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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.

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

The painful, beautiful paradox between suffering and success

(EDITORIAL) Evaluating success is about more than focusing on “rise and grind” cliches, instead adopting a meaningful perspective.

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The painful, beautiful paradox between suffering and success

I know I’m not entirely old, but in my 27 short years on earth, I’ve found one thing to be absolutely true — life exists inside of paradoxes.

Foods are sweet and savory, sour and sweet. Weather is sunny and beautiful, damp and dreary. Life itself is living and dying, up and down. And in every paradox there is something to be learned.

The most recent paradox I’m learning is the one that exists between suffering and success.

I think it is important to first define the two words: suffering and success. And not the Miriam-Webster Dictionary definition, that definition focuses entirely of the etymology of the word and doesn’t take life into account.

Suffering, as it pertains to success, is what a lot of people call the grind. Suffering is whatever loss you feel along the way. They’re the tiny deaths you die each time something doesn’t go the way you thought it should. It is that voice in the back of your head that keeps telling you to quit— that you’ll never make it. Suffering is what makes the success so sweet.

Success, as it pertains to suffering, is each time you get back up. It is the drive you have that tells the naysayers to suck an egg. Success is the rebirth that follows each tiny death. It is what accompanies each milestone that is met. Success is what makes the suffering worth it.

I think this paradox is materialized well in the Japanese practice of Kintsugi. Kintsugi is an art form of repairing broken ceramics with gold alloy. It is the artistic manifestation of the Japanese philosophy of wabi-sabi, or celebrating the imperfection. You see, Kintsugi has less to do with the what, and everything to do with the why… Why repair broken ceramics? Why go through such lengths to make it beautiful?

Because the imperfections tell just as much of a story as the original piece. The gold lines that now hold the ceramic together add beauty to the piece *while* strengthening it.

Kintsugi reminds us to exist in the paradox of suffering and success. Not to fight it or to ignore it but to celebrate it and to be a part of it.

Suffering is an inescapable part of existing. It is also the fortifier of most experiences.

Suffering is the gold alloy that binds our successes together. Suffering is the the beauty that intricately weaves between the success of a once shattered dream. Success is the mended piece that is now decorated with suffering.

The two give each other such a deeper context. Outside of each other, suffering and success are merely events that happen. Independently, they give some things context. Together they give everything context.

So I implore you to try this:

Make a list of your successes, then list every single failure that led you to that place. Don’t do so out of spite or out of anger. Rather, do so with thanksgiving. Fondly remember the lessons you learned through suffering and don’t forget them when you experience success.

And through this exercise, going forward, you’ll remember your own gold alloy sprinkled throughout your life.

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Opinion Editorials

10 ways to digitally declutter and change your whole mindset

(OPINION EDITORIAL) One of the easiest ways to boost creativity and productivity is to do a spot of cleaning- both physically and digitally.

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voice and SEO

Decluttering digitally

As more and more of our lives have moved digitally – our hard drives and cloud storage have become the 21st century junk drawer. It’s about time for some spring…er…autumn cleaning, and one of the places that could use straightening up is our tech.

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Digital clutter not only eats up memory – a premium on phones or tablets, but it slows us down, makes us feel like we have too much going on, and blocks the gorgeous photos that we set as our wallpaper. Here’s a few tips/ideas to help jumpstart your list:

1. CLEAN THAT DESKTOP

Like a messy workspace, a dirty desktop on your mac or pc looks terrible! Clean up those files and folders, and delete those application shortcuts you don’t need. Put a nice zen or minimalist background (or a picture of your dog/child/Subaru) to show off that shine.

Smart Folders – Set up your folders and documents in a good folder system. Organize by subject or date, and know when to toss old files. A logical folder system means you don’t waste time hunting through things.

2. Unsubscribe

For the most part, we receive way more retailer notices then we can ever use. If you find yourself ignoring those, just go ahead and unsubscribe – or at least reduce the email in the preferences options found at the bottom of every email. You can also junk old RSS feeds!

3. Toss the Downloads

The downloads folder in your mac or pc gets anything you pull from a browser. That’s often a digital junk drawer that takes up a lot of space on your hard drive. Sort by date, and either delete or organize what’s in that folder.

4. Cut the Lights and Sound

If you have movies or music you don’t listen to, delete it from your phone or hard drive space. Chances are, most major media services remember your purchase and can be downloaded or streamed in the future.

