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The Hidden Transphobia in Arguments About Grammar

Recently, I was talking with my mother about a friend who had recently come out as non-binary. She was okay with most of what I was telling her but expressed distaste at my friend’s decision to use they/them pronouns.

“It’s not grammatically correct,” she complained, “They is a plural pronoun. Somebody needs to come up with a new, singular pronouns for non-binary people.” (It didn’t help that she has several certifications in teaching English, making it hard for me to argue with her on any topic related to the English language.)

In the end, she agreed to use the pronouns, which is more than can be said for most people I’ve encountered who make arguments like these. Many people refuse to use singular they/them pronouns at all, disrespecting trans people and their identities in the process.

But most literary sources have agreed that they/them can be singular. Merriam-Webster says soOxford Dictionary says so. Clearly, protests to the use of they/them in the singular are not rooted in grammar. They are rooted in transphobia, in an attempt to take away the legitimate identities of trans people, to force them into conforming to the gender binary.

This transphobia is made even more clear by people who also protest the use of neo-pronouns, a class of pronouns made by and for non-binary people to use when traditional pronouns do not match their gender identities. However, many people who complain about people using “special” pronouns are ones who also complain about singular they/them, indicating the anger does not stem from incorrect grammar, but rather from the fact that these people will not conform to their boxes and never will. If your issue is with they/them not being singular, then you will not complain when people come up with singular, non-gendered pronouns, and if you think the pronouns we have are sufficient, then you will not complain when people change how those pronouns are used to fit their needs.

To force non-binary people to use pronouns that do not apply to them is transphobic, and pretentious arguments about grammar in an attempt to hide transphobia distract from the very real issues facing trans people.

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