26 votes

Merriam-Webster Singles Out Nonbinary 'They' For Word Of The Year Honors

44 comments

  1. [7]
    kfwyre
    (edited )
    Link
    So, teaching has a lot of paperwork and is incredibly repetitive (we do largely the same thing day after day and year after year), so one of the ways we can make it more efficient for ourselves is...

    So, teaching has a lot of paperwork and is incredibly repetitive (we do largely the same thing day after day and year after year), so one of the ways we can make it more efficient for ourselves is to have canned language on-hand for times where copying and pasting blocks of text is much better than writing something out fresh. It might be something as simple as a behavioral log ("student did not turn in her homework") or something like a scripted parent e-mail ("If you do not want him participating in this activity..."). One of the standard patch jobs after using canned language is changing pronoun gender to match the student, and pretty much every teacher can tell you about a time where they accidentally misgendered a student due to a slip up in editing. It's an uncomfortable gaffe, especially when made with parents -- not just for the misgendering but because it reveals we're copying and pasting in the first place (please don't let anyone know I told you one of the dark secrets of the profession!).

    Last year we had an LGBT training for our staff, and one of the things the presenter brought up was the use of the singular "they." He talked about it in the context of non-binary students and using inclusive language, but the presentation was unintentionally transformative in an unintended way. In a conversation about the training the next day, we were discussing it in the teachers' lounge, and I brought up that I use the singular "they" in all my paperwork. By using "they/them/their" in place of gendered pronouns, I don't have to worry about editing any canned language after the fact. It automatically works regardless of who the student is!

    It was like the clouds parted and the angels sang for these teachers. No more awkward misgenderings, no more accidentally leaving in a "him/her" that they never toggled the right way. "They" was the ticket to less tedious documentation, which is a win for any time-poor teacher.

    While I get where the number disagreement concerns are coming from, I think they're largely overblown. The word is comfortable and intuitively makes sense in most contexts. There are certainly times where it can introduce ambiguity, but the same can be said for any pronoun use (e.g. using "she" in a situation with more than one woman). It is by far the most elegant solution we have in English because it's so easily retrofitted. Many people, upon first hearing about the concept of the singular "they", don't realize that they're already comfortable with its use, especially in cases where the identity of a singular antecedent is flat out unknown ("I don't know who it was; I didn't see them.")

    While I'm not against other pronouns, I think they carry with them considerable friction. Pronoun use is both invisible and automatic to most speakers. Changing them requires deliberate and often uncomfortable metacognition. That's not to say it's not worthwhile, but that there's a learning period involved.

    I worked with a student for four years who presented as female, and, in my fifth and last year of working with them, they told me that they identified as male. Despite being completely trans-affirming, both at large and specifically for this student, I still had to take conscious effort and time to undo the invisible and automatic pronoun use I had developed for the student when I had believed them to be female. I wish I could say I perfectly transitioned to male pronouns and never made a mistake, but that wasn't how it happened. I messed up and apologized more than once, and he was gracious and understanding each time in return.

    This was certainly a worthwhile friction for me to undergo, but it's worth noting that it was present. Furthermore, it was present even in a switch between the standard gendered pronouns, and it was present in someone who is supportive of and comfortable with trans individuals and the community. My pronoun difficulties didn't come because of a prejudice about or rejection of the student's male identity -- it happened simply because most of the time I don't have to think about the pronouns I'm using -- but in this case, I did.

    I think this is what makes new or non-standard replacement pronouns a hard sell at large. I think they're easily usable in written language where we have the time to craft and edit, but they can interrupt the fluidity and ease of spoken language in an uncomfortable way.

    I say this not because I'm against them, but just to note that I think it's probably the biggest real-world impediment to their adoption (outside of prejudice, but I don't even think that deserves a seat at the table). I'm sympathetic to people who use them, as I think they can be incredibly validating. In Maia Kobabe's graphic novel Gender Queer e talks about eir pronoun preference. There's a scene in the book where Kobabe hears the e/em/eir pronouns for the first time and gets an intense and powerful sense of frission -- something e didn't feel with the singular "they."

    It's not my place to take that from em, and I can comfortably use eir preferred prounouns in this comment, but if I were to be in a group setting with Kobabe, I know that it would be considerably harder for me to use correct pronouns in conversation by nature of the fact that those prounouns are simply not automatic for me. I could certainly get used to it, and it's something I would gladly do if it was meaningful to Kobabe and helps afford em the dignity of eir own identity (which, according to eir book, it does), but it would take time for me to get there. It's not a frictionless process.

    I think the question for English at large and for non-binary people specifically is whether the singular "they" is a stepping stone or a terminus. Is "they" good enough to take the reins as our default non-gendered pronoun indefinitely, or will awareness of its use open the door to other pronoun preferences? If there are any non-binary people here who want to speak to this, I would love to hear your thoughts!