5. Close or Forward unused email accounts

If you have unused email accounts that you don’t want, either close the account or forward to an active email – this is especially great for those university emails that you don’t remember your password to because you graduated in five or ten years ago.

6. Slow that Camera Roll

Your camera roll on your phone is another big user of space. Delete any photos that are poor quality or that have no value. Import or organize your photos in something like Dropbox or Google Drive if you need to make space.

7. Clear out your inbox

That little red notification icon on my iPhone drives me crazy. Regularly keeping your inbox clean can not only help you find emails easier, but ensure you don’t miss a bill or important communication.

8. Use email filtering

If you can’t bring yourself to empty your inbox, use filtering to move emails to certain folders, like IMPORTANT, IGNORE, COUPONS, etc. Filtering tools exist in Gmail, Exchange, and iCloud Mail.

9. Uninstall Applications and Software

If you have software you don’t use on your computer – take it off. You can always download it again. If you’ve been afraid of deleting Flappy Bird from your phone – it’s okay. You can always re-download purchased phone apps as well.

10. Delete the Social Media Noise

If you have friends, pages, and follows on Facebook or twitter that don’t bring you any value, cut them out. Or be liberal with the unfollow/unsubscribe/mute functions.

Get to it, Lars

In many ways, digital clutter is just as bad for us as physical clutter. It detracts from our enjoyment and takes us away from the content and work we want to get to. Take a few minutes, cut the kilobytes, and don’t let tech take your time. Get cleaning!

#DigitallyDeclutter

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Opinion Editorials

Serial procrastinator? Your issue isn’t time management

(EDITORIAL) Need a hack for your time management? Try focusing on your energy management.

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productivity

Time hack

Your author has a confession to make; as a “type B” personality who has always struggled with procrastination, I am endlessly fascinated by the topic of productivity and “hacking your time.”

I’ve tried most of the tricks you’ve read about, with varying degrees of success.

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Recently, publishers like BBC have begun to approach productivity from a different perspective; rather than packing days full of to-do items as a way to maximize time, the key is to maximize your mental energy through a different brand of time management.

So, why doesn’t time management work?

Time management

For starters, not all work time is quality time by nature. According to a study published at ScienceDirect, your average worker is interrupted 87 times a day on the job. For an 8-hour day, that’s almost 11 times per hour. No wonder it’s so hard to stay focused!

Second, time management implies a need to fill time in order to maximize it.

It’s the difference between “being busy” and “being productive.”

It also doesn’t impress your boss; a Boston University study concluded that “managers could not tell the difference between employees who actually worked 80 hours a week and those who just pretended to.” By contrast, managing your energy lets you maximize your time based on how it fits with your mental state.

Now, how do you manage your energy?

Energy Management?

First, understand and protect the time that should actually go into deep, focused work. Studies continually show that just a few hours of focused worked yield the greatest results; try to put in longer hours behind that, and you’ll see diminishing returns. There’s a couple ways you can accomplish this.

You can block off time in your day dedicated to focused work, and guard the time as if it were a meeting. You could also physically retreat to a private space in order to work on a task.

Building in flexibility is another key to managing your energy.

The BBC article references a 1980s study that divided students into two groups; one group planned out monthly goals, while the other group planned out daily goals and activities. The study found the monthly planners accomplished more of their goals, because the students focusing on detailed daily plans often found them foiled by the unexpected.

Moral of the story?

Don’t lock in your schedule too tightly; leave space for the unexpected.

Finally, you should consider making time for rest, a fact reiterated often by the BBC article. You’ve probably heard the advice before that taking 17 minute breaks for every 52 minutes worked is important, and studies continue to show that it is. However, rest also includes taking the time to turn your brain off of work mode entirely.

The BBC article quotes associated professor of psychiatry Srini Pillay as saying that, “[people] need to use both the focus ad unfocus circuits in the brain,” in order to be fully productive. High achievers like Serena Williams, Warren Buffet and Bill Gates build this into their mentality and their practice.

Embracing rest and unfocused thinking may be key to “embracing the slumps,” as the BBC article puts it.

Do yourself some good

In conclusion, by leaving some flexibility in your schedule and listening to your body and mind, you can better tailor your day to your mental state and match your brainpower to the appropriate task. As someone who is tempted to keep a busy to-do list myself, I am excited to reevaluate and improve my own approach. Maybe you should revisit your own systems as well.

#timemanagement

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