Gender Neutral Terms Were Never New

Image Description: Cream yellow letter tiles that spell the words 'them', 'she', 'he', 'ze', zem' and 'they' on a green background
Written and Illustrated by Nysha Tan

Let’s talk about pronouns. Not the regular gender binary of ‘her/him’. Let’s look beyond that and into gender-neutral pronouns.

From Instagram bios to Tumblr asks, you might notice a user’s declaration of what pronoun they go by. ‘She/her’, ‘he/him’, cisgender pronouns--nothing out of the ordinary. Then we start to see ‘they/them’ and even ‘ze/zem’, terms transgender (including gender-fluid or non-binary) folk tend to identify with. Pronoun choices for gender non-conforming people?  What is this new trend? Is it even new?

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The common argument for a person's refusal to acknowledge ‘they/them’ pronouns is that it is grammatically incorrect. The reason being, after looking into traditional English usage, it does not describe anything singular. The refusal is even greater for other pronouns like ‘ze/zem’ because it is a completely foreign concept to those who hear it for the first time.

However, if we look at the growth of today's English speakers and analyze social interactions, you will notice that our sentences are never exactly by the book (if one such book even exists). In fact, we keep changing it. The word ‘genderfluid’ has already made its way to the dictionary due to its heavy prevalence in LGBT+ communities on the internet and in real life. This highlights that with enough usage and recognition, it is possible for new words and their usage to be accepted in the English language. Or as Merriam-Webster puts it to a detractor:





Did you know the old English term ‘you’ used to be plural? Many even debated on its validity of being singular at the turn of the 17th century. And yet, here we are fully accepting of using ‘you’ in singular form when referring to one person. You would be surprised to find singular ‘they’ appearing in the works of Virginia Woolf, Shakespeare, and Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Pardoner’s Tale (written in 1395). You can find ‘they/them’ in casual conversation too. From phrases like, “You know what they say” to “They’re not picking up” and to “Could you tell them I’m out for lunch?"

And English is not the only language to have progressed catering to gender neutral pronouns. Austronesian languages like Tagalog have long been using the word 'siya' to refer to the person they have already mentioned by name in subsequent sentences. Conversational Mandarin uses ‘ta‘ for all genders although in written form male and female are specified--which is traced back to the Western influences of the New Culture Movement in China. In 2015, Sweden announced that they will be adding the word 'hen' to their language as the gender neutral term when describing a person.

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Despite having the English language conventionally only limited to two pronouns, transgender, genderfluid and non-binary individuals made a pocket for themselves to exist. By giving the once plural pronoun ‘they/them’ a new place in the vernacular and even creating whole pronoun sets that some universities have adopted.

Respect for pronouns is the same as getting a person's name right the first time you meet them. We can always make room for corrections, new inclusions and inventions. We always have.

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