Rules are made for people, not people for rules

Yesterday I wrote about Merriam-Webster announcing that it had chosen to make the non-binary singular personal pronoun ‘they’ its word of the year. I have been using it that way for some time now and it comes naturally for me. But it was not so at first. When I first started using it, it was reluctantly and with a sense of unease every time even though I was fully aware of the positive reasons for adopting the practice.

I initially thought that my unease was because it seemed to violate a basic rule of grammar that I had learned and that had become instinctive to me. But I began to realize that there was a deeper reason and that it was because I thought that people who heard or read me using it might look down on my lack of knowledge of proper English and thus think less of me. Since I take some pride in my writing and speaking skills, this bothered me.

Following that self-realization, I made the conscious decision that if something is the right thing to do (which this clearly was) then I should go ahead and do it because why the hell should I care what other people think? In my pre-occupation with my self-image, I had forgotten the basic fact that rules are made for people, not people for rules.

Keeping that front and center turns out to be quite a significant and simplifying factor in decision-making. It should have been obvious to me from the beginning, of course, but sometimes we are not aware of how much our behavior is based on seeking or keeping the approval of others, even those whom we do not know or perhaps even like.


  1. blf says

    This almost exactly parallels my own path to using they for another individual (unless a specific preference is known to me). The slight difference is the time — I’m still learning / transiting to using they — and “the incident”: Perhaps a year(?) ago, I was called out for referring to an individual I’ve never met, but have corresponded with many times over the years, as “he”. Turns out that individual is female. Oops! (They are perfectly Ok with being referred to as they, as well as she.) The telling thing is is wasn’t the individual who told me off, but a mutual correspondent.

  2. says

    One of the tricks I adopted was to try to write so as not to corner myself into using a pronoun at all. If you’re worried that generic “they” sounds awkward, you can keep your language beautiful with a bit of pronoun-dodging.

  3. Mano Singham says


    A long time ago (before I became aware of the singular ‘they’ option) I had a similar experience of an online interaction on a forum with someone whom I thoughtlessly kept referring to as ‘he’, because I was using that as a default. At one point the moderator informed me that I was misgendering.

  4. fentex says

    I thought that people who heard or read me using it might look down on my lack of knowledge of proper English

    But Mano, in any disagreement you would be the one who knew more -- there is nothing at all new about using “they” as the singular third person pronoun in English -- it HAS ALWAYS been the correct word.

    It is argued this isn’t correct because (I quote from an old article) “everyone is singular and their is plural”.

    But that position is mistaken. When used in a singular context “their” is obviously not plural.

    Attempting to ignore that native English speakers have no trouble using “they” and “their” as a non-gendered pronoun, managing to recognize by context singular or plural application, by insisting that “they” may only ever be plural is wilfully replacing observed use with inaccurate prescription.

    These are examples of perfectly comprehensible English used over time…

    1535 A.D FISHER Ways perf. Relig. ix. Wks. (1876) 383:
    “He neuer forsaketh any creature vnlesse they before haue forsaken them selues.”

    1749 A.D FIELDING Tom Jones VIII. Xi:
    “Every Body fell a laughing, as how could they help it.”

    1759 A.D CHESTERF. Lett. IV. ccclv. 170:
    “If a person is born of a gloomy temper … they cannot help it.”

    1835 A.D WHEWELL in Life (1881) 173:
    “Nobody can deprive us of the Church, if they would.”

    1858 A.D BAGEHOT Lit. Stud. (1879) II. 206:
    “Nobody fancies for a moment that they are reading about anything beyond the pale of ordinary propriety.”

    It is easy to demonstrate how naturally we use a non-gendered pro-noun by simply reading out the following lines and using the pronoun which comes naturally to a native English speaker…

    “Everyone saw me before I saw _____.”

    “Someone left _______ books on the desk.”

    “It’s annoying when someone constantly pats ________ on the back.”

    No one natively uses the masculine gender in those lines, we all use “them”, “their” and “themself”.

  5. M. Currie says

    As some may already have pointed out elsewhere, one of the poster children of the singular “they” is Jane Austen, who used it frequently, usually when speaking of unspecified single persons who could be of either sex. She went to great lengths to avoid the ugliness of “his or her” and and also, it seems to default to the masculine as many do. In this sense one might conclude that the same rule still applies: when the gender of a person is uncertain, unknown, or irrelevant, call them “them.”

  6. Mano Singham says


    I know now that the singular they has a long heritage but was not so aware earlier, probably because the usages you cite had slipped by me unnoticed.

  7. Trickster Goddess says

    I’m a native English speaker who has been using the language for close to 60 years, and it is only recently that I can recall anyone ever raising a fuss over the use of the singular “they”. In fact it seems to coincide with when people started publicly identifying as gender non-binary and requesting the use of “they” to refer to themselves that the complaints seem to have started. So when I hear people object to the singular “they”, I can’t help but feel that it’s motivated by transphobia.

  8. skeptomai says

    I agree with the use of “they” and also the point that Marcus (#2) made about pronoun dodging. I think it is polite to use “they”, and I prefer it to “he/she” which has always struck me as awkward.

  9. says

    I own a small business in California (around 40 employees) and we do business with other small companies throughout the United States.

    One of my employees has recently announced that they no longer go by “him/he”, and instead wants everyone to call him “they/them”. I don’t care what people call themselves at home, but it causes issues at work and pacts my business relations.

    First, this employee wants to start using “them/they” in emails and communications, including with out customers. This would not fly with many of our more conservative customers. My employee wants to send an email to everyone they work with, both employees and customers, instructing them to no longer use “he/him”. Many of our customers and employees would not be ok with this, which negatively impacts our ability to do business.

    Second, the employee is being incredibly forceful and rude when discussing this at work, filing an HR complaint anytime someone says “he” instead of “they”.

    Using “they/them” also causes issues because it’s plural, which in my opinion, is unprofessional and looks like a typo

    Can I fire this employee without fear of a lawsuit for discrimination? They are definitely they kind of person who would love to sue over this.

    For someone with such an issue with this, the employer keeps using the singular “they” regarding this employee except for a one-time misgendering. For a lot of people it’s not really about having an issue with the singular “they”, it’s about enforcing a strict gender binary (and one that can’t be crossed).

  10. voyager says

    I admit that using “they” is awkward for me, for much the same reason as Mano. I worry that people will harshly judge my language skills because I’m new to writing. I am getting more comfortable with using it, though, and I look forward to the time that it will become something automatic.

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