Wednesday, December 12, 2018

We are Us and They are We

by Laura Mahal (She/her) 

A short detour down a Rabbit Trail to a path called "Pronouns"

It’s okay if you don’t know who Rufus Xavier Sarsaparilla, Rafaella Gabriela Sarsaparilla, and Albert Andreas Armadillo are, nor what their relationship is to one another or to a kangaroo, an aardvark, and a rhinoceros. 

If curiosity is going to keep you up at night, a Schoolhouse Rock video will happily dance off your screen and into your ears, if you click here: Schoolhouse Rock--Pronouns.

Thank you, Schoolhouse Rock.

What you do need to know is: What are pronouns, and how have they changed since you were in school? 

The 1977 Schoolhouse Rock explanation was catchy: 

“WHO, WHAT, and WHICH are special pronouns that can ask a question 
In a sentence where you do not know the name of the noun, 
But I know: 
I have MINE, and SHE has HERS, 
and HE has HIS. Do YOU have YOURS? 
THEY love US, and WE love THEM, 
That's how it is with friends, 
And pronouns, you are really friends, yeah!” 

I won’t insult your intelligence by further explaining pronouns. You are writers. You’ve got the parts of speech down pat. In short, a pronoun stands in for a specific noun. 

We are going to focus on one pronoun and one pronoun only. (For dramatic effect, you can imagine I’m saying this in a booming voice. Because what I’m about to say is important. All-caps important, except we may have a few too many all-caps in our lives already.)

The Singular They 

The singular “they” is not new. We’ve been using it for years, though strict grammarians might have corrected us if they had overheard something such as this: 

“Today, I saw someone walking their dog. They lost control of the leash when their dog started chasing a squirrel.” 

We are talking about one person. Someone. 

Someone who has a dog. (A lucky someone, no doubt.) 

But that isn’t the singular "they" we’re talking about today. 

We are talking about The Singular They that is here to stay. 

The Singular They that is Here to Stay

I’m asking anyone who hasn’t been living under the Schoolhouse Rock for the last few years to think about how the pronoun they, along with its cousins their and them, has come to be a way of addressing those who do not identify as binary

Pronouns are a form of language used in public spaces. As such, people get to choose which pronouns best represent the way they seem themselves. If someone says they prefer to be called by their, them pronouns, the respectful thing to do is exactly that. 

"You don't have to understand someone's gender to respect it."

R-E-S-P-E-C-T: Find out what it means to me.

By the same token, when someone expresses their preferred pronouns, this should not be considered an invitation to ask probing questions. We all deserve privacy when it comes to our identities. Assumptions can be incredibly harmful. And our private lives are, well, private. 

I don’t ever ask anyone what their pronouns are. Rather, I start conversations (in the right setting—probably not when I’m standing in line at the grocery store) by sharing my pronouns. I don’t have insight into anyone else’s life besides my own. 

Misgendering someone can cause offense. This is true whether we use gendered pronouns (he/she) or even pronouns that are generally considered gender-neutral, such as they/them.

There may come a time when we move beyond narrow discussions of identity. Just as language is ever-changing, so is the broader culture where language lives. Where all of us live.

Helpful Links: 

My They-them pronouns

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