The Problem with “They”

In my Writing Enchanting Prose workshops I teach my students to open a story in such a way that it doesn’t leave ambiguity about who the viewpoint character is, where he or she is, or what they are doing.
In other words, if Jeff Gormsky is chasing a carjacker down a back alley in Chicago, I don’t want you as an author to “hide” the information. Some authors will try to leave the name of the viewpoint character, the gender of the viewpoint character, and the nature of the conflict in question for a few pages in order to create what I call “false suspense.” False suspense occurs when the author purposefully withholds information from the reader in order to create a sense of mystery.  Withholding the name, age, gender, and physical description of characters really makes it hard for the reader to transport themselves so they feel that they are vicariously “living” through your story.

My ultimate goal in telling a story is to create an experience so rich for a reader that they remember the fictive tale more vividly than they recall the details of their own mundane daily existence.

So withholding information is counterproductive to creating that altered state. The truth is, in every story, the reader starts out confused and wondering what will happen, and the writer will create real suspense only when he or she fills in the details about the characters in the story, the setting, the conflicts, and so on.  So creating false suspense comes off as a crutch, a lazy writer’s tactic. As an editor, when I read stories that start out using false suspense, I won’t automatically reject them, but if it is over-done it definitely be a first strike against the author.

But lately I’ve been seeing a new problem. Think about this opening sentence: “They crept though the abandoned warehouse, tasting the scent of dust in the air, wary of any movement.”

Now, as a reader, who do you imagine “they” to be? Since we typically use “they” to describe multiple people, do you imagine it to be two people or ten? Are they male or female, or is it a mix? Do you feel a connection to any individual, a viewpoint character who acts as the eyes, ears, nose, skin, mind and emotional center of the story?

Right now, you as a reader are confused. You’ll remain confused so long as “they” is used as a pronoun.

But what if I told you that “they” is a single person, that the author was using it as a gender-neutral term. Do you see how the use of “they” simply makes a confusing situation more confusing than it needs to be?
The simple way to solve the problem is to give your gender-neutral character a name. For example, perhaps “Terri” is a bisexual or is undergoing treatment to change sex. We can learn that later as we delve deeper into the story. Or maybe in your science fiction story, “Ardoz” is an android who is engineered to be a human companion and fall in love, but doesn’t gain a gender until love strikes. In such cases, a gender-neutral pronoun would be perfect.

Right now, a lot of people are looking for a gender-neutral term for an individual, and I think that we should have one. I recall a linguistics professor some forty years ago suggesting that we desperately needed gender-neutral language in the English language, and I thought he was right. Since I was his assistant, I suggested that we try to create some, and he just looked at me with a sparkle in his eye and said, “It’s not that easy to popularize a new word.” We never worked on it.

I’m going to suggest a solution that I like, not one that I came up with myself, but one that I think is elegant enough to work well.
“They” doesn’t work for me. I know that a number of people have started using it informally, but it just seems to me to add ambiguity to the opening of a story when my job as a writer is to try to clear up ambiguity and create an emotional link to the protagonist.

So let me suggest that “they” doesn’t work for a couple of reasons. First, it purposefully confuses the reader by making an ambiguous term even more ambiguous. Second, it invites rude comparisons to using the “royal we.”
If you’re not familiar with the royal we, simply think back to the ancient kings and queens who said things like, “We are displeased with Northumberland, and therefore shall punish him.” When a king or queen said that, was the entire nation really displeased with Northumberland, or was it just the monarch? And when she says “we” shall punish him, does she mean that just she will go and punish Northumberland personally, or does she mean that he’ll send an army to slaughter every peasant in sight? (By the way, did you notice how by using a comparison where a person could be both male or female, I purposely created a situation that would be perfect for the use of a transgender pronoun?)

Well, I would never use the royal we. The odd duck who does use it seems laughable. It’s almost always used by politicians—mayors and people who run bowling clubs who want to convince folks that everyone thinks the same so that they can avoid taking responsibility for their dumb decisions.
So using the royal we sounds stupid, but I’ve been seeing stories where authors refer to themselves or protagonists as “they,” and that seems somehow just as wrong. It’s like using the royal we in some bizarre universe.

Now, I’m not trying to make rules for other folks. Among Millennials last year, 8.5 percent of people identified themselves a LGBQT, and I strongly think that we should honor and respect their identity. If one of my authors wants to refer to themselves as “they,” I’m okay with that, even if I think it’s a poor solution.