    14 votes
    1. [4]
      vivaria
      Link Parent
      This is a "noise" tangent but my hold for this just came in and I read it a few days ago!!! :D

      In Maia Kobabe's graphic novel Gender Queer e talks about eir pronoun preference. There's a scene in the book where Kobabe hears the e/em/eir pronouns for the first time and gets an intense and powerful sense of frission -- something e didn't feel with the singular "they."

      This is a "noise" tangent but my hold for this just came in and I read it a few days ago!!! :D

      3 votes
      1. [3]
        kfwyre
        Link Parent
        Awesome! It's a small world indeed. What did you think of it?

        Awesome! It's a small world indeed. What did you think of it?

        3 votes
        1. [2]
          vivaria
          Link Parent
          I didn't connect with it as much as I was hoping I would. I definitely appreciate it as a graphic novel, but it wasn't one of those books that makes me go "yes! this mirrors my experiences!...

          I didn't connect with it as much as I was hoping I would. I definitely appreciate it as a graphic novel, but it wasn't one of those books that makes me go "yes! this mirrors my experiences! finally, someone is saying how i'm feeling!" It was just... a nice read, I guess?

          3 votes
          1. Gaywallet
            Link Parent
            I legitimately can't say I've ever met another enby which mirrors my experiences. I feel like we're often even more in a gray area than trans binary individuals because we're actively not looking...

            it wasn't one of those books that makes me go "yes! this mirrors my experiences! finally, someone is saying how i'm feeling!"

            I legitimately can't say I've ever met another enby which mirrors my experiences. I feel like we're often even more in a gray area than trans binary individuals because we're actively not looking to fit into one of the two boxes readily available.

            But with that being said, in the same way that you're likely to relate to some of the experiences or statements in a horoscope, I try to find little bits and pieces from other people's journeys to satisfy the need of human connection and empathy.

            2 votes
    2. [2]
      Gaywallet
      Link Parent
      I personally like they, but I'm all for other creations of non-binary pronouns simply because they raise awareness. I also understand why people might make the argument that it's just someone...

      I personally like they, but I'm all for other creations of non-binary pronouns simply because they raise awareness. I also understand why people might make the argument that it's just someone being a "snowflake". I disagree, since all new language is someone trying to be a snowflake and it's how languages evolve over time, but I don't really want to spend too much time gatekeeping a language or even engaging with someone who wants to gatekeep a language - it's a frivolous endeavor.

      I messed up and apologized more than once, and he was gracious and understanding each time in return.

      FWIW, I've misnamed and misgendered myself at various times during my transition. It's a lot easier to use correct pronouns and names when you've just met someone. It's much harder to undo memory. Mistakes happen and are human, what matters most is that you're making an attempt.

      3 votes
      1. anahata
        Link Parent
        Yes. This. I think it's "normal" for anyone who reconsiders their gender later in life to do this. I know I have.

        FWIW, I've misnamed and misgendered myself

        Yes. This. I think it's "normal" for anyone who reconsiders their gender later in life to do this. I know I have.

        3 votes
  2. [33]
    Thrabalen
    Link
    I'm not in love with "they", but it's an adequate stopgap. English needs some true gender neutral singular pronouns that can't be mistaken.

    I'm not in love with "they", but it's an adequate stopgap.

    English needs some true gender neutral singular pronouns that can't be mistaken.

    13 votes
    1. [29]
      stephen
      (edited )
      Link Parent
      The people fighting against erasure of non-binary identities tried to introduce a new pronoun and people freaked even fucking harder. Remember ze zir? Apparently a neologism and a representation...

      The people fighting against erasure of non-binary identities tried to introduce a new pronoun and people freaked even fucking harder. Remember ze zir? Apparently a neologism and a representation win for marginalized queer folks was too much to ask.

      So, we have they them.

      8 votes
      1. [6]
        Gaywallet
        Link Parent
        We've always had they/them.

        We've always had they/them.

        15 votes
        1. [5]
          stephen
          Link Parent
          100% correct. Which is make all these comments saying "idk about all this they/them business" all the more puzzling.

          100% correct. Which is make all these comments saying "idk about all this they/them business" all the more puzzling.

          6 votes
          1. [4]
            Gaywallet
            Link Parent
            It's almost as in if more than one person uses the English language and it's possible for someone to never be exposed to a word, a grammatical rule, a quirk, or other aspect of the language.

            It's almost as in if more than one person uses the English language and it's possible for someone to never be exposed to a word, a grammatical rule, a quirk, or other aspect of the language.

            2 votes
            1. [3]
              stephen
              Link Parent
              And it's also almost like people are capable of learning new things.

              And it's also almost like people are capable of learning new things.

