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A Few Thoughts on Pronouns

[ This essay by intern minister Li Kynvi was sent to the church’s News, Needs & Opportunities mailing list on June 30, 2021. The original essay is available here, though it is not guaranteed to be hosted at that location permanently. ]

 Li Kynvi

Dear ones!

I’ve been talking with people (especially those of us in our second and third thirds of life) about how the heart and all its good intentions are right there for singular, gender nonbinary they/them pronoun use, but there are other obstacles too. So true!

First and foremost, really integrating the use of nonbinary they/them pronouns is not merely about language. It requires us to let go of our stronghold on the binary itself. This is no small task, as the power of the binary is not to be underestimated. It has simply been presented as How The World Has Been since forever: divided into male and female. Observing our strong binary conditioning—and releasing it—is an ongoing, everyday practice.

Not only is letting go of the binary a practice, but actually using they/them takes practice. We can’t just understand the concept & believe that fluent pronoun use will follow. It takes practice practice practice. Out loud. Tell stories and make the person you’re talking about nonbinary, even if they’re not. Read stories that are written in 3rd person and change a character from ‘he’ or ‘she’ to ‘they.’ It’ll help.

There are also questions that arise about language and grammar. On this front, here are a number of resources for your perusal:

This article from The Atlantic explores the origins of gender-neutral pronouns.

This short piece from Merriam-Webster addresses the accusation of ungrammaticalness, explaining that we have long used the singular they for someone whose gender is unknown; it’s the nonbinary use that is relatively new.

This webpage explains how to use personal pronouns, noting that a request for they/them pronouns refers to singular third-person pronouns.

And if you don’t mind swearwords, this reflection by author Jenny Lawson about getting used to her child’s they/them pronouns is compassionate & hilarious & informative all rolled into one.

As someone who studied linguistics in another life, I’ll say that they/them have historically been used as third person indeterminate, both singular and plural. Many great writers have done this (including Shakespeare). It was only about 100 years ago that some self-appointed “grammarians” decided that they/them had to be plural because we had a singular indeterminate third person pronoun in he/him/his. Then teachers anathematized the singular use of they/them/theirs. They considered it perfectly acceptable to use the masculine pronouns when speaking of humans in general as a default. So the attempt to make “they” only plural is firmly rooted in sexism.

Lastly, I will venture to guess that the vast majority of nonbinary they/them pronoun users — including me — do not becomes distressed when people who acknowledge the legitimacy of our identity and who are willing to practice mess up pronouns. We all mess up. This is not a problem! Believe me, it’s awkward and challenging and sometimes scary for us to ask. So think how important it must be. Your willingness to be awkward in the trying puts us all right back in the same human boat, where we belong.


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Created 2021-08-18