wrong pronouns (There is even a twitterbot designed to (rather inaccurately) enforce correct pronoun use). This sudden upheaval in grammatical terms led to some confused. Should we, for instance when talking about the Olympic achievements of this athlete use his or her? Did Bruce or Caitlyn win the 1974 decathlon? Is Jenner her children’s father still, or is she now their mother?
This confusion though is nothing when compared to ‘non-binary’ or ‘gender nonconforming’ individuals. A few years back Facebook introduced more inclusive pronouns for such individuals, around 58 more to be exact. The boring old male and female are still there, but joining them are ‘two spirit‘, ‘agender‘, and ‘bigender‘. And these new genders bring with them new pronouns. The university of Milwaukee, for instance, has a page offering advice to the confused. they list, among commonly used pronouns ‘singular they’. This may sound similar to the ‘singular they’ mentioned earlier but is, in fact, a very different beast. This ‘they’ is used to directly replace ‘she’ or ‘he’ in all sentences.
For instance, Jack Munroe, a food blogger and minor celebrtity has recently come out as Trans and has decided that her pronouns are they/them/their. Personal choice is a good thing, but things start to get a bit confusing when language is used in this way. In the first sentence of this paragraph for instance, I should have written ‘has decided that the pronouns they would like…’ and in not doing so I might be considered thoughtless and at worst possibly a bigot.
Asking the entire English speaking world to change the way the language works for your benefit is an impressive demand. Wikipedia attempts to get round this by constantly referring to her as ‘Munroe’ (ironically recreating the very problem pronouns solve):

Despite working every day, Monroe was unable to make ends meet. By January 2014, finances had improved, and Monroe was able to move into a small 2 bedroom flat with their son.

There are limits to this though and Wikipedia eventually has to actually use said pronouns, resulting in the grammatical horror below:

It was at this point they changed their name from their birth name to Jack Monroe – ‘Jack’ being short for “Jack of all trades“, their nickname.

So Wikipedia has accepted this, as have some news organisations like the BBC, for instance, who when writing about Kit Wilson state:As a child, Wilson never felt entirely female or entirely male. They figured they were a “tomboy” until the age of 16…

That this doesn’t really work becomes clear when we read sentences where who the pronoun refers to has to be explicitly spelt out in parenthesis:

Earlier this year, Wilson asked friends to call them “Kit,” instead of the name they (Wilson) had grown up with…

Here, the usefulness of pronouns as a class of word is nullified entirely. And there is a greater problem which at first isn’t so obvious. You can see it in the sentence below from Wikipedia.

Jack Monroe is a writer, journalist and activist…

Can’t see the issue? That’s because you’re used to normal English grammar. Allow me to explain.

Verbs match pronouns. We say ‘I am’ not (usually) ‘I is’ or ‘I are’. We say ‘he is’ we don’t (usually) say ‘you is’, ‘they is’ and so on. Jack Munroe and Kit Wilson’s preferred pronouns are ‘they’ which takes the verb ‘are’ (they are friends). When we use someone’s name we assume the pronoun in order to work out the verb. That is, when I say ‘John is tired’ the reason I use ‘is’ and not ‘are’ is because John = he. As Jack Munroe does not equal ‘she’ or ‘he’ but ‘they’ the sentence should read:

 Jack Monroe are a writer, journalist and activist…

This is such a normal part of our language that even those trying hard to use the right pronouns are getting it consistently wrong. Below are some examples of what writers should have written about Jack Munroe (I have corrected and highlighted the verbs):

Munroe were born in southend on sea
Munroe have three siblings
Munroe were unable to arrange work
Monroe are non-binary transgender and go by singular they pronouns

This might seem like a fad or something that could never possibly catch on, but the recent case of Leo Soell might give you pause. Soell, who identifies as neither male or female, won a $60,000 settlement for, among others things being subjected to ‘improper gender pronoun use’ after her colleagues refused to call her ‘they’ (they ‘they’?). New York City human right’s commission states that failing to us an individuals preferred pronouns, such as ‘Ze’ or ‘Hir’ is discrimination and may result in a fine. This is a major switch in the way the English language is used. As Deborah Cameron* notes:

Even if the majority of non-traditional pronoun-users choose the same few forms (e.g. ‘ey’, ‘they’ and ‘ze’), it will still be necessary to memorize each person/pronoun pairing separately, because there is no rule we can use to predict an individual’s preference. That isn’t just a minor adjustment to the existing personal pronoun system. It’s a fundamental change in the way pronouns work.

