Why “They” and “Them” Will Never Work

I’m all about gender-neutral pronouns. The English language, once again, fails us when it comes to those that don’t fit within the norm (see my post on the limits of the English language for reference). Like many languages, English pretty much only allows us two options for singular gendered pronouns: he/him/his and she/her/hers.

image courtesy of wesleyanargus.com

Those within the queer community (and allies/supporters) have been subverting these language norms for years. In fact, it’s been happening for a lot longer than I thought! Upon doing a little bit of digging, I came across this article from a university professor’s blog. According to the article, gender-neutral language was first introduced in the mid 1800s, when the pronouns e, nis, nir and hiser were proposed and used for a short time. Of course, like most of these pronouns, they didn’t ever gain a permanent spot in the spoken language.

In the past several years, members of the queer community have adopted pre-existing pronouns in place of new gender-neutral ones. Instead of using words like ze, hir, nis, or nir, many have requested the use of they and them. On the one hand, this is a wise choice. Rather than introducing new words that sound strange to the untrained ear, the thought is to reappropriate words that people know and thus make society more aware of the need for such terms.

However, for the grammar freaks amongst us (guilty), using they and them is problematic, to say the least. As much as I want to support my gender queer and transgender friends and respect their pronoun choices, I constantly find myself stumbling.

“They looks so great tonight.” It just feels wrong! Perhaps it’s because my parents made it a priority to instill proper grammatical rules into my speech, correcting me every time I misspoke. I find myself then feeling guilty, one the one hand striving to support member of the queer community, and on the other hand, imagining my father shaking his head, disappointed in my grammatical error.

Okay, so the griping is over. Here’s where I offer a solution! My thoughts aren’t exactly innovative, however. Here’s how I see it: in order for gender neutral pronouns to enter and stay a part of the lexicon, they’ve got to be new words. It doesn’t really matter what they are, as long as it’s consistent…but using preexisting words in a new context, though creative, simply won’t work.

So, MSP readers, I turn to you. What do you think we should use as gender neutral pronouns? A word you’ve heard before, or a totally new one?

About Michaela


Michaela is a recent Seven Sisters graduate with a self-designed degree in Sexuality Studies. When she's not blogging, you'll find her teaching Health and Wellness and A Cappella to high school students, helping women find properly fitting bras, and working as an editor on a documentary. She hopes to continue her education one day with a PhD in Feminist Anthropology.

  • http://twitter.com/DirtyCarrie Caroline Willis

    In looking over the number of work emails I’ve received in life, I feel fairly confident in suggesting that most people are more attached to their ideas of how gender works, than how grammar works. If you convince enough people that gender is stranger and more varied than they previously thought, then they will come up with ways to talk about those genders, and the language will change, in much the same way that the language changed to incorporate computers once enough people understood what they were. And then, nearly a decade later, the words about computers finally started to be acknowledged by the guardians of “real” and “proper” language, like the AP style guide. But those guides follow the language, they do not form it.

    You might want to read: https://gupea.ub.gu.se/bitstream/2077/23801/1/gupea_2077_23801_1.pdf ; it’s an article about how Standard English vs General American English are received in Swedish classrooms, and it talks a lot about the traditional use of Standard English as the “correct” language, aka the language of those in power.