An Open Letter to People Who Don't Understand the Pronoun "They/Them"

It's been a good few months for the singular pronoun "they/them." Pop singer Sam Smith announced that they would like to be addressed by this pronoun in September, and, also in September, Merriam-Webster Dictionary officially added another definition for the word. Now, it can officially refer to "a single person whose gender identity is nonbinary." The dictionary goes on to use "they" in the phrase, "I knew certain things about … the person I was interviewing.…They had adopted their gender-neutral name a few years ago, when they began to consciously identify as nonbinary — that is, neither male nor female. They were in their late 20s, working as an event planner, applying to graduate school."

Now, Merriam-Webster has officially made the word "They" their word of the year.

This is a huge victory for people who use the pronoun "they/them," especially because so many opponents of the pronoun's singular use have used the word's (formerly) grammatically incorrect nature to back up their refusal to use it. Most people who dislike "they/them" tend to cite some rather dense arguments, so here's a letter to them. (This is not intended for people who don't support nonbinary people; that's a different argument entirely).

So, dear people who won't use they/them on the basis of grammatical incorrectness:

I get it. Words and grammar rules sound strange when you're learning them for the first time. I am sure that in the 1600s, when Shakespeare coined the words critic, elbow, lonely, green-eyed, lackluster, and unreal, most people didn't immediately incorporate those words into their everyday speech. But don't worry: As "they/them" becomes more widely accepted and used, soon you might find that it doesn't ruffle your feathers at all.

Just give it a little time. If you're still so vehemently against it, maybe ask yourself if the pronoun is truly what's upsetting you—or do you have a deeper problem, maybe rooted in a bit of transphobia? If that's the case, maybe it's time to address that, and you can start by reading up on stories about nonbinary people and getting to know the real narratives and lives of these folks. Though everyone's different, it truly means a lot to many people to be addressed by their correct pronouns—and it'll benefit them much more than changing your vocabulary will hurt you. Also, just as you don't have the right to decide whether to call someone by a totally made-up name (unless you don't care about blatantly lying), you don't have the right to decide someone's gender.

If you're still hung up on the grammatical incorrectness of the "they/them" pronoun, remember that you've actually been referring to singular entities as "they" for quite a while. If you're referring to a baseball team or a gaggle of geese, for example, you'd call this single entity "they." "They walked onto the field," you'd say about the team. "I saw them flying through the sky," you'd say in reference to the geese. Interestingly, you'd also say "the team is" just like you'd say "Taylor is" (though, of course, you'd say "the geese are," because English is weird and all about understanding odd and nonsensical nuances). If you speak English, you're used to making very strange and counter-intuitive adjustments to your grammar, point blank.

If you cite the argument that "they" obscures specificity, remember that if you were discussing a large group of people and you said, "He's right there," unless you were gesturing directly to them, nobody would know who you're talking about. Normally, you have to use somebody's name to clarify who you're referring to. And actually, using "they" can also help you avoid inaccuracies, because it's a useful way to refer to someone hypothetically without the clunkiness of saying "he or she."

Still not convinced? has news for you: "They" has been used as a gender-neutral pronoun as far back as the 1300s. Geoffrey Chaucer wrote, "And whoso fyndeth hym out of swich blame / They wol come up" in The Canterbury Tales, and though "whoso" complicates things a bit, the sentence seems to be referring to a singular person—and describing them as "they," meaning that this pronoun has roots in literal Medieval times. The pronoun has also been used by Walt Whitman, Jane Austen, and it even appears in the King James and Geneva version of the Bible. Phrases like "Each person should try their best" has been a widely accepted colloquialism for ages.

Of course, we shouldn't have to legitimize "they/them" solely on the basis of its appearance in history and religious texts. If we used history as a map for how to treat and refer to others, we'd all still be calling ourselves "thee" (to say the least).

Language changes and morphs along with culture—that's part of its magic and power. It's always been a skeletal and fluid approximation of the times, a series of common codes that help us connect to others. Like any name, using the pronoun "they/them" is just a way to imply that you're seeing someone as they really are.

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