Writing

Why English Needs Singular They

A portrait of William Shakespeare.

"There's not a man I meet but doth salute me, as if I were their well-acquainted friend"

Despite the growing recognition and validation of gender-neutral pronouns, there are still many people – particularly in the writing industry – who reject singular they. These traditionalists usually complain that singular they will make the English language worse, since the meaning of “they” will be less specific.

But English itself has something to say about that. Singular they has emerged precisely because English has a more serious problem, and the language is naturally evolving to fix it. What’s more, English speakers, and we speculative fiction storytellers in particular, desperately need singular they.

Gendered Pronouns Are Too Limiting

English as traditionalists define it has a huge gaping hole: there’s no way to communicate about a sapient individual without assigning that person a traditional gender category. Using exclusively gendered pronouns for third person doesn’t sufficiently cover three important cases:

  • A hypothetical person of any gender. Just on this blog, Mythcreants has countless hypothetical examples about fictional characters. Having to use a gendered pronoun every time would cause us to make weird insinuations about gender and require clarification when an example is actually gender specific.
  • A person of unknown gender. Many contexts require referring to a person who is specific and real, but largely unknown. If someone has lost a possession or committed a crime, referring to them with a specific gender could not only be inaccurate but also reduce the chance of solving the problem. Gender assumptions can cause us to miss the person we’re looking for.
  • A person who is of nonbinary gender. In this case, it’s a specific person and their gender is known, and that gender can’t be accurately referred to with “he” or “she.” Basic courtesy requires another option.

For the first two cases, the “traditional” alternatives* are so unnatural that no one ever uses them in spoken conversation. Using “he or she” is so awkward it’s ridiculous. Alternating between “he” and “she” is barely practical, even in a written work. What if you add a hypothetical example to the middle of your book after it’s written? Will you edit all your pronouns so they carefully alternate again?

The most that traditionalists can achieve is giving written English its own vocabulary, so that they can convince writers to expend effort on unnatural constructs that would never fly in spoken conversation. But why should writers waste their time maintaining such a poor status quo? If it’s not usable enough for spoken language, it’s not usable enough for writing either.

Since so many traditionalists object to singular they because it reduces specificity, it’s only fair to point out that using gendered pronouns does the same. So “he” either means a man or a person of any gender? Which one is it? This regularly causes confusion. I’ve read numerous books on writing that specifically explain the hypothetical gender of protagonists because the gendered pronouns they use are misleading. Take this tidbit from The Writer’s Journey, which alternates between “he” and “she” throughout.

A Hero is someone who is willing to sacrifice his own needs on behalf of others, like a shepherd who will sacrifice to protect and serve his flock. At the root the idea of Hero is connected with self-sacrifice. (Note that I use the word Hero to describe a central character or protagonist of either sex.)

With singular they, the writer wouldn’t have needed this clarification.

For our third use case regarding someone of nonbinary gender, there is no ivory-tower hack for getting around this problem. Either you find a new term that isn’t “he,” “she,” and certainly not “it,” or you’re being incredibly rude. Some people may think they’re okay with being rude to members of a marginalized group, but what happens when they have to attend a job interview or make a business deal with a nonbinary person? There’s a difference between choosing to be rude and being rude because you can’t help it.

Humans evolved a big brain primarily to coordinate with other people. In a human language, rudeness is a fatal flaw. An implication of rudeness killed “thou” – our old singular “you.” “Thou” became impolite, and now it’s dead. Courtesy is more important to our language than specificity.

Limited Language Means Limited Imaginations

Speculative fiction is all about unusual ideas. It has changed the world by reimagining what society could be like. But our ability as writers to take people to strange worlds depends on having the language to describe those worlds. What’s more, the words we use have an impact on how we think. When we don’t even have a word for something, we have trouble wrapping our minds around it.

Going without a pronoun for ungendered sapient beings reinforces a huge gap in our cultural imagination. When our language requires us to gender everyone we know immediately, we have trouble relating to others without the trappings of gender.