For hundreds of years grammarians pushed back against the common and reasonable usage of singular they. The few were able to demand acquiescence from the majority and be considered justified by dint of their supposed linguistic authority. But even grammarians never had the power to bring legal proceedings against those who used the language in way they disagreed with.In 2016 individuals can demand that every single other person apply an exceptional and arbitrary set of grammar rules to them and expect to be accommodated. It took hundreds of years for singular they to become accepted but now the floodgates appear to be open.

*2019 update*
It now seems that, in theory at least, people can be prosecuted in the UK under hate crime laws for using the wrong pronoun. Stories here and here.

*For a much more detailed look at this topic, check out Cameron’s blog here.

12 thoughts on “The rise of the pronouns

  1. I imagine the pronouns and resulting verb conjugations will be determined by usage commonality. That's going to take a while, for sure, but making prescriptive rules about it is irrelevant.


  2. You state that \”asking the entire English language to change for your benefit is an impressive demand.\” However, why should language not evolve to correct ways in which it excludes people who have been traditionally marginalized? I think this goes beyond anyone's specific demand, as your statement appears to suggest. Does it make things a bit more complicated? Maybe. As a cisgender woman, I have the privilege of having an easy time in society with my gender identity. When it comes to pronoun use, I am alright dealing with a more inclusive approach if it makes the life of trans or non-gender conforming folks better. Also, when you mention the pronouns brought up by Facebook, it seems like you've added \”two spirit\” as a new term. It is not. It's a culturally appropriated term used by Native Americans in the US.


  3. I think we both agree that language can and should change to help the marginalised. For instance when using terms like 'retarded', offence might be caused and so the term 'mentally disabled' could be substituted. This is a noun change for a whole class though. It's substituting A for B. So instead of calling someone Jane Smith, you might call the person, John Smith. I think this kind of change is relatively unproblematic for people. However, asking people to change the rules of grammar of the language for each individual, -and, to remember the individually specified terms and their rules is, I would say, a bit impracticable (I think this is what I was trying to show above). For instance, you say on twitter that your preferred pronoun is 'they'. If I was writing about you I would presumably have to write:A: Did you see Laura?me: I saw them yesterday. A: oh what were they doing? me: They were shopping. This is quite awkward. You may say'well who cares how awkward it is if it makes trans people feel better' and that's a good point. However, I don't see most people being able to mentally do this kind of grammatical changes in normal conversation (and note here that I only mentioned they and not zir, hir etc). I might be wrong, but I think as well intentioned as this is, it will simply fail to be feasible for a lot of people, who then might be criminalised.


  4. I'm not sure I agree with you here: Jack Monroe are a writer, journalist and activist… This is such a normal part of our language that even those trying hard to use the right pronouns are getting it consistently wrong. Below are some examples of what writers should have written about Jack Munroe (I have corrected and highlighted the verbs):Munroe were born in southend on seaMunroe have three siblings Munroe were unable to arrange work Monroe are non-binary transgender and go by singular they pronouns Surely, when a sentence has a pronoun, it has to agree with the pronoun so They are a writer. But if you use a name, ie a noun, the verbs have to agree with the noun, in this case a name is a singular noun, and so no need to change the verbs as you've done. We don't make verbs agree with the concept of Monroe (not Monroes) as a single person, we make the verb agree with the singular noun, replace the noun and we follow the rule dictated by the pronoun they … they are, they were etc


  5. I don't know. If I said John and Dave…we would use 'are'. If Jack Monroe takes 'they', which is also not a noraml grammar rule then why isn't it 'they' for the name as well? I don't see how you can point to other rules of grammar to back up this position when the basic position ignores normal rules of grammar. No one ever uses singular they in this way, to say things like 'They were very popular with their bothers' to talk about an individual.


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