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Why it’s grammatically okay to use ‘they’ as a pronoun for an individual

(EDITORIAL) Many well-meaning people struggle with “they” as a singular pronoun, but here’s why the grammar police say it’s a-okay!

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"they" pronoun for a single person

“What is your preferred pronoun?” is a fairly common question in LGBTIA+ community spaces and activist circles (and in some industries like tech). It’s high time that being transparent and consensual about pronouns becomes part of the day-to-day culture of all workplaces.

For transgender and non-binary individuals, changing pronouns is often a first step towards affirming gender identity in the public sphere. Since we cannot assume someone’s gender identity or pronoun preference, the best way to find out is to ask (it’s not rude). Asking creates a culture in which we don’t presume one another’s gender on sight – instead, we inquire. Asking coworkers their pronoun, even if you don’t think they are trans, is a step towards creating a more inclusive workplace.

See what I just did there? I used both “their” and “they” to describe a single individual. People whose gender identities are non-binary often use the pronoun “they” to express their identity as neither male nor female, or as something in-between. If you think non-binary identities are a modern, American fad, you couldn’t be more wrong. Cultures worldwide and throughout history recognize gender categories as more complex than our ill-conceived and oppressive either/or binary. But today we aren’t digging into the concepts of non-conforming gender identities – here’s a great primer to catch you up.

Today I’m specifically addressing pronouns.

If someone tells you that their pronoun is different than what you assumed, or changes their (see, did it again) pronoun, it can take a little getting used to. Some find it even trickier when they aren’t used to using “they” to describe a single individual. It can take a little practice to accustom yourself to saying things like “they are doing a great job” when you’re talking about one person. Until you get used to it, further clarification is sometimes required. “Excuse me, do you mean Ellen, or Ellen and their partner?”

But this grammatical awkwardness is no excuse not to use the requested pronoun. If a divorcee reverts to her maiden name, do you insist upon continuing to use her husband’s name? If a coworker wishes to shed their embarrassing college nickname, do you refuse? Perhaps you do, but that’s tactless.

Even more so, if you refuse to acknowledge preferred gender pronouns. Times are tough right now for trans, intersex, and non-binary folk; and with no federal discrimination protection in place, for the time being it’s up to companies themselves to make sure that their workplaces are inclusive, provide equal opportunities for all, and help the entire team feel safe.

My point is, even if using “they” as a singular pronoun were completely grammatically incorrect, it would still be inconsiderate to refuse to use it when requested. A generation ago “googling” wasn’t a verb, and “tweeting” was something only songbirds did. So let’s not try to pretend that the English language is immutable. This is ultimately about respect, not grammar.

However, for you grammar geeks and proofreaders out there, I will break this down. “They” has been used as a singular, gender-neutral pronoun for literal centuries.

There have always been sentences in which we don’t know the gender of the subject, or the subject is a general “anyone” and not a specific person. Oxford English Dictionary listed singular they in 1531. More recently it has been approved by the AP Style Guide, the Chicago Manual of Style, and most mainstream publications (including ours). You officially have permission from the grammar police to use “they” as a singular pronoun!

Let’s take this quote from 19th century writer George Bernard Shaw, “It’s enough to drive anyone out of their senses!” Using “his” as a universal pronoun is out of the question. “His or her” is a little more gender-inclusive, but cumbersome. That leaves you with “It’s enough to drive anyone out of one’s senses!”? Sounds a bit highfalutin, wouldn’t you say? Truly, trying to avoid “they” as a singular pronoun is enough to drive anyone out of their senses. So just use “they,” and move on. I promise it won’t always feel awkward.

Lastly, I’ll clarify for folks that are still confused that you don’t need to use singular verbs with singular they. “They is doing a great job” is a subject-verb agreement nightmare, so it’s okay to flow with the easier “they are doing a great job.”