Our overdependence on gendered pronouns also presents gender as an inextricable part of someone’s identity. When someone informs us they are a different gender than we thought, we freak out. Really, a person’s gender is one characteristic they have, much like their religion or career, and it’s a characteristic that can change. But many storytellers resist gender-flipping their characters when it’s called for because they don’t view a gender-flipped character as the same person.

This emphasis on gender warps our depiction of everything, from familiar to strange. Almost every time a speculative fiction character is introduced that naturally falls outside of gender categories, an immediate effort is made to define what their gender is.

We gender robots.

The feminine robot even holds a light bulb the masculine robot wall-e has just shown her.

We gender aliens.

An alien with a long snout and protruding eyes has red lipstick and long eyelashes

We gender alien robots.

A super masculine transformer poses with a sword.

We do this even when it’s unrealistic for these characters to be gendered. We do it just to make it easier to think of them as relatable, sapient beings. When we don’t assign gender to aliens, such as in the movie Arrival, it’s often because they aren’t supposed to be sympathetic. Instead they are presented as unknowable or frightening.

What does this limitation say about us as a species in a galaxy full of unknown wonders? It says our pathetic human minds can’t handle the idea of people that don’t fit the narrow confines of our own culture. It’s a good thing sapient aliens haven’t made first contact, because this is just embarrassing.

Singular They Is the Easiest Solution

You might have been wondering for this entire article why we can’t invent a new gender-neutral pronoun to eliminate these problems. I have no objection to a new pronoun; naturally, that would be fantastic. A new pronoun could also work alongside singular they. Whereas singular they is commonly used for unknown gender, a new pronoun could be used for someone who has a known gender that is not specifically masculine or feminine. The nonbinary people I know would love this. Many nonbinary people do use one of many gender-neutral pronouns that have been introduced, and it’s important to respect everyone’s pronoun choices.

But there’s a reason why English has naturally evolved to include singular they and not a brand-new pronoun. Evolution rarely jumps to an ideal state that’s far away; that’s too hard. Instead, it creates incremental improvement. For instance, predators haven’t evolved guns to shoot their prey. Guns are super effective at killing things, but how is half a gun going to help predators survive? So instead, predators have evolved longer canines. That’s a much smaller change, and every extra millimeter helps. It’s more practical.

Similarly, the transition to using singular they is a lot easier than incorporating a brand-new pronoun. Everyone already uses singular they for hypothetical people of any gender and people of unknown gender. If you listen close, you’ll also find that people often use singular they when they do know the gender of the person they are referring to, but the listener doesn’t. The leap that many people currently have to make, to using singular they for a person with a known neutral gender, is a small one.

Comparatively, incorporating a new pronoun takes a lot of effort. I’ve heard people object to singular they on the grounds that we should have a new pronoun, but none of them were actually fluent with a new pronoun.* While I’m quite used to singular they, every time I want to use a brand new pronoun, I have to stop and think about what the subject and object forms are and choose the one that’s right for that use. With singular they, my brain already knows whether to use “they,” “them,” or “their.”

That doesn’t mean learning singular they takes no effort at all. A lot of people who’ve never tried switching the pronouns they speak don’t realize that it takes time and practice. When they don’t get it right immediately, they assume they just can’t do it. But they can, and the more people who make this jump, the easier it will be for everyone else to do it. This is another reason why singular they is on a faster track to adoption than any new pronouns. It’s the most obvious solution, so the most people already use it. Then it grows more quickly, since people repeat what they hear.

When working in a written medium, people tend to blame every instance of pronoun confusion with singular they on the pronoun itself. We don’t do that with any other pronoun. When we have two men in a scene and the reader isn’t sure who “he” is, we don’t insist that “he” isn’t specific enough. All pronouns can be used in a confusing manner.

