Connect with us

Opinion Editorials

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!

Published

on

"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.

Continue Reading
Advertisement
Click to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Opinion Editorials

AT&T hit with age discrimination lawsuit over using the word “tenured”

(EDITORIAL) 78% of workers are victims of age discrimination. As awareness arises, lawsuits show what may constitute discrimination, including verbiage.

Published

on

Older man at cafe representing age discrimination

According to the AARP, 78% of older workers have seen or experienced age discrimination in the workplace. As awareness of ageism increases, lawsuits that allege age bias can help employers understand what constitutes discrimination. A recent case from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, Smith v. AT&T Mobility Services, L.L.C., No. 21-20366 (5th Cir. May 17, 2022), should give employers pause about using other words that could potentially be a euphemism for “older worker.”

What the lawsuit was about

Smith, a customer service representative at AT&T, alleged that he was denied a promotion because of his age. His manager told him that she was not going to hire any tenured employees. The manager wanted innovative employees in the management positions. Smith took this to mean that he was being denied the promotion because of his age. He sued under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act and Texas law.

The district court found that Smith failed to exhaust his administrative remedies as to one claim and failed to establish a prima facie case of discrimination as to the other two claims. Smith appealed. The Appellate court affirmed the district court’s decision, but they did say it was “close.” AT&T did not discriminate against Smith by using the word tenured, because there were other employees of the same age as Smith who were promoted to customer service management positions.

Be aware of the verbiage used to speak to employees

This case is another example of how careful employers need to be about age discrimination, not only in job postings. It’s imperative to train managers about the vagaries of ageism in the workplace to avoid a costly lawsuit. Even though AT&T prevailed, the company still had a pretty hefty legal tab. Don’t try to get around the ADEA by using terminology that could screen out older workers, such as “digital native,” or “recent college grad.” Remind employees and managers about ageism. Document everything. Pay attention to other cases about age discrimination, such as the iTutor case or this case about retirement-driven talk. You may not be able to prevent an employee from feeling discriminated against, but you can certainly protect your business by doing what you can to avoid ageism.

Continue Reading

Opinion Editorials

Writing with pen and paper may mean your smarter than your digital peers

(EDITORIAL) Can writing old fashioned make you smarter? Once considered and art form, handwriting is becoming a thing of the past, but should it be?

Published

on

Writing on paper job titles.

When I was in college, in 2002, laptops weren’t really commonplace yet. Most students took notes by writing with pen and paper. Today, most students take notes with laptops, tablets, cell phones, or other electronic devices. The days of pen and paper seem to be fading. Some students even wait until the end of class and use their cell phones to take a picture of the whiteboard, so in effect, they are not absorbing any of the information because they “can just take a picture of it and look at it later.”

Is it easier to take notes on an electronic device? I think that largely depends on preference. I type faster than I write, but I still prefer to take notes on paper.

According to researchers at Princeton University and the University of California, Los Angeles, students who take handwritten notes generally outperform students who typed them.

Writing notes help students learn better, retain information longer, and more readily grasp new ideas, according to experiments by other researchers who also compared note-taking techniques.

While most students can type faster than they write, this advantage is short-term. As the WSJ points out, “after just 24 hours, the computer note takers typically forgot material they’ve transcribed, several studies said. Nor were their copious notes much help in refreshing their memory because they were so superficial.” So while it may take a bit longer to capture the notes by hand, more likely than not, you will retain the information longer if you put pen to paper.

As I teach English Composition at the University of Oklahoma, I would also like to say that while I find this to be true for myself, every student has a different learning style. Typed notes are much better than no notes at all. Some students detest writing by hand and I understand that. Everything in our world has gone digital from phones to cable television so it makes sense, even if I don’t like it, that students gravitate more towards electronic note taking than pen and paper.

While I would like to see more students take notes by hand, I certainly won’t require it. Some students are navigating learning disabilities, anxieties, and other impediments that make taking notes digitally more advantageous.

I imagine the same is true for other areas as well: instead of typing meeting notes, what would happen if you wrote them by hand? Would you retain the information longer? Perhaps, and perhaps not; again, I think this depends on your individual learning style.

