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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!

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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.

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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

Funny females are less likely to be promoted

(CAREER) Science says that the funnier a female, the less likely she is to be promoted. Uhh…

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funny females promoted less often

Faceless keyboard warriors around the world have been — incorrectly — lamenting that women just aren’t funny for years now (remember the “Ghostbusters” remake backlash?).The good news is they are obviously wrong. The bad news? When women dare to reveal their comedic side in the workplace they are often perceived as “disruptive” while men are rewarded.

That’s right. Women not only have to worry about being constantly interrupted, receiving raises less frequently than men despite asking for them equally as often, and still making nearly $10,000 less than men each year, but now they have to worry about being too funny at the office.

A recent University of Arizona study asked more than 300 people to read the fictional resume of a clothing store manager with the gender-neutral name “Sam” and watch a video presentation featuring Sam. The videos came in four versions: a serious male speaker, a humorous male speaker, a serious female speaker and a humorous female speaker.

According to the researchers, “humorous males are ascribed higher status compared with nonhumorous males, while humorous females are ascribed lower status compared with nonhumorous females.” Translation: Male workers earn respect for being funny while their funny female coworkers are often seen in a more negative light.

There are, of course, several reasons this could be the case. The researchers behind this particular study pointed to the stereotype that women are more dedicated to their families than their work, and being perceived as humorous could convey the sense they don’t take their work as seriously as men.

Psychiatrist Prudy Gourguechon offered another take, putting the blame directly on Sam the clothing store manager, calling out their seemingly narcissistic behavior and how society’s tolerance for such behavior is “distinctly gender-based.” She says these biases go back to the social programming of our childhoods and the roles mothers and fathers tend to play in our upbringing.

So what are women supposed to do with this information?

Gourgechon’s status quo advice includes telling women to not stop being funny, but “to be aware of the the feelings and subjectivities of the people around you.” While recommending an empathetic stance isn’t necessarily bad advice, it still puts the onus on women to change their behavior, worry about what everyone else thinks and attempt to please everyone around them.

We already know that professional women can have an extremely hard time remaining true to themselves in the workplace — especially women in the tech industry — and authenticity is often a privilege saved for those who conform to the accepted culture. We obviously still have a long way to go before women stop being “punished” for being funny at work, but things seem to be progressing, however slowly.

Former First Lady Michelle Obama shared her thoughts last year on the improvements that have been made and the changes that still need to happen, including encouraging men to step up and do their part. In the wake of the #metoo movement, CNBC recommended five things men can do to support women at work. There are amazing women in STEM positions around the world we can all admire and shine a spotlight on.

All of these steps — both big and small — will continue to chip away at the gender inequality that permeates today’s workplaces. And perhaps one day in the near future, female clothing store manager Sam will be allowed to be just as funny as male clothing store manager Sam.

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Opinion Editorials

Two common business myths that could get you sued

(EDITORIAL) Two misconceptions in the business world can either make or break a small business.

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trademark lawsuit cartridges initiative

When you’re an entrepreneur with a small staff, you may be in the habit of running your team casually.

While there’s nothing wrong with creating a casual environment for your team (most people function better in a relaxed environment), it’s wise to pay close attention to certain legal details to make sure you’re covered.

It’s easy to misinterpret certain aspects of labor law since there is a lot of misinformation about what you can and cannot do inside of an employee-employer relationship. And since labor laws vary from state to state, it can be even more confusing.

As an entrepreneur, it might be strange to think of yourself as an employer. But when you’re the boss, there’s no way around it.

Here are two employment myths you might face as an entrepreneur along with the information you need to discern what’s actually true. Because these myths carry a lot of risk to your business, it’s important that you contact an attorney for advice.

1. Employees can waive their meal breaks without compensation

It’s a common assumption that any agreement in writing is an enforceable, legally binding contract, no matter what it contains. And for the most part, that’s true.

However, there are certain rights that cannot be signed away so easily.

For example, many states in the US have strict regulations around when and how employees can forfeit their unpaid meal breaks.

While meal breaks aren’t required at the Federal level, they are mandated at the state level and each state has different requirements that must be followed by employers. While some states allow employees to waive their meal breaks, on the other end of that the employer is usually required to compensate the employee.

For example, in California an employee can waive their 30-minute unpaid meal break only if they do so in writing and their scheduled shift is no more than 6 hours. In other words, when a shift is more than 6 hours, the meal break cannot be waived.

Additionally, when an employee waives their unpaid meal break, they must be paid for an on duty meal break and be compensated with an extra hour of pay for the day.

Vermont, on the other hand, provides no specific provisions for meal breaks and according to the Department of Labor, “Employees are to be given ’reasonable opportunities’ during work periods to eat and use toilet facilities in order to protect the health and hygiene of the employee.”

As you can see, some states have specific regulations while others have general rules that can be interpreted differently by each employer. It’s best not to make any assumptions and contact a labor law attorney to help you determine exactly what laws apply to you.