The biggest issue with singular they isn’t actually specificity; it’s that many readers haven’t adjusted to using it for named people. Contextual clues help us identity what most pronouns refer to, but for readers who aren’t used to singular they in this context, those clues must fight against cognitive dissonance. The same usage of singular they can be perfectly clear to a person who is familiar with this usage and still confusing for someone who’s adjusting. But this isn’t a problem with singular they itself; it’s a growing pain for readers adapting to changes in our language, and it will fade with time.


While traditionalists have been pushing back against singular they in writing for hundreds of years, our culture’s more egalitarian view of gender has finally made it too strong to resist. Love it or hate it, singular they is becoming the norm in writing, just as it is in conversation. As writers, we just have to decide whether to adapt to this change or become outmoded.

Need an editor? We’re at your service.

 

Comments

  1. Michael Campbell

    Thou hast failed to outline thy argument as to why “it” is not already the singular form of “they”.

    • Cay Reet

      Because ‘it’ is used to refer to either objects (animals count as objects in this case) or children (and even children are often referred to as ‘he’ or ‘she’ instead). It would be rude to refert to a sentient being as ‘it.’

      • Michael Campbell

        There was a robbery working in the shadows.
        It threw a punch, snatched a purse and was gone before anyone could raise the alarm.

        Is a robber really a non-sentient being?

        • Innes

          While you’re technically correct that ‘it’ can be a non-gendered pronoun, it’s rude to use it to refer to a sentient creature because it is traditionally used for non-sentient things or non-humans. The implication of ‘it’ is that the creature referred to is not human, or not sentient. The meaning comes from the pronoun as well as the context, so in your example, it is not actually clear whether or not the robber is human because of your use of the pronoun ‘it’.
          Although, this isn’t actually a difficult grammatical problem. And your playful use of ‘thou’ makes me think you don’t especially care about maintaining even a base level of human decency towards others, so I guess it’s a moot point.

          • Michael Campbell

            Thee and thine call me; base!?!
            Tis a charge that hast cut me to the quick.

            Twas a yen for back issue o’ the Mighty Thor I countenance.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Editor’s Note: We’ve decided to leave this thread up because of the excellent rebuttals, but no further comments advocating the use of “it” for non-binary people will be allowed. That argument is dehumanizing, and is not something we intend to host here at Mythcreants.

    • Laura Ess

      Because IT is also a particular kind of insult used against trans people, and other people who “don’t pass” in a binary gendered system. .

    • Julia

      “It” is only appropriate for inanimate objects and a certain embodiment of evil that sometimes take the shape of a terrifying clown.

  2. Cay Reet

    I’ve already come to like the singular ‘They.’ While I haven’t used it all that often in my fiction (although I use it when characters are discussing someone whose gender they don’t know – and pretty much for the reason you mentioned for mysteries: so they don’t assume a gender and limit their investigations involuntarily), I often use it for my blog posts.

    My own native language would refer to a person of unknown gender as ‘she,’ by the way. German also genders objects and the correct pronoun for ‘person’ (which is the German word for ‘person’ – kidding you not) is ‘she,’ because the word is gendered as female.

    • uschi

      I was hoping to find a comment by you, Cay Reet, as I already knew you were German. (I am Austrian, so German-speaking and -writing as well.) I wholeheartedly embrace the singular they and have been wondering if there were any efforts underway to introduce something similar in German. Do you know of any? If you write in German, what do you use (or do you circumvent any phrasing which would require a singular they)?

      • Cay Reet

        I usually write English – for the greater audience and by now out of habit. I’m not aware that there’s a viable thing going on in German, sadly. We’re still very much hung up on our attached -in or our er/sie.

  3. Michael Campbell

    I like calling ships “she”.
    I was talking to my brother once about a ship called Goliath.
    She’s a bulk concrete carrier that services the concrete works next to the fish markets, so the ANZAC bridge (although it was called the New Glebe Island bridge at the time) was made high enough that Goliath could get under at high tide.
    It might be a very masculine name but Goliath is still a she.

    • Cay Reet

      Ships, especially warships, have traditionally been referred to as ‘she’ – at least in English. Nothing new there, but it doesn’t deny the need for a neutral gendered pronoun to use for humans.