But the question arises, “How do I personally want to handle this?” As a writer who is trying to include all readers and wants to capture that market (oh, and by the way, the LGBQT market is now large enough so that if you did capture it, you’d be a huge bestseller) what non-gender pronoun should I use when describing a character?

If you Google non-gender pronouns, you’ll find a list of proposed alternatives, none of which has quite fallen into common use.

I personally prefer the use of the term xe when editing. It feels elegant to me because every person, regardless of sexual expression or orientation, has an “X” chromosome. So, for me it feels like we are accentuation our common humanity when we use xe rather than some of the other suggested possibilities, such as they, ae, per, ze, and so on.

So, for example, if your character witnesses a mugging on a foggy night and can’t even identify the sex of the attacker, it would be appropriate for the protagonist to say, “I couldn’t see the face of the attacker, xe was too far away and the streetlight too dark, but I saw that xe wore a red coat and carried a butcher’s knife.”

Or if you had a sentence where we are talking about an unknown subject, you could say, “Whoever painted that mural on the building, xe really ought to win an award.”

As a writer, though, it seems to me that I’d want to use xe primarily when describing my protagonist.

Of course, you still want to use a gender-neutral pronoun correctly. If you have your first-person protagonist narrating, you wouldn’t have narrator say “xe crept through the room.” We already have a gender-neutral term that works quite well in first person: “I crept through the room.”  The same rule apples when speaking of me, my, and mine.

So, I like the idea of a third pronoun:
He, him, his, himself
She, her, hers, herself
Xe, xem, xyrs (or xers), xemself

At this point, I’ve stated my case and I’m thinking about that twinkle in my old professor’s eye. I know that popularizing a non-gender pronoun isn’t going to be easy, but at least I’ll sleep better knowing that I’ve made a case for what we should do.

This past week, the American Psychiatric Association
posted new guidelines that many people see as an assault on
masculinity. In doing so, they’re trying to handle a real problem that
they see that many people don’t recognize. I wrote a story about this
some 20 years ago, one where a non-gender pronoun might have worked
effectively, but I worried that the world wasn’t ready for this story,
so haven’t had it for sale. It will be available by next Tuesday.

Notes:

I will be speaking at Life, the Universe, and Everything Symposium at the Provo, Utah Marriott. It will be from 9 am to 5 pm on Wednesday, February 13th. Lunch is not provided. You can register here.

My masterclass, “As The Plot Thickens,” will take place at the Hampton Inn in Provo, Utah from March 7-9. I only have a few seats left so click here if you would like to attend.

My YouTube video issues have been solved. You can watch the first one by clicking here.

Would you like the chance to win $1,000 with your writing? Do you have a friend who is an excellent photographer? Combine your talents and enter the People of Earth Contest by clicking here. You have until February 15th to enter.

In January, I will be releasing my latest book, Casting Your Novel which helps with character development. I also have had my Serpent Catch series bundled which you can find by clicking on this link.

One thought on “The Problem with “They”

  1. David Ai

    No. Sorry just no.

    Outside America it has been extremely common to use ‘they’ as a singular pronoun and it has been for centuries. When I first heard complaints about the use of a singular ‘they’ I was genuinely astonished. (Though I’m from New Zealand where we speak proply … naturally.)

    See here… “The Oxford English Dictionary traces singular ‘they’ back to 1375, where it appears in the medieval romance William and the Werewolf. Except for the old-style language of that poem, its use of singular ‘they’ to refer to an unnamed person seems very modern. Here’s the Middle English version: ‘Hastely hiȝed eche . . . þei neyȝþed so neiȝh . . . þere william & his worþi lef were liand i-fere.’ In modern English, that’s: ‘Each man hurried . . . till they drew near . . . where William and his darling were lying together.’” – https://public.oed.com/blog/a-brief-history-of-singular-they/

    I admit that there is merit in a genderless pronoun. For instance the Chinese languages use such – in Cantonese it’s ‘Lei’ – in Mandarin it’s ‘Ne’ – and this usage is so much part of their psyche that they have issues when speaking English. I loved Ann Leckie’s use of ‘she’ as a form to denote a genderless pronoun for one of her cultures in ‘Ancilliary Justice’ and it was shocking when another culture used he & she.

    If singular ‘they’ was so contentious or confusing its use would not have lasted for 700 years or more. The secret is to provide context… something that a good author should find a breeze. Resorting to crutches such as made up names might work in the context of an SF novel like Leckie’s but not in popular use. It’s just unnecessary.

    Reply

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