Demi Lovato’s Pronouns

The singer now wishes to be referred to as "they."

Via CNN, I see that pop star Demi Lovato has announced they are nonbinary and wish to be addressed as “they.” Given that I only know who she is because my girls are big fans of the Frozen soundtrack and am unlikely to need to address Lovato in casual conversation, given our different social and geographical orbits, I wouldn’t ordinarily comment. But I’m mildly intrigued by the conventions here.

Singer Demi Lovato has revealed they are nonbinary and are changing their pronouns, telling fans they are “proud” to make the change after “a lot of self-reflective work.”

Lovato, who rose to fame as a teenage movie star and has become one of the world’s most popular singers over the past decade, made the announcement to fans in a video and tweets posted online on Wednesday.

“I feel that this best represents the fluidity I feel in my gender expression, and allows me to feel most authentic and true to the person I both know I am and still am discovering,” the singer said.

Lovato added they came to the decision “after a lot of healing and self-reflective work.”

“I’m still learning & coming into myself, & I don’t claim to be an expert or a spokesperson. Sharing this with you now opens another level of vulnerability for me,” Lovato said.”I’m doing this for those out there that haven’t been able to share who they truly are with their loved ones. Please keep living in your truths & know I am sending so much love your way.”

So, I’ve been aware for a while now that “they” has assumed a singular use in some LGBTQ circles. And, while I find it reflexively grating, I’m also aware that these conventions change over time. Indeed, I’ve gotten accustomed to using plural pronouns to refer to singular non-specified individuals to maintain the gender neutrality of sentences, which is less awkward than he/she constructions.

What I don’t get, though, and can’t answer through quick Google searches, is how Lovato can simultaneously be a “they” to others and an “I” to herself. That seems to defy any grammatical logic.

FILED UNDER: General
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Chef Eric says:

    Usage of singular They goes back a long way. And one thing to note is to keep in mind to refer Demi Lovato as they/them when you refer to them in your article. https://blogs.illinois.edu/view/25/677177

    5
  2. CSK says:

    If she’s going to be consistent, she should refer to herself as “we.”

    What we need is a new pronoun. “They” is reference to a single individual can give rise to some real confusion, particularly in legal documents, I should think..

    5
  3. OzarkHillbilly says:

    That seems to defy any grammatical logic.

    Humans defy logic of all kinds every day. This? It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.

    eta: phrasing

    11
  4. Teve says:

    Singular They has a very long history; Wikipedia has examples going back to the 1300s. And it’s still found in certain modern usages. The examples given are:

    “Somebody left their umbrella in the office. Could you please let them know where they can get it?”

    “The patient should be told at the outset how much they will be required to pay.”

    “But a journalist should not be forced to reveal their sources.”

    To my mind, They is fine, and much better than that Zie Zir nonsense.
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Singular_they

    15
  5. Teve says:

    Languages frequently behave irrationally.

    The possessive form of truck is truck’s.
    The possessive form of bird is bird’s.
    The possessive form of chicken is chicken’s.
    The possessive form of it? Its. It’s means something else.

    😛

    7
  6. Michael Reynolds says:

    Doesn’t work.

    Couple of years back I asked online whether anyone had managed to write fiction incorporating the singular all-purpose, ‘they.’ No. Sure there are situations, like @Teve mentions, but those are already linguistic conventions. But in general? Nah.

    3
  7. CSK says:

    How about “per,” as in person? That identifies one as a singular individual, but is gender neutral.

    I credit Marge Piercy for this locution, in Woman on the Edge of Time.

    4
  8. The bottom line is that “I” isn’t gendered and hence there is no need, in context, to use it differently.

    Your reference to he v. they in writing is a good one. We are both old enough to have written at a time when male pronouns were used as the generic universal. At the time of the transition (college? grad school? after? I really don’t remember) I recall thinking that the third person plural did not make grammatical sense and tracked as odd. These days I very much notice when I read something old enough that uses male pronouns as a generic universal.

    In other words: we will all get used to it, even if the mind rebels a bit in the now.

    And goodness knows English is not exactly a precise and logical language (as some have already noted).

    12
  9. Mu Yixiao says:

    Singular “they” has been around at least since Jane Austin. And nobody’s complaining that “you” is technically plural (the singular is “thou”).

    It’s a little difficult to get used to when referring to a known (singular) individual, but it’s a hell of a lot better than the alternative.

    Tangentially, I’ve noticed a lot of people adding their pronouns to their business e-mail signatures. I find that weird.

    3
  10. James Joyner says:

    @Teve: Those are all examples of the singular they for a generic individual, used instead of what I was taught was the grammatically proper male pronoun. Starting in the 1990s, we started looking for ways to get around male as the default and the singular “they” is the least awkward alternative.

    @Teve: All pronouns have an alternative construction for the possessive form; none take an apostrophe-s. He/his, She/her, they/their, it/its, etc.

    2
  11. Mu Yixiao says:

    Addendum: Chinese uses a single word for he, she, and it: Ta. Plural is ta men, possessive is ta de. Possessive plural is tamen de.

    It’s extremely common for Chinese speakers to mix up he and she when referring to someone.

    4
  12. grumpy realist says:

    What was the old saying? “Only editors and people with tapeworms should be allowed to use “we”‘.

    8
  13. Kathy says:

    We should move on to more pressing matters, like how many teacups can host a tempest.

    18
  14. Mu Yixiao says:

    @James Joyner:

    Starting in the 1990s, we started looking for ways to get around male as the default

    It started way before the 1990s.

    The Oxford English Dictionary traces singular they back to 1375, where it appears in the medieval romance William and the Werewolf.