      • Michael Campbell

        In french everything has a gendered pronoun.
        So you get, he knife and she folk.
        Or he chair and she table.

  4. Elda King

    The thing with “they” is that it seems to fit English quite easily. Pronouns like “you” and prepositions like “the” are already used for both singular and plural and are gender-neutral. And many nouns and adjectives are invariant and gender neutral too. As a native Portuguese speaker, I find that English is already gender neutral regarding almost anything except those 2 dumb pronouns and a handful of words. (This makes translating a pain, as titles like “The Last Jedi” can’t be written in some other languages without spoiling whether there is more than one Jedi and their gender). The main complaint I can think about singular they, that it is less “clear” to use the same word for both singular and plural… well, English already does that nearly all the time.

    Of course this is completely logical, but English is everything but logical, so I won’t be surprised if in a few decades the English language ends up with a dozen singular pronouns and starts using “you” for third person plural.

    • Cay Reet

      Yes, having a neutral pronoun in a language is nice. I’m German and in my native language, everything has a gender, too (we do have neutral, too, but only for a couple of objects, young girls, and babies). Which is why the German title of “The Last Jedi” gave a bit of the content away while the English one didn’t.

      And since English already uses ‘you’ for both singular and plural, there’s no reason not to do the same with the ‘they.’

      German, for instance, has two pronouns for ‘you’ – ‘du’ or ‘sie’ (with ‘sie’ being the same as female third person singular or third person plural) -, depending on how well you know someone. ‘Sie’ is used for people whom you’re not very familiar with while ‘du’ is more for friends, family, etc.

      • Elda King

        Yes, somethings being vague or ambiguous about the gender and/or number is a feature of the language and not a flaw. All the times when books written in English have a big reveal about the gender of someone, and in other languages there is no way to make it work.

        Portuguese also has formal and informal “you” (with singular and plural forms for both), and informal uses third-person verb tenses. Not that anyone uses formal anyway. Spanish is exactly the same, except we swap which is the formal and which is the informal.

        • Cay Reet

          German has a formal and informal ‘you’ as well.

          And I rather like that profession names, for instance are not gendered, so if I write someone is a doctor (or a carpenter or a baker), there’s no indication whether that person is a man or a woman. In German, there would be.

          • Lizard with Hat

            Im from Germany too… and i find it sometimes a bit annoying that german languages genders so many profession names. It feels a bit like the gendered profession reinforce a massage i dont want in my stories. English is sometimes the better alternative… but i like to sound of german it can be very clear and a bit snarky.

          • Cay Reet

            Yes, it’s the same for me. I like the English system where a profession’s name simply applies to all people who are in the profession, no matter their gender.

        • YonYonYon

          Oh geez, yeah! I once read a webcomic where a quite masculine character was revealed to be a woman and I even gasped in surprise along with other characters. Then I read the Russian translation and even our verbs are gendered, so it was revealed from the beginning and the effect wasn’t the same.

  5. Fred

    What about verbs?
    They is or they are?
    “Is” is just wrong, but so is “are”.

    • Cay Reet

      They are. Just like you are. No problem at all with that.

    • Aazhie

      I use “They are” because it sounds less awkward to me. It also works better when referring to abstract persons, who may or may not be singular, which I tend to do.

      A pair of shoes is plural, but you dont say:

      A good pair of shoes ARE essential

      English is not chiseled into stone every time we speak it. In some communities “They is” will be used by people who are not grammer nerds. My own redneck family uses this and while I don’t, it seems silly for me to lose my shit over the “improperness” of the use in casual contect. They are still accurately communicating a statement to their peers and even my snobby overeducated ass can understand what they mean. Language communicates, and when we have to abuse it to demean others for being different or less educated or concerned with “proper” speak, it just appears elitist and annoying to plenty of people.

      If this is what you are really hung up on… pick one and use it, if you don’t like it, use the other.

