A person from a nearby university was in the news lately. This person’s name was given, but it is an androgynous name like Chris or Morgan which masks a person’s gender. Later in the article this person was referred to as “they.” At first I thought “they” referred to several people, and I went back to reread the article’s beginning, thinking I had missed something. But I hadn’t. As I continued to read, I discovered that “they” is the pronoun this person preferred to be called.
Using “they” to refer to a known individual confuses me. Using “they” to refer to a corporation, team or committee does not, although it seems grammatically wrong. “The IRS sent me a letter. They said I owe more taxes.” When I work with students, I explain that the IRS is one government agency, so it should be referred to as “it” even though in informal speech many people refer to it as “they.”
What do you think about this? Would you write about a particular individual and refer to that individual as “they”?
I have not faced this situation, yet it is only a matter of time since more and more people identify as gender neutral. And then there are people who were born one gender but change their gender, like Bruce Jenner / Caitlyn Jenner. What are our options if we want to be respectful yet accurate?
- Refer to a person as “he” or “she” unless that person specifically asks us to use a different pronoun?
- Guess which pronoun to use?
- Ask an androgynous-looking or -sounding person which pronoun to use? Or is it up to the person to ask us to use a particular pronoun?
- Call the person by a full name instead of using a pronoun?
Perhaps with time using “they” to refer to a specific individual (not an unknown person) will sound normal. But at present it sounds wrong to my ear. I would probably repeat the person’s name instead of replacing it with a pronoun as long as that was practicable. But that might lead to some convoluted sentence structures. In that case, I would probably use the pronoun the person prefers, explaining that to the reader.
A 21st century dilemma for sure.
I think the most important thing is to be respectful.