Rich Handley Author and Editor

Binary Thinking Is for Math, Not Pronouns

Soapbox time, in defense of my non-binary friends and family members:

I’ve seen a lot of people on social media lately complaining that using “they” as a singular pronoun for non-binary people confuses them. They’ve always been taught “they” is grammatically plural, and that using it in the singular form is wrong. I get that, as I was taught that same grammar rule way back when, and I probably enforced it when I was an English teacher in the early ’90s because that’s what teachers did at the time. However, this overlooks one important aspect of language: it evolves—and that’s especially true of English.

I was a kid long enough ago that I frequently heard people refer to Asians as “Orientals,” black people as “colored,” little people as “midgets,” Native Americans as “redskins,” gay men as “effeminate” (or worse), and so forth. Thankfully, that began to change once the privileged masses got wise to the fact that such language was hurtful. Well, the “they” scenario falls into this same category.

If you’re having a problem using “they” for a non-binary person, keep in mind that it’s only because the paradigm shift in terminology for non-binary people is relatively new. Forty or fifty years ago, people might have rolled their eyes if told not to call Asians “Oriental” or black people “colored.” Why? Because (note the parallel here) that is what they grew up hearing—just like you grew up being told “they” can’t be singular. (And incidentally, the singular “they” has been used in professional writing since at least as far back as 1375, so it’s not even true that it’s grammatically wrong.)

As The Monkees so wisely noted, that was then, this is now. Language changes. Attitudes grow. Minds and perceptions hopefully expand. And non-binary people deserve to use whatever pronouns apply to them. It’s not your call and it’s not mine. It’s who they are.

You don’t have to understand it because it has nothing to do with you—or with me, since I’m a binary outsider looking in on all this—but you should respect it and use the pronouns they ask you to use. Why? Because that’s just basic common courtesy and empathy. Do you have a preferred nickname? A preferred title? A preferred radius of personal space? I’m sure you do, since all people do. So now add a person’s correct pronoun to the mix.

Consider how you’d feel, as a binary person, to be called the wrong pronoun (“she” if you’re a man, “he” if you’re a woman). That is how it presumably feels for a non-binary person to be incorrectly addressed—and I say “presumably” because I am not in their shoes and would not presume to truly know what their experience is.

But it’s worse for them because you, as a binary person, are privileged not to have to worry that maybe you’re being attacked when someone uses the wrong pronoun for you. They, as non-binary people, do—when someone calls them “she” or “he,” it’s entirely possible it’s meant to deny their gender. If someone refuses to call them by their preferred pronouns, that’s due to ignorance and bigotry. You’re binary, so you never have to deal with that.

Please try to see this from the eyes of a group other than your own. If you’re still unable to comprehend it, then consider that for centuries, it was standard practice to add two spaces after a period. The need to do this (due to printing machine limitations in the past) was phased out in the mid-20th century as technology improved. Yet a lot of people still do so because they haven’t yet shed the old way of doing things, even though it’s not been the standard for many years.

A hundred years from now, almost no one will be using two spaces after periods anymore. And a lot of people will be calling themselves “they” without having to feel ostracized for it.

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