If your chosen pronoun is “they,” I will not use it.
I know it sounds rude and insensitive, but before you judge, hear me out.
The English language is a beautiful thing; tens of thousands of words, each with their own specific meaning and usage, able to paint any picture one wishes. Able to create messages that are to the point, messages that are precise, messages that are clear.
The pronoun “they” (and forms of it) is in its current usage a pronoun used to refer to plurals, groups of objects, animals, ideas, places, or, of course, people. And herein lies the problem of using it as a gender-neutral pronoun: when using it in this way, we are using a word meant for plurals to describe something singular. (Note that we do additionally use “they” to refer to an ambiguous person of unknown gender in writing, but once a person becomes unambiguous–and if I am talking to you, you are certainly unambiguous–we do not use “they.”) Consider these examples:
- Bob and Dylan were walking to the store when Bob spotted a dog; he quickly ran up to it to pet it.
- Bob and Dylan were walking to the store when Bob spotted a dog; she quickly ran up to it to pet it.
- Bob and Dylan were walking to the store when Bob spotted a dog; ne quickly ran up to it to pet it.
In all of the above examples, regardless of Bob’s chosen pronoun, it is very clear that it is to Bob that the bolded pronoun refers. But what if Bob has chosen the pronoun “they”?
- Bob and Dylan were walking to the store when Bob spotted a dog; they quickly ran up to it to pet it.
Did Bob run up to the dog, or did both Bob and Dylan run up to the dog? The statement is ambiguous, and our beautiful, clear language is no longer clear in the slightest.
In reading articles which refer to individual people as “they,” I have found this ambiguity constantly confusing and unsettling. Had a person chosen a pronoun besides what society might conventionally see as their gender–a “he” for a “she,” a “she” for a “he,” or even the gender-neutral “ne”–brief confusion might remain, but it would be just that: brief. The reader gets used to the unconventional use quickly and soon is unperturbed by it. However, with “they,” by its very definition there is constant ambiguity that will not and cannot go away.
I believe in clarity in language, and for this reason, I thus will not use the pronoun “they,” whether that is one’s chosen pronoun or not, even if it means avoiding pronouns entirely. “But oh,” you say, “how can you be so stubborn as to not just make a person feel accepted and comfortable by sucking it up and using their chosen pronoun?” While that point is valid, I ask in return: why should I, then, have to be the uncomfortable one, since as stated such unclarity in language is naturally disorienting and confusing? Furthermore, only a comparatively tiny segment of the population would want to use “they” in this way, so doesn’t this pronoun create discomfort for the vast majority of the world? Why should such a majority have to sacrifice comfort for such a small minority?
This is a much broader issue than “they,” and an altogether relative one in our world. Why should we put forth our effort to foster refugees (so few in number compared to the full population of the U.S.), why should we fight tirelessly for the rights of gays (only 2% or so of people), why should we pay money and give time to support the elderly? Would so many people not be happier if the majority had their way? Is our voting system not based upon that principle, of the majority getting their way?
Our ultimate goal is to maximize happiness in our nation; basic needs must be met (food, water, shelter), and then more complex ones (comfort, entertainment, relationships), and then still higher and higher levels of wants. At a glance, it may seem the best way to maximize happiness is to fulfill that desired by the majority each and every time, fulfilling the greatest number of people at each turn and bend. However, this leaves a great many without their needs met. The unfulfilled minorities pile up: refugees without homes, gays without acceptance, the elderly without love. And these issues are key to happiness; without them, these minorities are entirely unfulfilled.
And, as every human is part of some minority, if no minority is fulfilled, than the vast majority of people are going to be missing something. Furthermore, of course, we are humans, and cheesy as it sounds, we cannot simply leave our fellow humans behind and continue with life happily, only with a sad sort of survivor’s guilt.
The fact is that we cannot reasonably make every issue black and white, choosing the majority’s favored option each time. Compromise must take place so as to leave the minorities whole, even if that means a bit of effort, a bit of time, a bit of change in plan for the majority.
It is not fair of me to say that because I am a part of the majority on the issue of gender-neutral pronouns, your wants shall not be met, and you may not use gender-neutral pronouns because they make me feel muddled in my language. If I believe that, then I too will come to disappoint before long.
However, it is fair of me to ask that you compromise.
It is fair of me to ask why you choose a gender-neutral pronoun to begin with, and to suggest other options; it is fair of me to show you options such as the forms of “ne,” and say that I will go through the same discomfort of learning and becoming accustomed to them as you would, if you’d consider them as an alternative to “they,” seeing as they accomplish the same sentiment.
It is fair of me to ask that if there’s going to be discomfort, we share it together until it’s no longer uncomfortable.
It is fair of me to ask that I not carry the discomfort all myself, and for longer than it’s needed.
I do not ask that all minorities bow to the will of the majority; I do not ask that you use a cis-gender pronoun. I simply ask that you do not try to make me use the pronoun “they.”