      Unless you have actual OCD or related learning issues, I might question your motives for arguing about how sensical it is to simply use a polite form of referring to people who you do not know intimately, or those who have already asked to be respectfully called by this pronoun.

      TL;DR:

      Does this really matter THAT MUCH, or are you just looking for a fight or a reason to hold onto your personal bias against people who don’t want to conform to your worldview/grammer? Is the thought of sounding a bit off in grammer more important to you than NOT dismissing someone’s entire identity?

  6. Bunny

    I’m learning Spanish right now and judging by the way things are conjugated, and the way adjectives have to match with gender (like, if you’re female and feeling sick you’re ‘enferma’ rather than ‘enfermo,’ which is the male version – this gendering applies to most adjectives), I wonder whether it’s even possible to talk about someone without assigning gender. Then again, I’m relatively new at the language, so there could be something that I don’t know about.

    • Cay Reet

      Some languages have it easier with that than others. Spanish or German (my native language) make it almost impossible so far.

    • Cae

      Actually, there has been a lot of discussions these days referring to pronouns in Spanish. A group wants to replace -o/-a (which mostly assigns gender), with -e. Consequently, instead of enfermo o enferma, you could say “enferme”.
      It sounds ABSOLUTELY HORRIBLE and makes me wanna SCREAM and RIP MY DAMNED EARS OFF but it’s trying to be the popular version of gender neutrality.
      (It beats me why they chose -e instead of -i. If you speak Spanish pretty well, you may notice that i is the prettiest of the two. Instead of “elle”, “enferme”, “alumne”, -i ending would be so much better: “elli”, “enfermi”, “alumni”. It sounds way cuter and less artificial.)
      Sorry for the mini rant there but I just die inside everytime these people want to push the -e agenda. Go for -i. I is cute. I is better. I is life.

      • Cay Reet

        I don’t speak Spanish (although I speak some French), but I agree with you. From the look alone – and the bit I know about Spanish just by osmosis -, I’d actually tend towards -i as well. I’d say it sounds better – and perhaps also cuter. I’d have to be better at Spanish to judge that part.

    • Hiera

      In French, it’s really difficult as well. Right now, there’s a discussion about using both versions of the gendered words at once, using a period as separator. For instance, writing “enrhumé.e” instead of “enrhumé” or “enrhumée”. For this case it’s quite easy, since there’s only a single character that changes, but for other words like “lecteur.trice” (meaning “reader”), it’s less easy to use, and you have to do it for the nouns, adjectives, etc. I’m trying to use that on my blog, but it’s not always convenient. And a lot of people are vehemently against that, starting with l’Académie Française, which is meant to dictate the use of french language. They went as far as saying that it was a “lethal danger” for the french language…

  7. Tifa

    Oh, yes, oh, yes, this is awesome! Thank you so much for this article!
    I have so many characters who have no gender that it gets rather tricky at times.

  8. 3Comrades

    I often used “they” when I was referring to my fiance. It is amazing how no one notices and inserts ‘he’ as automatic, which allowed me to be honest about my sexuality while also not drawing attention.

    (sadly ‘Spouse’ is not quite as expected and draws attention, but it is important to note the ‘they’ is not ever noticed)

    I will say English is fascinating, it’s rules and regulations and even syntax constantly change. at a faster rate than many other languages due to it’s hodge podge nature.

    That said, language adapts to cultures, there are multiple dialects in a singular language. If you are arguing a broad acceptance in the Academic dialect, I agree, but that will likely take quite a bit of time as Academic dialects are resistant to change as they stand on the idea of being the ‘correct’ usage.

    As for the usage in dialects outside of that, I think it just takes time and use. While non-binary people are not new, they are just being recognized in mass by wider cultures at large. People are resistant because of lack of use or even knowledge. Of course people are always resistant to dialects that are foreign to them.

    “I ain’t no quitter” is a fine sentence as far as how English works, and has valuable use. It is just as correct as “I am not a quitter” or even “I am not someone who quits easily.” but they do convey slightly different tones and variations of meaning, but some will feel odd or even “wrong” based on
    the dialect expected or environment.

