A Tale of Two Pronouns

There are two pronoun discussions that are common in non-binary conversation spaces. One is obvious, but the other is not so obviously about pronouns.

The first: “They/them” or other gender-neutral pronouns. While neopronouns like “zie/zim” and “xie/xem” are still used by some people, “they/them” seems to be the most common choice these days.

The advantage: These aren’t new words. For that matter, the singular use of “they” is centuries old, probably older than the singular use of “you”. Using “they” for oneself needn’t even mark non-binary status; it could simply indicate that someone rejects the gendered status of language.

After all, I’m White, but I don’t need a pronoun to indicate that. Our pronouns don’t indicate anything else about us, so why should they indicate our gender? Many languages get by just fine without gendered pronouns.

The disadvantage: Habit, really. It does make some writing more difficult to read, but that’s not entirely a bad thing. Consider romance stories. Why should heterosexual romance stories make it clear who’s kissing whom (he took her by the hand, and she kissed him deeply), while gay romance stories with equivalent structures (he took him by the hand, and he kissed him deeply) are confusing?

Gendered pronouns support clarity the most in cishetnormative narratives. The farther away we get from that norm, the more confusion traditional gender pronouns generate.

On the other hand, there’s “you”, which has contributed indirectly to one of the most argued positions in non-binary discussion boards.

Once upon a time in English, we had four distinct pronouns where we currently have one. If I were talking to one person, I would use “thou/thee”; if I were talking to more than one person, I would use “ye/you”. “Thou knows that ye have done wrong, so I need thee to tell me what I should do to you” (“you know that y’all have done wrong, so I need you to tell me what I should do to y’all”).

At some point, we realized that getting rid of the distinction between singular and plural was often confusing, so different dialects developed strategies for creating it again. “Y’all” and “you guys” are among the most common options.

I use “y’all”, even though I’m not a Southerner. And because I’m not a Southerner, people make fun of me for it. The accepted version in my part of the world (the US Midwest) is “you guys”.

But here’s the problem: “Guy” is a masculine word. “Guys” might be widely used as gender-neutral, but “guy” very clearly started out as a term for men. And while “you guys” is not the only place that “guys” appears, it is a major one, and I think it’s a major driver for why we can’t just easily get rid of it.

Those who insist that “guys” is just fine now seem indifferent or oblivious to the history. But the use of “guys” as a gendered term isn’t ancient history. “Guys and Dolls”, for instance, was first performed in 1950, and is still a mainstay for high school musicals. The title contrasts terms for men and for women.

And while “guys” in the plural is widely used as a gender neutral term, “guy” in the singular still largely suggests a man. Ask a cishet Millennial if he’d ever kiss a guy, and I’m willing to bet real money that the most common answer won’t be yes.

Even so, I get that “you guys” is a particularly frustrating construction. It’s easy enough to replace “Hey, guys, how’s it going?” with “Hey, everyone, how’s it going?”

But as a teacher who is actively working to eliminate gendered language in my own speech, I know how hard it was for me to get rid of “Okay, you guys, it’s time to get to work” (I now say “Okay, y’all…” or “Okay, everyone…”).

So I think what is generally missing from these conversations is the realization that “you guys” (like “y’all”) is effectively a pronoun, and pronouns have a linguistic tenacity even stronger than nouns. Pronouns are in short supply as it is, and our process for creating them is limited.

I do find it ironic and frustrating that, on the one hand, many non-binary folks are forced to fight to use “they” in the singular (beyond the historic “I have no idea about that person, so I’ll use ‘they’”) while, on the other, we’re opposing a pronoun that rose up because of the lost singular/plural distinction in the second person.

Personally, I think the wrong pronoun lost its singular/plural distinction. Plural “you” is highly useful, but plural “they”, while useful, is less so.

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