Editorial—They: Always be Learning

I got a small lesson today about the use of pronouns.  I have no issue with people using pronouns that may match their gender, regardless of their sex, but “they” and “their” are plural pronouns and without explanation it can make the writing difficult to understand.  So when editing, and the pronoun being used is a plural one, someone like me finds myself asking “Who’s the other person they’re hanging around with?”  Until I’m informed that that’s what their pronoun is.

Much of that confusion is cleared up if it’s pointed out ahead of time that this pronoun use is deliberate, but in my first edit, I noted that they prefer to use the pronouns “they”, “them,” and “their”.  The problem, however, was the use of the word “prefer”.  It was pointed out that this can suggest that the entire gender is a preference, and not simply part of who they are.

And as soon as it was pointed out to me, it was obvious.  Of course it’s who they are.  I would never suggest that a male who identifies as a woman or vice versa simply prefers to do so.  It’s very rarely that simple.  So why do I assume it’s a preference when it’s “they”?  This showed me that there’s still those unconscious biases within me that I need to keep aware of and keep working on.

But the use still gives me pause.  It’s because “they” isn’t actually gender-neutral, which is how it is sometimes used in this manner.  It’s gender irrelevant.  The primary point of “they”, unlike “he” or “she” isn’t to identify gender, but rather to identify quantity.  And because of that, using it as a gender-neutral term runs into issues.  Less so when it’s an article about one person, but what happens when you have an article talking about two or more people, such as a band.  Then any use of the pronoun becomes unclear as to exactly which they you’re referring to.  Is it a singular person who uses “they”, or is it more than one person?

This is one area where I believe we need to have actual gender-neutral pronouns in our language, such as the Spivak or Elverson pronouns: “ey”, “em”, “eir”.  That way we can maintain proper gender referencing while also having the ability to refer to a singular person.  Unfortunately, these pronouns are not in wide use, and so some take issue with the notion of being “singled out” with an unusual pronoun.  But then that singling out happens regardless, as editors and writers struggle to make the meaning clear to the rest of the world where “they” most often has a plural definition.

Fortunately, while this is a nit that looms large in my brain as an editor, it really isn’t relevant in the larger scheme of things.  The important bit is we have a great interview here in the Minds We Meet column, and this nit is really just interesting here because of how it pointed out that I still have more to work to do on seeing and dealing with my own biases.

Meanwhile, this week, we also have a look at how just because something is literature doesn’t mean that it’s good, and with the rapid changing of temperature as spring approaches, the Fly on the Wall considers how the perception of temperature relates to our own ability to be open to other interpretations of things, much as with the issue of pronouns.  Plus, of course, a selection of recipes, advice, humour, events, scholarships, and more.

Enjoy the read!