Stop excusing your transphobia by saying it isn’t. You’re wrong.
It’s not though. I’m a nonbinary person who uses they/them pronouns. Hear me out.
I work at a tutoring center for teaching kids test prep. You know, ACT, SAT, what have you. And I am professionally obligated to teach kids singular they/them pronouns are not correct English. If they don’t know that they could get a lower score on the SAT or ACT.
I was also taught this in another tutoring job at my college. This is enforced as proscriptive grammar. This is Standardized English. They/them is taught as a strictly plural pronoun even if, in everyday usage, we often use they/them as singular. The rules of proscriptive grammar are arbitrary and while they change sometimes, when they are in vogue they are enforced strictly.
This is the thing about proscriptive grammar: it’s oppressive. The prime victims are people who are of color, poor, mentally disabled, and/or are English language learners. As other bloggers have said, making this argument is actually backwards because relying on proscriptive grammar to validate your pronouns is relying on an oppressive force. Also, no one abides by the rules of standardized English in their everyday speech or writing on the internet. The argument that they/them is incorrect grammar is just a red herring, an excuse to bully trans people. Furthermore, there’s a much larger conversation to be had about the oppressive nature of proscriptive grammar, which is decided by a whole bunch of old white dudes in academia.
Here’s the thing: language is always changing and evolving. Once you get to linguistics and past English grammar rules you start to see language as tools people use to communicate. Of course, as society changes, the nature of these tools changes. When you think of it this way, the idea of “correct grammar” ceases to make sense. As long as other people understand you, that means your tools are working. You successfully communicated! Congratulations, you’re language-ing right!
Proscriptive grammar always lags behind this process of language evolution, but it too, eventually changes. Some grammarians out there might have heard the rule “never end a sentence in a proposition.” This rule became in vogue because some stuffy white professor with a hard on for Latin and pedantry thought, “hey, in Latin you never end in a proposition! This is a travesty of the English language up with which I will not put!” and convinced a whole bunch of other stuffy old white dudes of the same thing. But that makes no sense! English is not Latin! It’s a completely different language. Sure, Latin gives us some roots and stuff, but grammatically it’s incredibly different from English. Nowadays, no one enforces that old rule. Even the SAT handbooks say it’s okay to end in a preposition.
Back to oppressive pronouns: it used to be that everyone used “he/him/his” as general singular pronouns for the human race. “A man will never reach his potential if he never takes risks,” “when approaching a customer, ask what he needs” etc. Feminism changed that because, obviously, it leaves women out of the equation. I’m sure men back in the day made the same kind of arguments against using “him or her” that the singular they nay sayers make: “but it’s not proper English!” “but that’s just the RULES!” etc etc. Again, none of the rules really should matter, as long as you are understood. The only reason they matter more than that is due to people in power abusing their power. If you know standardized English, it’s a class marker. You are “educated.” Even though no one talks like that or writes like that outside of very specific environments. It’s a gate keeping tactic.
Easily, I think “him or her” could change to singular “they” in formal usage for someone of an unknown gender or a hypothetical person, especially since “him or her/she or he” becomes very awkward in certain sentences (or with repetitive use in a given work). What’s going to take more time is singular “they” for trans and nonbinary people becoming accepted in formal writing. That would require broader acceptance of nonbinary people. That’s not going to happen any time soon.
So this whole discussion about singular they is actually a much more complex one. Saying (inaccurately and untruthfully) that singular they is standard English will accomplish nothing. Putting pressure on people to change proscriptive grammar rules to use they/them would accomplish more, but you still have the problem of Standard English as a gate keeping tactic and playing into the elitist mess to win points with those in power. The fact of the matter is that those in power control Standard English and they don’t control informal English. Standard English is used to gatekeep certain elitist spheres from those who are of lower socioeconomic status and those of color. Investing value in that system and acting as if we need its okay to defend the use of they/them pronouns is actually harmful. It’s throwing PoC and lower class people under the bus.
You shouldn’t let people use Standard English to come into conversations about everyday use. It’s incredibly classist and racist. Seriously. And you play right into their hands when you act like you need the approval of the powers that be to validate your everyday language use. Whether they think they/them is correct is beside the point. They also think AAVE is uncivilized nonsense. Those are the people you’re appealing to.
So no, they/them is not “correct” in the sense of proscriptive/standardized English. I know because I have to tell students singular they/them (which are my personal pronouns) are grammatically incorrect at my job (note that I’ve only told people on tumblr and close friends my pronouns). I know because when I failed to catch the use of singular they in an article I used for curricula at my job, I got criticized for it and told to not let that error slip. Saying otherwise does no one any favors. And while it is true that in everyday speech, singular they is used far more often than she/he, cis people don’t care. They will use whatever excuse or argument to justify their cissexism. Will they rely on arbitrary, irrelevant and oppressive structures like proscriptive grammar to do so? You bet. But we, on the other side, don’t have to play their game to stand up against them. It makes more sense to accurately label standardized grammar as irrelevant to common speech and as oppressive. To call cis people out on their bullshit because I can guarantee they do NOT utilize Standard English in their everyday speech. To use the linguistic approach to changing grammar. To accurately point out singular they’s commonality in everyday speech. To dismantle their arguments by pointing out their inconsistency and unreasonableness. Let’s not play the game by their rules. Their rules are unfair and harmful.