2. You own the copyright to all employee works

So you’ve hired both an employee and an independent contractor to design some graphics for your website. You might assume you automatically own the copyright to those graphics. After all, if you paid money, shouldn’t you own it?

While you may have paid a small fortune for your graphics, you may not be the legal copyright holder.

Employees vs. independent contractors:

When your employee creates a work (like graphic design) as part of their job, it’s automatically considered a “work made for hire,” which means you own the copyright. An independent contractor, however, is different.

While any legitimate work made for hire will give you the copyright, just because you created a work for hire agreement with your independent contractor doesn’t mean the work actually falls under the category of a work made for hire.

According to the Copyright Act (17 U.S.C. § 101) a work made for hire is defined as “a work specially ordered or commissioned for use as a contribution to a collective work, as a part of a motion picture or other audiovisual work, as a translation, as a supplementary work, as a compilation, as an instructional text, as a test, as answer material for a test, or as an atlas.”

This means that unless your graphic design work (or other work you paid for) meets these requirements, it’s not a work made for hire.

In order to obtain the copyright, you need to obtain a copyright transfer directly from the creator, even though you’ve already paid for the work.

The boundaries of intellectual property rights can be confusing. You can protect your business by playing it safe and not making any assumptions before consulting an attorney to help you discern the specific laws in your state.

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Opinion Editorials

Living as a 7 in the Instagram world of 11s (why hotties rule IG)

(OPINION) Hot people have it, not people want it, Instagram perpetuates it – beauty, and it’s a prime ingredient for success.

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instagram attractiveness

Who runs the world? Girls. Who runs the social media world (read: Instagram)? Hot girls. And hot guys.

Social media has always fascinated me. When I was a freshman in high school I got a Facebook – all you older millennials that had to wait ‘til college can hop off because I wasn’t allowed to have Myspace / Xanga / any other predecessor social sites.

That Facebook allowed me to connect to my camp friends, one of whom lived in a different country, family in other states and the friends that I saw every day.

My story is pretty predictable after that. Social media blew up, I did my millennial duty to help the creation and exposure of new sites and now here we are. Living in a society where hot girls on Instagram selling tea that makes you poo make more money than that girl with multiple degrees.

I’m not gonna blame millennials, but I kind of am, but everyone had a hand in this.

As a society we value celebrity. When I was a child that value manifested into society with tabloid magazines and copying haircuts (hello, Rachel Green). As a teen, that value on celebrity pivoted into the daytime/nighttime / anytime talk show. Now, as an adult that missed the opportunity to make an ascent into stardom via YouTube, celebrity is valued by way of social media.

EVEN CELEBRITIES HAVE THEIR CELEBRITY VALUE MEASURE BY SOCIAL MEDIA FOLLOWERS.

Don’t get me wrong. Several *actually* talented and wonderful people have leveraged social media in niche ways and created a nice lifestyle for themselves. However, I’m also going to assert that 80% of social media influencers / modern celebrities would be nothing if they weren’t hot.

Singers that have worked their way up the ranks with 6 second Vine video snippets and two minute YouTube videos can have insanely gifted voices but it also doesn’t hurt that were nice to look at while they hit that E5 note.

Artists and illustrators that have busted their butts and their hands creating and making stunning visual pieces can create one-of-a-kind masterpieces but it also helps that they throw the occasional full-glam face selfie.

That one guy or gal that posts photos of (seemingly) delectable food can have grown a 100% organic following by creating content that people want to see but it will also never be a negative for them to post a photo of them in their swimsuit on that tropical island they got paid to visit.

And please hear me when I say this: being attractive helps offline too. The amount of times my insanely attractive guy friend has profited from his jawline jaw line is almost as crazy as the amount of times my unfairly gorgeous gal pal has reaped the benefits of having phenomenal facial symmetry. Hell, even I’ve used a hair flip and batted an eye in lieu of twisting arms.

I’m pretty sure there’s some science somewhere that says that its natural for people to be inherently attracted to attractive people. I’m not sure why that is, but at least in my life, I’ve found it to be true. Unashamedly (and slightly shamefully) I’ve listened to authority figures better when they were kind on the eyes, I’ve gone to the cash register with the prettier human, I’ve followed the accounts of people who created an aesthetic I vibed with more.

Sometimes it just feels like that if a quarter of the pictures on a highly followed account – skilled or otherwise — weren’t of the person made up, or shirtless, or provocatively posed, they might not have the same level of following or at least engagement. Honestly, it makes the whole exchange feel insincere (which is a funny thing to say about internet interactions to begin with). Like, even if I buy that gadget / get those clothes / put that makeup on / fill-in-the-blank from that #ad on your Instagram story the exact way you do I still won’t look like you.

Reminds me of that old saying, “you can put lipstick on a pig but its still a pig.” You can buy that stuff off that one hottie’s Instagram but you’re still going to be you.

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