Another year, and another book telling us which words are acceptable to use in everyday language. This time, the AP Stylebook, which many editors think of as the bible for all things concerning punctuation and grammar, has now decreed that it’s perfectly okay to use “they” as a singular pronoun in some cases (not sure which cases they were referring to).
To review: singular pronouns are the words you use to refer to individual objects or people—“he,” “she,” “it,” “anybody.” “They” has traditionally been a plural pronoun, used to refer to more than one person. In today’s climate, things aren’t so black and white, and when you’re talking about gender, it can get a little confusing. As a side note, “they”—a gender neutral pronoun—was named 2016 Word of the Year by the American Dialect Society. Who decides these things, anyway?
This is going to confuse me in my writing. For a long time, it’s been considered somewhat insensitive to refer to a singular person as “they.” I’ve always been taught that “he” or “she” is the proper address. Even better if you actually take note of the person’s name. To refer to a person as “they” seems to lump them into a group or category, and to me, it’s cold and impersonal.
It’s always rankled me when I hear someone refer to a person as “they,” “them,” or “those people.” I know you’ve all heard that last one, usually as “You know how those people are,” or “You know how they do things.” There have been times when I’ve interrupted the person who said that to inquire “Which they are you referring to? Aren’t they a part of us, and aren’t we a part of them?” I had a college psych professor who called it the “naming is explaining” game. You’ve named someone, so therefore, you think you’ve explained them.
I think this is going to continue the trend of depersonalizing people and rendering them anonymous. There is already growing confusion over how to refer to someone who is transgender. Do you reference them by their birth gender, or the one they’ve adopted? Is it considered insensitive to ask which they might prefer? Thanks to legislators who can’t make a decision over which restroom a transgender person can use, this is going to be with us for a long time.
I tend to use a lot of slang in my casual conversations and I’ve had to retrain my brain to think before I speak. The majority of my co-workers are members of one minority or another. Ethnic slurs are obviously taboo, but I found that I had to alter my habit of saying something like “Boy, were you lucky!” I changed it to “Man,” “Buddy,” or “Pal,” because there are some African-American men who don’t take kindly to the “B” word. The same with addressing a group of people as “You guys” when the majority of them are female. Oops!
I remember a scene from a Jim Carrey movie where he was verbally attacked by a chauffeur who was black, and much shorter than average. When Carrey innocently asked “Do you people take checks?”, the other man became belligerent and demanded to know what he meant by “you people.” Black people? Short people? Black people who drive limos for white people? Short black people who live on the poor side of town? The whole thing was very funny, but also on point.
Last year I wrote a newspaper story about the Dayton LGBTQ Pride Festival. I interviewed a representative from a local drag queen cabaret group called The Ruby Girls. The man I spoke with gave me his stage name and his real name. To be considerate, I asked him which one he would prefer that I use in the story, to respect his privacy if he so wished. He said it didn’t matter and to use whichever name I wanted. His stage name was—drum roll, please—Fonda Peters.
I just couldn’t use that one and keep a straight face.
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Tim Smith is an award-winning, bestselling author whose books range from romantic mystery/thrillers to contemporary erotic romance. His website is www.timsmithauthor.com.