Thursday, May 3, 2012, is the first annual (hopefully) International
Day of They-ing. The day was created by Minnesotan linguist Ryan Txanson and consists (so far) entirely of a Facebook invitation.
The invitation is public and anyone with a Facebook account can join
the “event,” thereby pledging that on May 3rd, every time you refer to
someone in the 3rd person you will use the pronoun “they” (not “he” or
“she”). I encourage you to take part: whether you’re a gender outlaw or
just someone who hates the awkward (and exclusionary) phrase “he or
she,” you’ll find freedom in the warm embrace of singular “they.”
Why use “they” as a singular pronoun? Because it’s not gendered, it should be used whenever the gender of the person is unknown or
irrelevant. Here’s an example by Oscar Wilde: “Experience is the name
everyone gives to their mistakes.” (Notice that Wilde didn’t say “his
mistakes” or “his or her mistakes.”) For some of us, the International
Day of They (I think that’s more catchy than “They-ing”) is an
affirmation of the linguistic choices we already make, and for others of
us using “they” this way sounds odd or ungrammatical. While some style
guides like the Chicago Manual of Style still frown upon the singular use of “they” in formal writing, other style guides and grammar experts encourage such use (Grammar Girl, New Fowler’s Modern English Usage, Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary, and the Random House Dictionary).
But using “they” as a singular pronoun is nothing new. Historians
have found the word used this way as far back as the 14th century. And
it was not until the late 18th and early 19th centuries that grammarians
decided that singular “they” did not accord with the grammar rules that
they had borrowed from Latin and were applying to English. So, if on
May 3rd you use “they” as a singular, generic pronoun, you will be in
the good company of authors such as Jane Austen, Shakespeare, Thackeray,Whitman, and Dickens.
What is new is using “they” to refer to a known (not generic or hypothetical) individual in order to avoid the gendered pronouns “he” or “she.” This is the exciting and revolutionary part of the International Day of They!
It’s okay to say, for example, “Hollis got their first guitar when they
were eight.” Previous attempts to insert new non-gendered pronouns into
English (like “zie” and “hir”) have been made for hundreds of years,
and they have all failed. What is more likely to succeed is the
expansion of the existing “they” to meet the needs of gender-neutral
language. How do we change language and then push those changes into the
mainstream? Use. We have to use it the way we want it to be. And then
we have to keep using it to establish credibility and authority.
For me the International Day of They is personal (and personally
validating); “They”/ “Their”/ “Them”/ “Themself” are my preferred gender
pronouns (PGPs). I will be making a point on May 3rd to use “they” for all
3rd persons, both generic and specific. Please join me. And if you’re
skeptical about the ability to change something so entrenched in
language as pronouns, I ask you, when was the last time you used “thy,”
“thee,” or “thou”?