Over the past few days I've been doing a lot of thinking and talking about they/them pronouns, singular they vs. plural they, and how best to present the they/them checkbox option on the annual survey.
(Following this blog post, mainly: https://gendercensus.tumblr.com/post/651198185451175937/on-plural-they-and-plural-inclusivity)
I've been working to get to the bottom of what other people mean and understand by particular grammatical terms, my own preconceptions and misconceptions, and which parts of it fit within the limited scope of the Gender Census.
My brain is very tired now. :D
When I first came out (about 10 years ago) and started learning about pronouns, I researched "singular they" pronouns a little bit - in part because lots of people were arguing that singular they wasn't a legit pronoun, so I wanted to understand more.
At that time, the "singular they isn't grammatically correct" and "singular they can't refer to a specific known person" arguments were very prevalent, and every trans person I encountered understood that singular they is defined as "they/them used to refer to one person."
Hand on heart, it honestly did not occur to me that a significant number of people might not know that's what "singular they" means. "Singular they" is the name that lexicographers and other people who study language collectively call "they/them when referring to one person."
It's a useful name, to refer to a pronoun set with a slightly different use case and, usually, spelling to match. And for some reason I thought that my experience from a decade ago, where understanding of this name was universal, would obviously still be relevant. (It is not.)
It's a sign of progress, since singular they for nonbinary people is so much more commonly accepted that every nonbinary person *doesn't* need to know the name "singular they" and what exactly the name means and how it is used differently from third-person regular/plural they.
If calling the set "singular they" on the annual survey doesn't add clarity and help people find their pronoun set, I will stop using that name, and switch to providing the meaning instead.
I'm thinking maybe something like:
Singular they - they/them/their/theirs/themself (plural verbs, i.e. "they are a writer")
They - they/them/their/theirs/themself (for referring to an individual, i.e. "they are a writer")
I'm not going to combine two pronoun sets into one in the annual survey, because they are two pronoun sets that have different meanings and use cases, and (usually) different spellings.
I am considering adding plural they to the checkbox list, NOT as a way to include plural people (because arbitrary inclusion isn't a reason for adding any term that is written into textboxes by under 1% of people), but because it might be useful to compare with singular they.
Having said that, I am so far undecided, but leaning towards *not* including plural they. The "comparison" words that are on the list despite being chosen by under 1% of participants (binary, cisgender, etc) are gender-related words. Plural they is unrelated to gender.
If plural they is typed into textboxes by over 1% of participants that's a whole other situation, and it would be automatically reconsidered.
If a checkbox term or pronoun isn't accurate for you, don't choose it! Type something in a textbox instead, so I can know it's popular.
Anyway, thanks for listening to this late-night ramble. I really enjoy the way this research and participants' feedback challenges me and forces me to reconsider concepts and shift my understanding of language, gender, and other related and unrelated ideas.
@gendercensus Even in this thread I'm unsure whether plural they means "they referring to multiple people" or "they/.../themselves referring to any number of people"
@madewokherd There are three theys:
Singular they - referring to one person, any reflexive but usually "themself", e.g. "they are a writer"
Plural they - referring to two or more people, reflexive "themselves", e.g. "they are writers"
Indefinite they - referring to an indistinct other of unknown number, any reflexive probably, e.g. "they say it's good to write what you know..."
@gendercensus I would argue that the forms including reflexive determines the pronoun set, not the number of people referenced.
@gendercensus Which would mean that of those, only "plural they" specifies a pronoun set because it has a specific reflexive. The others are just ways of using they.
@madewokherd The ways of using "they" basically boil down to the intent/meaning of the word, and words are created to convey meaning, so I would probably argue that they are the *point* of the words and the most important part! Like, in French the word for avocado and the word for lawyer are the same spelling, but they are definitely different words. :D
@gendercensus You could presumably distinguish those by context and/or pronunciation. If you used "indefinite they" as a specific person's pronouns (if that's not a contradiction to begin with), the context and pronunciation would be identical, so the pronoun set would be equivalent in usage and indistinguishable.
@madewokherd You're right, and also because it means something different to the participant I want to record it the way they would want it to be recorded, especially if they felt strongly enough about it that they typed it in even though an identical set was already available as a checkbox.
@madewokherd @gendercensus the problem is that people who study languages are very sure that indefinite they (‘could you tell whoever left their phone’ etc) is a distinct pronoun set, even though it has historically used the same reflexive as the other theys
And once you let one ‘words are identical, context is different’ in...
@madewokherd @Satsuma That makes sense, but the purpose of the word being included doesn't prevent you from being able to check the box, and it also future-proofs a little bit for in case people start wanting to specify that their pronouns are some other type of "they". Considering people enter identity words and pronouns with asterisks and numbers in, I would be 0% surprised if people started specifying indefinite they as their pronouns in the textboxes... :D
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