    I guess I am saying, ‘They’ is being used in more LGBT spaces, places with their own dialects and vocabulary. That needs to be fully embraced, as well as a wider recognition of non-binary genders and correct terminology for them. ‘Gay’ and ‘Queer’ had very different meanings 60 years ago. Heck, one word for us here is a major slur, while in England is a simple cigarette. And someone would probably need the internet to know what a tribad was.

    More articles like these, more publicity so it’s more well known will encourage usage, when it becomes common vernacular perhaps ‘Standard English’ will adapt it.

  9. Oren Ashkenazi

    Editor’s note: For the record, we are no longer allowing arguments in favor of “it” for nonbinary folk. That argument is dehumanizing and not something we will host here at Mythcreants.

  10. SunlessNick

    If the singular they was good enough for Chaucer – making older than modern English itself – I think the traditionalists don’t have a leg to stand on.

  11. Laura Ess

    Some languages don’t work that way. When I was in Phuket in Thailand a while back gender was something a speaker added to indicate their own gender. If you identify as a woman and wanted to say HELLO you might say “sawasdee ka” but if you identified as a man you’d say “sawasdee khrap” (the first word sounding like “swa-dee” to the tourist).

    The issue with any usage should be clarity of meaning and whether or not a gender is relevant. For example the words “marksman”, “postman” and “spokesman” are potentially misleading because they suggest a gender about the subject that may not be correct or none. The answer though isn’t changing -man to -person, like marksperson postperson or spokesperson, because in context we’re talking about a job or role which a person does anyway. Rather, it’s to find a more accurate word or phrase, like sharpshooter, postal worker (or “postie”) . Spokesperson seems to work, but using the position of that person (like press secretary, or media representative) might be more useful. Likewise a manhole cover could be an access hatch or sewer lid.

    I’ve been using “they” as a personal pronoun since the 1970s when doing fanzines, when I couldn’t remember the names of people on panels at SF cons. No one complained back then, because it was what was said that was more important. Alternative words like Hir, Zie, Per, et cetera, are problematic because they’re either not well known or can be mistaken for other words when spoken rather than read (Hir could be Her). I’m slightly deaf and have been since childhood, and without seeing a person’s mouth when they speak can’t tell the difference between “f”, “th”, “h” and “sh”. Hence HE and SHE sound the same from a distance, and most of the time I don’t correct people because I could have got it wrong.

    I’ve been to more than one QUEER COLLABORATIONS (an annual queer student conference mainly for Australian university students) where genderqueer issues, including personal pronouns, were hot issues and points of friction when others got it wrong. However, when you’re half drunk at the hostel afterwards, it’s often hard to remember someone’s name – especially if you’ve only just met them – let alone their pronoun preference!

  12. Deana

    Adding to Laura Ess’s comment: another concern about pronoun proliferation is how those who have visual acuity problems identify new people in groups.

    I still remember with embarrassment sitting security for a conference for our denomination. We had several gay or lesbian clergy marrying their same-gender partner that afternoon, and we had had several violent disruptions on the floor by outsiders. A number of us had been tasked to check badges, but not disrupt traffic flow of attendees.

    Having just stopped a group of clergy that included our national minister (think bishop) and who I knew by sight for not having their badges out, I asked the next group to turn their badges around so names were visible. (Badges were color coded by preferred gender, and then the pronouns were also printed under the person’s name. We had male, female and non-binary coded badges). All members of the group had female badges on but one member of the group was giving me lip about turning their badge around. So in exasperation, I said something to the effect of “Ma’am, if your name is not visible you will not be allowed on the floor.”

    Turns out this person preferred zhe, and should have been addressed as “gentle person,” which I would have done had zhe been wearing a non-binary badge. I got ripped a new one, after having shoved the badge in my face.

    This put me in mind of how I would have handled the gender identification had I met zhir back in the hotel while I was contact-less. Even with the badge shoved in my face, I would not have been able to distinguish between z and s and would only have seen the color of the badge.