Hopefully this settles the issue once and for all – using “they” as a pronoun when someone requests it is the respectful, inclusive, and yes, grammatically correct thing to do.

To quote poet Tom Chivers, “if someone tells you that singular ‘they’ is wrong, you can firmly tell them to go to hell.”


Personal note: When I was first offered a position as a staff writer for The American Genius, there wasn’t much mainstream awareness around non-binary identity and pronoun preference. At the time, I was nervous that if I asked my editors to refer to me by my preferred pronoun of “they,” I might have to do some awkward explaining at best, and might not land the job, at worst. As part of this article, I’ve requested that my bio reflect my preferred pronoun. TheAmerican Genius, being the forward-thinking and inclusive company that it is, swiftly and supportively consented.

This story was first published on November 05, 2018.

Ellen Vessels, a Staff Writer at The American Genius, is respected for their wide range of work, with a focus on generational marketing and business trends. Ellen is also a performance artist when not writing, and has a passion for sustainability, social justice, and the arts.

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Opinion Editorials

How strong leaders use times of crises to improve their company’s future

(EDITORIAL) We’re months into the COVID-19 crisis, and some leaders are still fumbling through it, while others are quietly safeguarding their company’s future.

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strong leaders

Anthony J. Algmin is the Founder and CEO of Algmin Data Leadership, a company helping business and technology leaders transform their future with data, and author of a new book on data leadership. We asked for his insights on how a strong leader can see their teams, their companies, their people through this global pandemic (and other crises in the future). The following are his own words:

Managers sometimes forget that the people we lead have lives outside of the office. This is true always, but is amplified when a crisis like COVID-19 occurs. We need to remember that our job is to serve our teams, to help them be as aligned and productive as possible in the short and long terms.

Crises are exactly when we need to think about what they might be going through, and realize that the partnership we have with our employees is more than a transaction. If we’ve ever asked our people to make sacrifices, like working over a weekend without extra pay, we should be thinking first about how we can support them through the tough times. When we do right by people when they really need it, they will run through walls again for our organizations when things return to normal.

Let them know it’s okay to breathe and talk about it. In a situation like COVID-19 where everything is disrupted and people are now adjusting to things like working from home, it is naturally going to be difficult and frustrating.

The best advice is to encourage people to turn off the TV and stop frequently checking the news websites. As fast as news is happening, it will not make a difference in what we can control ourselves. Right now most of us know what our day will look like, and nothing that comes out in the news is going to materially change it. If we avoid the noisy inputs, we’ll be much better able to focus and get our brains to stop spinning on things we can’t control.

And this may be the only time I would advocate for more meetings. If you don’t have at least a daily standup with your team, you should. And encourage everyone to have a video-enabled setup if at all possible. We may not be able to be in the same room, but the sense of engagement with video is much greater than audio-only calls.

We also risk spiraling if we think too much about how our companies are struggling, or if our teams cannot achieve what our organizations need to be successful. It’s like the difference in sports between practice and the big game. Normal times are when we game plan, we strategize, and work on our fundamentals. Crises are the time to focus and leave it all on the field.

That said, do not fail to observe and note what works well and where you struggle. If you had problems with data quality or inefficient processes before the crisis, you are not fixing them now. Pull out the duct tape and find a way through it. But later, when the crisis subsides, learn from the experience and get better for next time.

Find a hobby. Anything you can do to clear your head and separate work from the other considerations in your life. We may feel like the weight of the world is on our shoulders, and without a pressure release we will not be able to sustain this level of stress and remain as productive as our teams, businesses, and families need us.

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Opinion Editorials

Declutter your quarantine workspace (and brain)

(EDITORIAL) Can’t focus? Decluttering your workspace can help you increase productivity, save money, and reduce stress.

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decluttering

It’s safe to say that we’ve all been spending a lot more time in our homes these last few months. This leads us to fixate on the things we didn’t have time for before – like a loose doorknob or an un-alphabetized bookshelf.

