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.
We gender aliens.
We gender alien robots.
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.