    The plethora of pronouns on the non-binary badges was truly mind-boggling and I would have given up and resorted to pointing, which my Midwestern roots frown upon. A single gender-neutral pronoun, even one grammatically plural, would have simplified the mass of misgendering that occurred at that meeting. (He-white, she-blue, they-green would have been so much easier to remember.)

  13. Cryptocartographer

    The amateur lexicographer in me would like to have another word for the indeterminate singular. It not a problem in writing so much as it is in composing spoken sentences. But listening to my kid use pronouns, it’s clear that objections to the singular “they” will soon fade. They know what they mean when they say it, and they have no problems sidestepping any ambiguity they might encounter.

  14. James

    “With singular they, the writer wouldn’t have needed this clarification.”

    The writer would still have needed this clarification since many would interpret the word Hero as referring only to male protagonists due to the existence of Heroine.

    • Cay Reet

      I’d say if you couple the word ‘hero’ with the pronoun ‘they,’ it’s clear your hero isn’t male. And the word ‘hero’ is used in gender neutral terms a lot these days, because ‘heroine’ refers to another type. See ‘hero’s journey’ vs. ‘heroine’s journey.’

  15. Tifa

    I feel that hero, like wizard, needs to be a gender neutral term.

    • Michael Campbell

      “heroic person” and “practitioner of wizardry”
      Gender neutral terms already exist. Having a one word expression is just wanting shorthand and maybe that’s a little lazy on the part of science fiction and fantasy writers.
      Everyone should examine the tools they already have before demanding a new tool.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Fun fact, “hero” is already gender neutral in the vast majority of cases! Most of the time when you say hero, people won’t assume a gender, especially if you use neutral pronouns.

      “Wizard” is getting there, though not quite.

      If you want to be really safe you can say things like “protagonist” or “mage.”

      • Michael Campbell

        Also using proper nouns as identifiers increases clarity of identification.

        Grumpy is a dwarf.
        Grumpy has a short beard so people aren’t entirely sure if Grumpy is a girl-dwarf or simply a boy-dwarf who likes to have a short beard.
        However since Grumpy is perpetually grumpy and carries a traditional dwarfish walking axe; most people are willing to allow the mystery to remain unsolved.

        Use the proper nouns and you’ll identify the character with far less confusion.

        • Cay Reet

          But you will also repeat the character’s name over and over, which is not a good thing. We do have pronouns so we don’t have to use a character’s name over and over again, thus using ‘they’ instead of ‘Grumpy’ is perfectly fine.

          Also, Cheery Littlebottom taught us that girl dwarves have as much of a beard as boy dwarves (because part of the dwarfish courting process is to discreetly find out whether you want to date a girl dwarf or a boy dwarf). Grumpy therefore clearly is an individual who likes their beard short.

          • Michael Campbell

            “The dwarf”, “this short fighter”, “the one that wields the axe” and “the Grumpster” could all be used if one is getting tired of the repetition.

            Indeed I’ld argue that the singular form of they would be “this one” in a great many cases.

      • Michael Campbell

        Hero becomes generic but heroine remains specific.
        It’s interesting that that is the rule of thumb for the male form of any particular word.

        I mean “mankind”, has meant the entire human race since before Dickens was born.

  16. Andrew Beard

    I’m writing a story which has a group of non-human genderless characters. When I came to write a scene with them, it became apparent that saying “they” all the time was extremely off-putting.

    Thankfully the scene is not terribly important so I’ll just omit it altogether and work the information contained within it into the story another way. But it would have been nice to see these characters working together.

    • Bunny

      Well, the gender-neutral characters probably have gender-neutral pronouns of their own from their own culture. Couldn’t you just call them whatever they’d be called on their home planet or whatever? Inventing a set of pronouns could be the solution here, as long as you make it clear what these pronouns are and what they mean.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      I suspect you can make that scene work without constant repetition of “they,” in the same way writers make scenes with more than three male characters work without constantly repeating “he.”

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