But singular they is correct English. It is not taught as correct English in an academic sense, but academic English is not the same as business English is not the same as colloquial English and that’s just talking about the US, and not getting into other nations that use English.
It is true that standardized grammar is oppressive, but it is not the be-all and end-all of how English is used.
In some contexts, as you describe, people do not accept singular “they”, but there is no such thing as standard English, there never has been such a thing, and there never will be such a thing. There are some forms of English which people call “standard” or “standardized” but that is useful in terms of referring to a specific category of grammar rules, not the real one true way the language is supposed to be used.
I never said that standard English is the same as colloquial English or business English. I also never said that they/them wasn’t used in everyday language. In fact I specifically said standardized English and conversational English were completely different. I said that standard English only applied to incredibly limited formal environments and it’s used as a gate keeping mechanism. I also said that it shouldn’t be applied to everyday speech.
I’m really not sure what you’re disagreeing with. Because there’s plenty of pronouns that aren’t even used in colloquial English, either—like xie/xir/xirs. Whatever is perceived as “correct” is arbitrary and irrelevant is my point. Relying on an argument about the “correctness” of they/them is backwards.
You can say standardized English isn’t real until you’re blue in the face, but people will still enforce formal grammatical rules and use them as a gate keeping tool. I’ve seen it happen. And these rules do influence people beyond academia. There’s a reason so many people say they/them isn’t correct. That’s what they were taught in school. They didn’t get this from thin air. There’s a reason pedants will correct a random person saying “me and Jasmine went to the store” to say “Jasmine and I” even though it shouldn’t matter. Ideas about correct grammar permeate our lives in terms of class and real lived experiences. It’s partially why people will act like AAVE is grammatically incorrect: people don’t get that language is just a matter of use and that there are many dialects. They think there is some set in stone way “proper” English operates. I, like you, don’t think that’s the case. But the people who do create rules in formal setting do influence ideas about language in this way (which does result in classism and racism).
As someone who has worked as an English tutor in numerous work environments (and as an editor), I have found I have to teach and enforce standardized grammar, which is real and has a very strict set of rules. I even had to mark down an essay by one of the best writers in my group of students a full point out of 6 because she’s an English language learner. It’s not a grade in school: it’s feedback so she’ll know realistically what she’ll get on the SAT and the reality is she will probably be marked down for grammar even if though she will likely write an essay much better than most of her peers. Standard English is a construct and it’s a shitty one but the ramifications are very real.
Again, I’m wondering if there’s a miscommunication. I don’t agree with enforcing standard English. And it only is relevant in very limited situations, and I stressed multiple times it’s not used in everyday language. My point is anytime you talk about something being “correct” or “incorrect” English, unless you’re talking about phrasing or punctuation that is incomprehensible or never used in our language, you are invoking and reinforcing a classist and racist system. And it’s one that should be questioned, not supported. It’s also ignoring the fact that practitioners and enforcers of standard grammar continually deny they/them is correct. And as long as those in power keep saying it, those arguments will have an influence.
But my point is not contrary to yours because I was trying to say in my post that it doesn’t matter what the enforcers of proscriptive grammar say. I said they don’t control everyday speech and I stand by that which is why we can argue for they/them use without talking about what is correct or not in formal environments irrelevant to most situations anyway. Trying to get academia to accept it is another question.
We’re not stupid, and most teenagers and children aren’t either if you give them a chance and try to explain a situation to them. Seriously, there must be something more productive and positive to say when faced with tough questions than “you’re too young to understand that.”
These types of responses shut the younger person down completely. It closes the conversation because it doesn’t allow a valid response. No one can agree or disagree with this statement because the future is unknown. I might understand when I’m older, I might never understand, we don’t know. And you can’t predict my future, so please try not to, especially if you’re going to shut me down in the present. I honestly never know what to say when people tell me this. There is nothing that I can think of that will satisfy me while continuing the conversation.—
Harry Potter AU in which Remus Lupin doesn’t leave Hogwarts after Snape tells everyone he’s a werewolf
instead, he fucking stays
where he belongs
and, as the howlers start coming, insults exploding at the teacher’s table every morning like clockwork, the students take notice. They see Lupin’s face, and he’s not even angry, he looks fucking resigned to it, like he deserves it.
So, the students take matters into their own hands.
"You’re the best teacher EVER" is heard on a Monday morning, followed by a “We really like your classes” on Tuesday and “Thanks for being such a cool guy. AND FOR THE CHOCOLATES” on Wednesday.
by Friday, things have escalated to the point that you can’t go ten minutes without a howler bursting and showering Lupin in compliments.
(It’s a whole month before the fateful “YOU HAVE A VERY CUTE ASS, 10/10 WOULD BANG! ” and the subsequent banning of all howlers for the teachers.
Snape has never looked more constipated in his life.)