Coming to Grips with the Singular They

I was hesitant to say much about this topic, as the internet is full of discussion, and most people in my circles feel that ship sailed some time ago, that there is nothing left to discuss.

Let me be clear: I 100% support gender neutrality. I support gender inclusivity, and I support empowering people to explore gender identity in whatever way helps them make sense of this reality we face. This is not a commentary about gender. This is a commentary about number.

What I choke on with the singular they is the loss of yet another distinction between singular and plural. We already gave that distinction up with the second person: thou/thee got merged with you/ye into you and now we have some terrible options for distinguishing singular from plural: you guys (really?), you all (y’all, which, so help me, makes me cringe) and youse (which I almost like, it’s cute, ish). With the historical use of the “royal we” and the increasing use of we to imply solidarity, collaboration and/or togetherness (even insincerely), a future completely devoid of singular pronouns other than “it” is not all that far-fetched.

As a professional wordsmith, it is my job to help people make themselves understood. If communication is two individuals sharing and understanding an idea (thank you Pat Parelli), there has to be a mutually agreed upon way to convey that idea. It seems important in many cases to be clear about whether we are talking about one or more individuals. However, from an academic writing perspective, the rabbit hole took me on a surprising journey.

Finding clarity through being vague

I have been noticing that in many contexts, particularly in non-fiction discourse, it’s not necessary to talk about an individual. I work on a lot of books that have been translated from French, and the translations are often not great, or too literal, but they reveal a lot about nuances in English and French that I find fascinating. I recently worked on a book about maps. The translators worked diligently to achieve gender neutrality which, bless them, resulted in a few instances of singular/plural discordance, my favourite of which was, in reference to the language of maps: “They makes good use of grammar…“. But I digress. Here’s an example to illustrate the point of being intentionally vague to achieve clarity:

The author may plan to deceive his readers, or not realize that his map will often be misinterpreted.

We’re not talking about a particular author here – this is just any old cartographer who might be making a map with or without the intention to mislead. Ironically, French, a language built entirely on masculine/feminine constructs, has the luxury of gender-neutral third-person possessive pronouns that agree in gender and number with the object, with no refence to the gender or number of whoever is doing the possessing. The original French of the sentence above reads thus:

Leur auteur peut prévoir de tromper ses lecteurs, ou ne pas se rendre compte que sa carte va être souvent mal interprétée.

A simple solution to this is to remove possession, which is not necessary to convey the intended meaning:

The author may plan to deceive readers, or not realize that the map will often be misinterpreted.

The sentence that follows in this passage further illustrates the trend I find in French writing to talk about a single individual when really a category of people, such as a profession (in this case, authors of maps), is the subject being discussed:

Il peut aussi intégrer des éléments graphiques qui vont éventuellement évoquer certaines idées ou sentiments chez les lecteurs

translates literally to

He (or she) can also integrate graphic elements that will eventually evoke certain ideas or feelings in readers…

So we could use they here, but it’s even cleaner if we just eliminate the pronoun altogether:

Authors can also integrate graphic elements…

This boils down to a simple guideline that I have been trying to apply in all my academic editing: If a pronoun can be avoided, avoid it. Speak to the idea, and take the emphasis off the individual.

Showing respect and inclusivity by not specifying

In a world rife with ad hominem attacks, I find it refreshing to take the emphasis off the individual and instead focus on the idea. Good academic writing should be about sharing ideas, making arguments, presenting hypotheses, observations, and conclusions. We can show sensitivity and respect for the individual by not assuming anything about an individual, especially when that individual is representative of a group (e.g., a profession) that hopefully is made up of diverse individuals. Speaking collectively about cartographers without any assumptions about gender (or any other axis of identity, for that matter) helps me counter the implicit bias that comes from visualizing an individual cartographer, something which I cannot trust my brain to do fairly or inclusively.

Up next: the individual they

It’s obvious that none of this is helpful for the nonbinary person who wishes to be identified as such. As a straight, cis-gendered, privileged white woman, I am still learning from individuals in my circles who are not straight, cis,-gendered, privileged or white. I’m hopeful that my efforts to write inclusively by not specifying will help bring unconscious bias to my conscious mind, where I can acknowledge it and learn from the lived experience of others who are willing to share that experience with me.