“They” lecture discusses the importance of gender neutral pronouns

Photo by Tori D'Amico

The Women’s Center and Literature Club hosted a lecture simply titled “They” on Monday, Nov. 18 in the Alumni Lounges. The event highlighted the singular use of the pronoun “they” and why it should be and has been used as a singular pronoun. 

The lecture, presented by senior Connie Marion (she/her), brought forward the discussion of the gender binary in language and also included samples of dictionary definitions, essays and popular fiction that utilizes the singular they.

One reason Marion gave toward why more writers should acknowledge and use the singular they is the new regulations created by the American Psychological Association (APA). 

APA recommends that “when referring to individuals whose identified pronouns are not known or when the gender of a generic or hypothetical person is irrelevant within the context, use the singular ‘they’ to avoid making assumptions about an individual’s gender.”

It is also stated that one should “avoid using combinations such as ‘he or she,’ ‘she or he,’ ‘he/she’ and ‘(s)he’ as alternatives to the singular ‘they’ because such constructions imply an exclusively binary nature of gender and exclude individuals who do not use these pronouns.”

“Using ‘they’ as a singular pronoun is not only a way to be respectful to all participants in studies, but it is also forces more respectful writing about people who do not fit into the gender binary,” Marion said.

Singular gender neutral pronouns is not a contemporary idea. The Oxford English Dictionary presents an example of the singular they being used in 1375, where it appears in the medieval romance William and the Werewolf. In modern English, it reads, “Each man hurried… till they drew near… where William and his darling were lying together.”

This classic example only suggests that the pronoun they likely existed as a gender neutral singular pronoun even earlier than the late fourteenth century. During this time, language was primarily a spoken construct. 

The singular they has progressively entered into speech colloquially, but the lecture and later discussion was created to prove otherwise: they should be used as a singular pronoun in all settings, even in a formal tone.

Literature and French professor Vassiliki Flenga (she/her) was in attendance, and assisted Marion in the open conversation after the lecture.

“Languages forces your to assimilate and become a feminine subject or a masculine subject, even if you don’t like how masculine subjects are treated,” Flenga stated.

Flenga also asked a question to the attendees: “Does anyone here completely identify with their assigned gender?” Many shook their heads to agree with her point, and no one protested against it.

The singular pronoun discussion also involved the relevance of the English language, including gender neutral options in comparison to romantic languages.

“Deconstructing binary language is easier in languages without gendered nouns, and English does have they and does not gender objects,” Flenga said.

Marion added, “This college would not be able to function the way it does if we spoke a romantic language such as Spanish or French.”