I would like to suggest that if you are one of the more “electronically-minded” writers, use a flashcard app, or other studying tool to help you review your classroom notes or meeting notes to make them “stick” a bit better. While I find this type of research intriguing, if you enjoy taking your notes electronically, I wouldn’t change my method based on this.

If it’s working for you, keep doing it. Don’t mind me, I’ll be over here, writing everything down with pen and paper.

Continue Reading

Opinion Editorials

5 reasons using a VPN is more important now than ever

(EDITORIAL) Virtual private networks (VPN), have always been valuable, but now, more than ever, entrepreneurs and businesses really should have them.

Published

on

VPN

Virtual private networks (VPN), have always been valuable, but some recent developments in technology, laws, and politics are making them even more important for entrepreneurs and businesses.

A VPN serves as an intermediary layer of anonymity and security between your computer and your internet connection. Your Wi-Fi signal is a radio wave that can ordinarily be intercepted, so any data you transmit back and forth could be taken and abused by interested parties. VPNs act as a kind of middleman, encrypting the data you transmit and protecting you from those prying eyes.

Top10BestVPN.com offers a selection of some of the best-reviewed VPN services on the market; there you can see the different approaches to security and anonymity that different brands take, and get a feel for the price points that are available. But why is it that VPNs are becoming even more important for business owners and entrepreneurs?

These are just five of the emerging influencers in the increasing importance of VPNs:

1. The rise of IoT. The Internet of Things (IoT) is already taking off, with a predicted 8.4 billion devices will be connected to the internet by the end of the year. All those extra connections mean extra points of vulnerability; hackers are skilled at finding tiny entry points, so every new channel you open up on your Wi-Fi connection is another opportunity they could potentially exploit. Using a VPN won’t make your network completely hack-proof—user errors, like giving your password away in a phishing scam, are still a potential threat—but VPNs will make your network more secure than it was before.

2. The popularity of ransomware. Ransomware is growing in popularity, seizing control of devices, sometimes for weeks or months before activating, then holding the device “hostage,” and demanding payment in exchange for releasing the files that are stored on it. These attacks are fast and efficient, making them ideal for hackers to use against small businesses. Again, using a VPN won’t make you immune from these types of attacks, but they will make you harder to target—and hackers tend to opt for the path of least resistance.

3. The escalation of attacks on small businesses. Speaking of small businesses, they happen to be some of the most frequent targets of cybercriminals. About 43 percent of all cyberattacks target small businesses, in part because they have fewer technological defenses but still have valuable assets. Protecting yourself from cyberattacks is a must if you want your business to survive.

4. Political attacks on net neutrality. Politicians have recently attempted to attack and eliminate net neutrality, which is the long-standing guarantee that internet providers can’t violate user privacy by collecting and/or reporting on certain types of data, and can’t create “slow lanes” that throttle certain types of traffic. If net neutrality is abolished, you could face slower internet traffic and decreased privacy on the web. A VPN could, in theory, protect you from these effects. First, your web traffic would be anonymized, so internet providers couldn’t gather as much data on you as other customers. Second, you’ll be routed through a private VPN server, which could help you get around some of the speed throttling you might otherwise see. It’s uncertain whether net neutrality will ultimately fall, but if it does, you’ll want a VPN in place to protect you.

5. The affordability and diversity of VPNs available. Finally, it’s worth considering that VPNs are more affordable and more available than ever before. There are specific VPNs for all manner of businesses and individuals, and they’re all reasonably affordable. Inexpensive options can be yours for as little as a few dollars per month, and more robust, secure options are still affordable, even for frugal businesses. If you try a VPN provider you don’t like, you can always cancel and switch to another provider. This availability makes it easier to find exactly what you need.

If you’ve never used a VPN before and you’re confused, try not to be intimidated. VPNs sound complex, but connecting to one is a simple login process you can use on practically any device. The hardest part is choosing a reliable provider that suits your business’s need. With the influx of coming changes, it’s a good idea to get your VPN in place sooner rather than later.

Continue Reading
Advertisement

Our Great Partners

The
American Genius
news neatly in your inbox

Subscribe to our mailing list for news sent straight to your email inbox.

Emerging Stories

Get The American Genius
neatly in your inbox

Subscribe to get business and tech updates, breaking stories, and more!