The same goes for our workspaces. Many of us have had to designate a spot at home to use for work purposes. For those of you who still need to remain on-site, you’ve likely been too busy to focus on your surroundings.

Cleaning and organizing your workspace every so often is important, regardless of the state of the world, and with so much out of our control right now, this is one of the few things we can control.

Whether you’re working from a home office or an on-site office, take some time for quarantine decluttering. According to The Washington Post, decluttering can increase your productivity, lower stress, and save money (I don’t know about you, but just reading those three things makes me feel better already).

Clutter can cause us to feel overwhelmed and make us feel a bit frazzled. Having an office space filled with piles of paper containing irrelevant memos from five years ago or 50 different types of pens, has got to go – recycle that mess and reduce your stress. The same goes with clearing files from your computer; everything will run faster.

Speaking of running faster, decluttering and creating a cleaner workspace will also help you be more efficient and productive. Build this habit by starting small: try tidying up a bit at the end of every workday, setting yourself up for a ready-to-roll morning.

Cleaning also helps you take stock of stuff that you have so that you don’t end up buying more of it. Create a designated spot for your tools and supplies so that they’re more visible – this way, you’ll always know what you have and what needs to be replenished. This will help you stop buying more of the same product that you already have and save you money.

So, if you’ve been looking to improve your focus and clearing a little bit of that ‘quarantine brain’, start by getting your workspace in order. You’ll be amazed at how good it feels to declutter and be “out with the old”; you may even be inspired to do the same for your whole house. Regardless, doing this consistently will create a positive shift in your life, increasing productivity, reducing stress, and saving you money.

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Opinion Editorials

How to ask your manager for better work equipment

(EDITORIAL) Old computer slowing you down? Does it make a simple job harder? Here’s how to make a case to your manager for new equipment to improve your productivity.

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better equipment, better work

What is an employee to do when the work equipment bites.

Let’s be frank, working on old, crappy computers with inefficient applications can make the easiest tasks a chore. Yet, what do you do? You know you need better equipment to do your job efficiently, but how to ask the boss without looking like a whiner who wants to blow the department budget.

In her “Ask A Manager” column, Alison Green says an employee should ask for better equipment if it is needed. For example, the employee in her column has to attend meetings, but has no laptop and has to take a ton of notes and then transcribe them. Green says, it’s important to make the case for the benefits of having newer or updated equipment.

The key is showing a ROI. If you know a specific computer would be a decent upgrade, give your supervisor the specific model and cost, along with the expected outcomes.

In addition, it may be worth talking to someone from the IT department to see what options might be available – if you’re in a larger company.

IT professionals who commented on Green’s column made a few suggestions. Often because organizations have contracts with specific computer companies or suppliers, talking with IT about what is needed to get the job done and what options are available might make it easier to ask a manager, by saying, “I need a new computer and IT says there are a few options. Here are my three preferences.” A boss is more likely to be receptive and discuss options.

If the budget doesn’t allow for brand new equipment, there might be the option to upgrade the RAM, for example. In a “Workplace” discussion on StackExchange.com an employee explained the boss thinks if you keep a computer clean – no added applications – and maintained it will perform for years. Respondents said, it’s important to make clear the cost-benefit of purchasing updated equipment. Completing a ROI analysis to show how much more efficiently with the work be done may also be useful. Also, explaining to a boss how much might be saved in repair costs could also help an employee get the point across.

Managers may want to take note because, according to results of a Gallup survey, when employees are asked to meet a goal but not given the necessary equipment, credibility is lost.

Gallup says that workgroups that have the most effectively managed materials and equipment tend to have better customer engagement, higher productivity, better safety records and employees that are less likely to jump ship than their peers.

And, no surprise, if a boss presents equipment and says: “Here’s what you get. Deal with it,” employees are less likely to be engaged and pleased than those employees who have a supervisor who provides some improvements and goes to bat to get better equipment when needed.

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