Why Australian editors should get used to the singular ‘they’.

The below post is the oral presentation I gave for Editing Principles and Practice on the 16th of October 2014. It was very well received and earned an HD (High Distinction). Our assignment was to choose any editing-related topic, interview someone relevant to the topic (I spoke to two people), and give a six minute presentation with at least three references. I stuck to the overall theme of transgender representation in the media from semester one and focused on one of my favourite topics: pronouns.

(Yes, I am aware I am an immense geek.)

Why Australian editors should get used to the singular ‘they’.

Using they as a singular, gender-neutral pronoun is a choice that has had its advocates and dissenters for literally centuries. I’m going to refrain from attempting to pronounce the full Middle English quotes, but Chaucer was using it in 1395, and he wasn’t the only one; throughout history writers such as Shakespeare, Jane Austen, and George Bernard Shaw have also used the pronoun ‘they’ when in need of a singular, gender-neutral pronoun. But this usage tapered off after the 1800s and is only recently returning in popularity.

So what happened? Prescriptive grammarians happened. To be fair, they’d been around since at least 1553, when Wilson decreed that ‘‘the worthier is preferred and set before. As a man is sette before a woman’’. This androcentric approach to grammar is discussed at length in Bodine’s 1975 paper, which I highly recommend for anyone who wants to get very annoyed about misogyny in grammar. In short, the prescriptive grammarians weren’t all that big on gender neutrality and pushed for ‘he’ to be recognised as the gender-neutral singular pronoun, which it was for a long time.

Skip ahead to 2011, when the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade introduced a third, non-binary gender option on passports. As of then, people have been able to identify themselves as F for female, M for male, or X in cases where those binary gender options don’t apply. The people who opt for the X option may be intersex individuals, or they may be like Norrie from New South Wales, who earlier this year won the legal right to be ‘recognised as being of non-specific sex’.

I contacted Norrie online to ask about their thoughts on gender non-specific pronouns and they said, ‘i’m [sic] happy to use “they” as the sex non-specific third person singular and plural’. As Norrie is one of the first people in Australia to take this legal step, I feel that their pioneering opinion on the matter is particularly valid. And if it’s true for them now, then it will be true for future people who follow these legal precedents regarding gender identity.

But how does this affect editors, in particular Australian editors? I opted to talk to author Cecil Wilde about this, as they are a non-gender-binary identifying writer who has had to deal with explaining the usage of the singular they to editors before, as their stories often include non-gender-binary identified people.

I asked them whether they thought emphasising the singular they as a preferred gender-neutral pronoun was an important move given these recent legal changes, and they said:

I don’t think it could possibly hurt. While people use singular they all the time without really thinking about it, there’s something to be said for seeing it used consistently, as the actual correct pronoun a person—fictional as they may be—uses.

…You wouldn’t discard ‘yellow’ as not necessary, because some things are, in fact, yellow. In the same vein, some people are, in fact, ‘they’. Singular they is realistic.

As editors, whether we’re editing fiction or non-fiction, we have an ethical responsibility to respect people’s preferred pronouns. I spent semester one of this year writing about the representation of transgender people in Australian media in Professional Research and Evaluation, and this is really just an extension of that. We have the responsibility to make sure that trans women are referred to as ‘she’ and ‘her’’; likewise, we have the responsibility to make sure that individuals who do not identify as either female or male are referred to as ‘they’ or ‘them’ if they have not indicated an alternative preferred pronoun. I don’t have time to cover Spivak and other recently created pronouns, but if anyone’s interested, there’s a link in the handout.

And what about the reflexive form of the pronoun? I asked Cecil about this as well, to which their response was, ‘Themself… that’s how English works.’ Obviously I needed a slightly more authoritative source on this, since even as I was typing this talk up Microsoft Work took it upon itself to autocorrect themself to themselves. It wasn’t hard to find a blog post on the subject from the OxfordWords blog, and that’s where I discovered that themself has in fact been in use (albeit on and off) since the 14th century when referring to a singular antecedent. This makes more sense than potentially confusing the reader by using a word that is even more strongly established as plural (it’s the s!) when attempting to use singular gender-neutral language. (I should add that themself is not always standard usage and at this point in time definitely shouldn’t be used in a formal setting.)

I’m going to close on one quote I found particularly meaningful from Cecil, as I think it encapsulates most of what I’ve tried to say today: ‘Literature goes a long way to normalising language in real life.’ As the people who help to polish literature before it reaches the public, we need to be aware of this and to take it into consideration while we edit.


Sources

Bodine, A (1975). ‘Androcentrism in Prescriptive Grammar: Singular ‘They’, Sex-Indefinite ‘He’, and ‘He or She’’. Language in Society, vol. 4, no. 2, pp. 129-146

Chaucer, G (1395). ‘The Pardoner’s Prologue’. In Benson, L D (2008). The Riverside Chaucer. Oxford University Press.

Dingle, S (2011). ‘Passport gender choice made easier’. abc.net.au, 15 September, viewed 9 October 2014. <http://www.abc.net.au/news/2011-09-15/passport-gender-choice-made-easier/2899928>

May-Welby, N (2014); personal interview conducted via Facebook private messaging, 1 October.

Soanes, C (2013). ‘Should it be everyone for themself where grammar’s concerned?’ OxfordWords blog, 15 January, viewed 8 October 2014. <http://blog.oxforddictionaries.com/2013/01/themself/>

Wilson, T. (1553). Arte of rhetorique. In Bodine, A (1975).

Wilde, C (2014); personal interview conducted via email, 7 October.

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