Some gender non-conforming individuals now request that they be referred to as”they” instead of “he” or “she.”
There have been numerous proposals to refer to a gender non-conforming person as the plural “they,” opposed to the singular “he” or “she.” However, some grammarians argue this creates number disagreement within a sentence, since the pronoun “they” is not singular.
Mark Balhorn, an English professor, said it would be difficult for the general population to refer to one person as “they” because the number agreement would not match.
“When we say ‘they are in the room,’ we assume that means multiple people are in the room,” Balhorn said.
Languages have changed over time, but Balhorn said this only applies to descriptive words such as nouns, verbs, and adjectives, but not pronouns.
“I don’t think this will ever happen,” Balhorn said. “It is very hard to change the use of function words.”
Speakers would have to remember to call a gender non-conforming individual “they,” which Balhorn said could lead to a slip-up, and the speaker would call the person a “he” or “she” anyway.
“People are thinking about what they are trying to say in a conversation, not how they say it,” Balhorn said.
Even though Balhorn believes pronouns are hard to change due to their functionality in the English language, some disagree. Rachael Barnett, an English professor, said the English language has room to include gender neutral pronouns such as “they.”
Contrary to Balhorn, Barnett said people who claim using the pronoun “they” to refer to one person is too difficult are only doing what is convenient for them. They are not being inclusive to a growing population.
“When it is in the service of further acceptance, inclusivity and equality, so what if you have to work a little harder and be a little more sensitive?” Barnett said.
Despite the cause for more inclusivity, Balhorn said the English language attempted to adopt different pronouns long before the LGBTQ movement, and the changes did not stick. Barnett said the times have changed.
“There is more attention toward pushing against gender normality,” Barnett said.
She said people are recognizing invisible gender assumptions in society.
“People do things that are gendered without even thinking about what they mean,” Barnett said.
Pronouns can be gender assumptions because they assume every human is either male or female. This forces gender non-conforming individuals to choose a pronoun.
Even if people respect a gender-nonconforming individual’s request, it can be hard to change something people do not even realize they are doing.
“People will just say what comes off their tongues,” Balhorn said.
Loren DeLonay, the promotions coordinator for the Women’s Resource Center, followed this logic and said language is ever-changing. She said if people grow familiar with using “they,” it will come more naturally over time.
“I feel like saying ‘that’s not possible’ is a way to overlook gender-neutral language,” DeLonay said.
DeLonay feels changing pronoun use will happen if people are willing to talk about gender neutrality.