I came across this excellent post on tumblr about the ways trans communities are impacting the English language as evidenced by terminology now included in The Oxford English Dictionary, US Online Edition:
Oxford English Dictionary Adds New Transgender and Nonbinary Terms to its Online Dictionary!
Oxford Dictionary has just added a slew of important trans and nonbinary terminology to its online dictionary, OxfordDictionaries.com. The following terms are now officially defined in US English:
Life Outside The Binary does not necessarily endorse the particular definitions nor the wording therein. Many of these definitions may be overly simplistic or use outdated terminology. It is certainly more important to understand each individual’s understanding and relationship to a given term, and to understand their history and social context, rather than to differ to a broad general definition. There are also many other important words (such as transmisogyny, binarism and other identities such as neutrois and androgyne) that definitely deserve inclusion in dictionaries.
However, this is still a huge win for transgender and non-binary people! Having words such as “cissexism,” “transphobia,” and “misgender,” (as well as several common transgender identities) defined in a reputable online language resource may represent a huge step toward developing common understanding and acceptance of trans and nonbinary people and issues.
I’d like to thank Lane for uncovering these entries. In as much as language is important in recognizing and defining terminology, these new entries illustrate the emerging influence of Trans Communities, which, of course, include both binary and non-binary trans communities.
I recently had a little bit of a back and forth in the comments section of another non-binary gender identified WordPress blogger. This person had attempted to let teachers know her gender identity and their preferred pronouns. Unfortunately one teacher seemed to have a problem with the use of “they” as a singular pronoun. The teacher fell back on the rather tired concept that “they” as singular was grammatically incorrect. The teacher and non-binary student worked out an agreement whereby the teacher would use their name in lieu of a pronoun whenever possible. I knew from my own personal research that they as singular has a long history. In fact no less an esteemed and conservative newspaper than the Wall Street Journal published an article by Ben Zimmer on the singular use of “they,”
An entry in the blog ‘Motivate Grammer” discusses use of they as singular and has the following to see about historical usage:
Historical usage: Geoffrey Chaucer is widely credited as the father of English literature. He was one of the first well-known authors to write in Middle English instead of the prevailing literary tongue, Latin, bringing legitimacy to the language. And, what’s this? Why, it’s a line from The Canterbury Tales, ca. 1400:
“And whoso fyndeth hym out of swich blame,
They wol come up […]”
It’s a little hard to tell in the Middle English, but whoso is a quantified expression, like whoever, that is syntactically singular, but then is paired to the syntactically plural they. So, since at least the beginnings of literary Middle English, 600 years ago, it’s been all right to use singular they. It’s been consistently attested since then; Henry Churchyard reports examples from the Oxford English Dictionary in 1434, 1535, 1643, 1749, 1848, and a wide variety of years in between. There has literally been no point since 1400 when singular they went unattested in contemporary English.
Usage by good writers: Lest one counter the historical point by claiming that it was a mistake or an illiterate usage, it should be noted that singular they has been employed by revered writers throughout its history. A list of examples from some such authors (including Chaucer’s and C. S. Lewis’s quotes above) is available on Churchyard’s site. Among the luminaries: Lewis Carroll, Walt Whitman, George Eliot, Shakespeare, William Thackeray, Jane Austen, and Oscar Wilde. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage has still more examples for those who prefer their empirical data to be overwhelming. And, if you subscribe to Mark Liberman’s one-liner “God said it, I believe it, that settles it,” you’ll be interested to see that the King James Version, along with the Tyndale, Bishop’s, and Geneva Bibles, along a range of other versions of the Christian Bible all employ singular theys. (I’m not sure of the stance of non-Christian religious texts. I imagine no religion has a commandment disavowing singular they, but I have not studied comparative religion.)
So back to The Oxford English Dictionary; here is their entry on “they” and it’s usage, notice entry 2.
Yes they can be used as a singular pronoun as you can see from the above capture from The Oxford English Dictionary, US Edition.
Under singular use of they the dictionary adds these two sentence examples:
I’ve never had a friend get so mad with me that they turn off their phone and don’t turn it back on for two days.
I mentioned this to someone at work today and they looked at me as if I were a space alien.
Furthermore the dictionary goes on to describe the history of using they as singular. I do hope this is useful for anyone trying to explain why using they as a singular preferred pronoun is not just okay but is endorsed by Shakespeare!
The original entry in the Life Outside The Binary Tumblr:
Ben Zimmer’s Wall Street Journal article on the singular use of they:
Motivate Grammer on use of they as a singular pronoun:
Oxford English Dictionary, US Online Edition entry for they:
Shakespeare’s use of they as a singular pronoun: