A couple of weeks ago my opinion was sought about a very 2019 kind of question. Steven had been pondering the verbal intricacies of our new gender frontiers and asked about which verb conjugation one would use with the singular “they…”
They run for exercise? OR They runs for exercise?
They like it? OR They likes it?
It was a great question, and one I hadn’t recalled being specifically addressed in recent years as big style guides have announced changes. Research opportunity beckoned so I grabbed my handy Chicago 17 and got searching.
In Section 5.48 Chicago recommends against using the singular “they” in formal writing but notes “like singular you, singular they takes a plural verb.” A few sentences later they give the same advice for non-they pronouns: “a number of other gender-neutral singular pronouns are in use, invented for that purpose; forms of these are usually singular and take singular verbs.” In other words, ze/zim/zir gets the same treatment.
The Chicago advice seemed perfectly reasonable to me although I do have a counterpoint. If we use a singular verb form with “they,” then that could eliminate confusion to an audience about whether you’re talking about an individual or a group.
They want to eat pizza. OR They wants to eat pizza.
If we use the second version, our audience would know we’re referring to one person!
In the past I think I’d have felt completely comfortable with what society at large was trying harder to grapple with—back when I was in high school and college it was the acceptance of people who weren’t straight. A couple decades have passed and we’ve come a long way. Our new societal frontiers have more to do with gender: accepting people at different places along the gender spectrum and people whose gender identity may not match what another person dictated when they were born. (Sadly, our challenges with skin tones seem to be evergreen.) These days I’m feeling more like I’m figuring it out along with other people yet doing my best to make it look easy.
It hasn’t been smooth though, at least not verbally. Two summers ago Steven and I had regular interactions with a person named Lew, whose preferred pronoun was “they.” There were several times when I stopped myself in mid-sentence to pause and say “they,” or sometimes I’d just default to “Lew.” It felt awkward to say “I need to call them to tell them we’ll be late” so I might opt for “I need to call Lew to say we’ll be late.”
Just a day or two after I was pondering Steven’s gender-neutral question, NPR ran an op-ed titled “Even a Grammar Geezer Like Me Can Get Used to Gender Neutral Pronouns.” It gave a nice summation of how we got to where we are and a gentle encouragement that we can all adjust. Scientific American writers point out that announcing pronouns may enable gender bias and discrimination.
Just as we got used to referring to unmarried women as Ms., just as we’ve now got popular television shows with gay main characters and lesbian hosts, with time things will shake out and we’ll collectively figure things out. In the meantime though, it’s better to ask respectful questions than angrily make pronouncements, whether you’re talking to an individual or a addressing a large group.