              2 votes
              1. [2]
                Gaywallet
                Link Parent
                Apologies, I realize now that this may have come off as an attack on you - it was not meant as that. Just a general vent at people who are unable to accept "they" as a gender neutral pronoun......

                Apologies, I realize now that this may have come off as an attack on you - it was not meant as that. Just a general vent at people who are unable to accept "they" as a gender neutral pronoun... it's a bit of a pet peeve of mine.

                1 vote
                1. stephen
                  Link Parent
                  It did and it kinda sucked but it's okay. Needing to vent about stick in the mud, close-minded people is something I deeply relate to.

                  It did and it kinda sucked but it's okay. Needing to vent about stick in the mud, close-minded people is something I deeply relate to.

                  2 votes
      2. [4]
        kfwyre
        Link Parent
        This is my first time encountering this term. I looked it up, and it seems to be a slur based on Asperger's? Is that the correct way to interpret it?

        sperged

        This is my first time encountering this term. I looked it up, and it seems to be a slur based on Asperger's? Is that the correct way to interpret it?

        6 votes
        1. [2]
          whbboyd
          Link Parent
          It is, and I'm quite disappointed to see it here, especially in this context.

          It is, and I'm quite disappointed to see it here, especially in this context.

          4 votes
          1. stephen
            Link Parent
            You have my apologies friend. I did not know what it meant. Comment edited.

            You have my apologies friend. I did not know what it meant. Comment edited.

            4 votes
        2. stephen
          Link Parent
          Oh wow well I did not know that. It's an internet word so it would not surprise me that it's an ableist slur. Thanks for the heads up.

          Oh wow well I did not know that. It's an internet word so it would not surprise me that it's an ableist slur.

          Thanks for the heads up.

          4 votes
      3. [18]
        Thrabalen
        Link Parent
        The problem is, they didn't try to introduce a new pronoun... about a dozen different pronouns were floated, and ultimately none of them gained traction because of it.

        The problem is, they didn't try to introduce a new pronoun... about a dozen different pronouns were floated, and ultimately none of them gained traction because of it.

        2 votes
        1. [17]
          stephen
          Link Parent
          If you can show me a list of this dozen I'd be happy to see it. The wiki for third person has a section on gender neutral pronouns and there are about that many going back to like the mid-70s....

          If you can show me a list of this dozen I'd be happy to see it. The wiki for third person has a section on gender neutral pronouns and there are about that many going back to like the mid-70s.

          Also this comment is kinda victim blamey. Why is it the non-binary community's fault that the Cis-Het set refused to have this conversation? Why are Cis-Het people allowed to bitch about gender neutral they/them given this fact?

          3 votes
          1. [10]
            Grzmot
            Link Parent
            Cause people don't like change and guess what, mandating change in language is even harder than any other kind of change, because you need everyone to get on board for that. The french tried to...

            Cause people don't like change and guess what, mandating change in language is even harder than any other kind of change, because you need everyone to get on board for that. The french tried to keep anglicisms out of their language for a long time to keep it "pure" and it's not going great.

            They/Them as a word to refer to someone who's gender you do not know has been in use for a long time and it's a great fit for this purpose.

            3 votes
            1. [9]
              stephen
              Link Parent
              Is anyone mandating change? Are non-binary people really like the french state policing use of language?

              mandating change in language is even harder than any other kind of change

              the french tried to keep anglicisms out of their language

              Is anyone mandating change? Are non-binary people really like the french state policing use of language?

              1 vote
              1. [8]
                Grzmot
                Link Parent
                I was not equating queet people with France. I was using it as an example to show that artificially changing language is very hard, if not say impossible, because you need really everyone speaking...

                I was not equating queet people with France. I was using it as an example to show that artificially changing language is very hard, if not say impossible, because you need really everyone speaking an entire language on board.

                And considering the introduction of new pronouns, I think you are mandating change.

                1. [7]
                  stephen
                  Link Parent
                  Why do you think this? I don't think everyone is going to do this. There are plenty of intolerant even hateful people out there. I have no illusions about being about to get them on board for...

                  And considering the introduction of new pronouns, I think you are mandating change.

                  Why do you think this? I don't think everyone is going to do this. There are plenty of intolerant even hateful people out there. I have no illusions about being about to get them on board for using preferred pronouns and I don't think it's anyone's place to coerce anyone else.

                  Also just want to point out this isn't an artificial change. Non-binary, two-spirit and other third gender identities have been with humanity forever. They are recognized in many other cultures and now are (re-?) gaining recognition in Anglo-phone cultures and America's puritanical Protestant norms are shifting to norms more friendly to queer people.

                  1. [6]
                    Grzmot
                    Link Parent
                    I mean you want to introduce new pronouns into the language, by definition, you're changing the language. For English, it very much is, as those people existed in other cultures far away from it.

                    I mean you want to introduce new pronouns into the language, by definition, you're changing the language.

