What is the gender neutral they and why does it matter?
In English, the most commonly used pronouns are he, she, they, and it. Although English does not have a designated personal pronoun for a gender-neutral or subject of unknown gender, “they” has long been an English speaker’s go-to for many situations. When “they” is used to signal a single person, this usage isn’t always considered “proper” English grammar since “they” is more frequently used as the plural pronoun.
However, as a Writing Center consultant, I am a big advocate for the gender neutral “they.”
For starters, other substitutes can be clunky and awkward in both speech and text. Substitutes such as “he/she” don’t read easily, but also are limiting. Other substitutes, like mixing the use of “she” and “he” throughout the text can cause confusion and require extra thought to balance out the usage. “They,” despite its grammatical origins, works as an easy-to-read substitute.
However, there are other more pressing reasons to use the gender neutral they.
Using “he/she” or arbitrarily assigning a gender to an individual can be limiting and potentially harmful. Not all individuals identify as male or female, and some may even identify as both or neither. Using “he/she” erases nonbinary gender identities, while using “they” is open and inclusive. When in doubt, I always use they as both a default pronoun and to be more inclusive than the traditional “he/she.” (For further information about gender identities, see this interactive booklet).
Furthermore, some nonbinary individuals may choose to use “they” as their primary pronoun. For example, when referring to a nonbinary individual in third person who uses the “they” pronoun, you would say “they/them/their/themselves” in place of “he/him/his/himself” or “she/her/hers/herself.” Other nonbinary individuals may use other pronouns such as xie, ze, ey, and many others. (For further information, see this handy chart on Wikipedia or this article). When in doubt, always ask! Although it may seem like a strange question, it is important to ask to avoid misgendering.
What does this all mean?
“They” is an important pronoun that can be used to identify both plural and singular subjects. Not only does it sound better than alternatives such as “he/she,” but it is also more inclusive for nonbinary individuals. If someone tells you “they” is their preferred pronoun, always respect their request and avoid misgendering them. If someone tells you they use other pronouns like ze or ey, respect their request too! Misgendering is not only rude, but harmful and hurtful. Just because you’re not used to a pronoun doesn’t mean you can’t learn! Finally, when in doubt, use “they” to represent any and all genders.