                    Also just want to point out this isn't an artificial change.

                    For English, it very much is, as those people existed in other cultures far away from it.

                    1. [5]
                      stephen
                      Link Parent
                      It's not a change though. Singular they has existed forever.

                      It's not a change though. Singular they has existed forever.

                      1. [4]
                        Grzmot
                        Link Parent
                        I thought we were talking about creating new pronouns entirely. Singular they has existed and is quite regularly in use.

                        I thought we were talking about creating new pronouns entirely. Singular they has existed and is quite regularly in use.

                        1. [3]
                          stephen
                          Link Parent
                          Oh no. Just the pronoun in the title. Sorry that was not clear.

                          Oh no. Just the pronoun in the title. Sorry that was not clear.

                          1. [2]
                            Grzmot
                            Link Parent
                            Communication is hard sometimes. :D

                            Communication is hard sometimes. :D

                            1. stephen
                              Link Parent
                              So true. Talking past people is a bummer.

                              So true. Talking past people is a bummer.

                              1 vote
          2. [4]
            Thrabalen
            Link Parent
            My literal best friend is NB. They use, well, they. It's not their fault, but choice paralysis is a thing. Also, I don't have a list on hand, but as an avid Twitch viewer, I can tell you that...

            My literal best friend is NB. They use, well, they. It's not their fault, but choice paralysis is a thing.

            Also, I don't have a list on hand, but as an avid Twitch viewer, I can tell you that every other NB streamer has a different pronoun they prefer. It's only natural, as the internet started to ripen, it gave people an immense amount of freedom, and freedom tends to be very liberating.

            3 votes
            1. [3]
              stephen
              Link Parent
              Eh?

              They use, well, they. It's not their fault

              Eh?

              1. [2]
                Thrabalen
                Link Parent
                Translation: My NB friend uses the word they. It's not the non-binary community's fault (And this is why I don't like singular they. It gets confusing. It's just basically all we've got.)

                Translation: My NB friend uses the word they. It's not the non-binary community's fault

                (And this is why I don't like singular they. It gets confusing. It's just basically all we've got.)

                1 vote
                1. Death
                  Link Parent
                  Singular they is a lot easier if you rely less on pronouns and more on direct reference. Which, in my opinion, is a writing trick a lot of people could do with because it works a lot better.

                  Singular they is a lot easier if you rely less on pronouns and more on direct reference. Which, in my opinion, is a writing trick a lot of people could do with because it works a lot better.

    2. [3]
      ubergeek
      Link Parent
      Yeah. "They" in use for singular pronouns feels contrived. I use it when appropriate. But, it still just feel right when I do.

      Yeah. "They" in use for singular pronouns feels contrived.

      I use it when appropriate. But, it still just feel right when I do.

      1. [2]
        Thrabalen
        Link Parent
        It's been around for over half a millennium, I'm gonna cut it some slack.

        It's been around for over half a millennium, I'm gonna cut it some slack.

        10 votes
        1. stephen
          Link Parent
          True true true. I was surprised when I learned this but using they/them for a gender-non-determined singular subject is as old as the pronoun itself.

          True true true. I was surprised when I learned this but using they/them for a gender-non-determined singular subject is as old as the pronoun itself.

          4 votes
  3. [4]
    anahata
    Link
    I'm not sure how I feel about this. I see myself as nonbinary, but having a pronoun I prefer chosen as "word of the year" feels so... artificial. Contrived. It shines a spotlight on part of me...

    I'm not sure how I feel about this. I see myself as nonbinary, but having a pronoun I prefer chosen as "word of the year" feels so... artificial. Contrived. It shines a spotlight on part of me that I just want to get on with. It'd be weird if they chose "he" or "she" or "it" as their word of the year. Okay, yes, supporting nonbinary folks is important, but choosing one pronoun nonbinary people like to use to shine a spotlight on doesn't help. I don't feel any safer or more accepted or anything as a result of this, and don't particularly like the additional attention it might bring. Just let me live my life like any other human.

    9 votes
    1. Thrabalen
      Link Parent
      I think it's more like Time's "Person of the Year"... it's the word that has seen the most increase in use this year.

      I think it's more like Time's "Person of the Year"... it's the word that has seen the most increase in use this year.

      15 votes
    2. clone1
      Link Parent
      I think it's because some people are still saying that it can't be used as a singular pronoun so they want to be supportive by highlighting that it can be, which is pretty helpful since they are...

      I think it's because some people are still saying that it can't be used as a singular pronoun so they want to be supportive by highlighting that it can be, which is pretty helpful since they are an actual dictionary. I think it's cool.

      3 votes
    3. stephen
      Link Parent
      I wonder how much interaction with enbees Merriam Webster had in this project.

      I wonder how much interaction with enbees Merriam Webster had in this project.

  4. Comment removed by site admin
    Link