    A brief History of Singular They (OED)

    3
  15. R. Dave says:

    @Teve: Those are all examples where the referent is either an unknown person or a category of persons, not a specific, known individual. “Singular they” as a reference to a specific, known individual is both unconventional and confusing, thus failing the basic function of language, which is communication, not personal validation. I’m generally skeptical of the current zeitgeist that treats pronoun usage as a fundamental expression of gender identity that cuts to the core trans people’s mental/emotional well-being, and even more skeptical when it comes to the singular they as the equivalent for gender-fluid and non-binary folks. Regardless, I have no objection to referring to trans men by male pronouns and vice-versa for trans women in most cases, because doing so doesn’t introduce much in the way of confusion, so there’s really no non-performative reason to refuse to accommodate someone’s preference. The same can’t be said for the singular they.

    3
  16. Sleeping Dog says:

    Perhaps the answer to the singular is to mimic Herschel Walker and refer to ones self in the third person. E.g. Sleeping, what are your thoughts…? Well, Sleeping thinks…

    If M. Lavato prefers to be referred to as They, fine, though They will spend her life correcting and explaining to people and I’d imagine that will be tiring. I guess a being a celebrity will reduce the frequency of explanation, after all we now know They’s preference, but the average Jack or Jill??

    2
  17. CSK says:

    @Chef Eric:
    But Lovato themself (themselves) self-references as “I” and “me.”

    I get that. It probably feels awkward to refer to oneself as “we.”

    1
  18. dazedandconfused says:

    “Y’all”@Mu Yixiao:

    If I understand correctly, tamen de translates as “all y’all’s”. I got that right?

  19. Michael Reynolds says:

    Sam, Jane and Jesse go for a walk. Jesse ties their shoes.

    How many shoes did Jesse tie? Are Sam and Jane treating poor Jesse like a servant? Is it a prank, and Jesse tied Sam and Jane’s shoes together?

    It doesn’t work.

    4
  20. Mu Yixiao says:

    @dazedandconfused:

    If I understand correctly, tamen de translates as “all y’all’s”. I got that right?

    Y’all would be correct. 🙂

    (Side note: While living in Texas I figured out the difference between “y’all” and “all y’all”. If you can point at them by only moving your wrist, it’s “y’all”. If you have to move at the elbow it’s “all y’all”) 😀

    10
  21. Joe says:

    Like Steven and James, I went through the same conversion to neuter gendered writing in college (late ’70s early ’80s) and became very accustomed to using and reading it. Sometime in the mid ’90s the Catholic church “updated” the famous catechism and someone gave me a copy. It was absolutely jarring to read the “male pronouns . . . used as the generic universal.” It was like reading something written in the 19th century. With regard to its atavistic worldview, that was just the tip of the iceberg.

    1
  22. Mu Yixiao says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    Sam, Jane and Jesse go for a walk. Jesse ties their own shoes.

    Sam, Jane and Jesse go for a walk. Jesse ties the others’ shoes.

    Sam, Jane and Jesse go for a walk. Jesse ties Sam’s shoes.

    It’s no different than:

    Jane goes for a walk with Sue. Jane ties her shoes.

    Is she tying her own or Sue’s?

    13
  23. CSK says:

    @Mu Yixiao:
    I’d probably write “Jane ties her own shoes” just to be clear, or “Jane ties Sue’s shoes” if that happened to be the case.

  24. EddieInCA says:

    I’ve worked with this young woman. She has substantial issues wth her mental health. I wish her all the luck in the world in trying to figure them out. If this helps, more power to her.

    My wife and I had a long talk about pronouns recently. Bottom line is I’ll call people whatever they want to be called. It’s not a big deal to me. Heck, if someone wants to identify as a mouse and call themselves “Mickey”, I’ll say “Good morning Mickey Mouse”, when I see them in the morning.

    14
  25. Kathy says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    Do you get tied up in knots writing a scene between two characters of the same gender? I mean, you can only use “she” and “her” without bringing up names before the reader loses track of which “she” or “her” you mean,right?

    5
  26. CSK says:

    @EddieInCA:
    I always told my students to find out what people wish to be called (it’s not hard) and then address them thusly.

    I still think Marge Piercy’s “per” is a better choice for a non-binary individual than “they.” If I’m picking up “them” at the airport, it’s easier if I know that’s one person. Otherwise, I’ll be looking for two or more.

    1
  27. James Joyner says:

    @EddieInCA: Sure. I adopted the “they” in the lede to the post. It’s just the juxtaposition of they and I that I find confusing.

    1
  28. Michael Reynolds says:

    @Mu Yixiao: @CSK:

    Jane goes for a walk with Sue. Jane ties her shoes.

    Is she tying her own or Sue’s?

    In that example perhaps 1 person in 100 is confused. In my example 99 out of a 100 are confused. The job of a writer is to communicate clearly.

    Rather than making simple sense, we need to add framing each time we use the singular they. Why? Because it’s the wrong fucking word to use, and ‘they’ should come up with a new, non-gendered word. Similar to what women did with, ‘Ms.’

    This is a classic Faculty Lounge issue, guaranteed to a) irritate and alienate most people, and b) end up being discarded anyway. And it’s the usual magical thinking about labels. If only we change the label – negro, colored, black, Afro-American, African-American, Black with a capital ‘B’ – Derek Chauvin will take his knee off George Floyd’s neck.

    Words are tools. They are screwdrivers. They are not magic. Calling ‘beans’ ‘lentil nuggets’ does not change what’s in the can.

    2
  29. Gustopher says:

    @Michael Reynolds: The reason it doesn’t work is that you’re old. Doesn’t work for me or Dr. Joyner for the same reason.

    In the example you give, it just requires knowing that Jesse is non-binary, so you think to parse the they as possibly Jesse.

    Leslie and James went for a walk. Leslie tied his shoes.

    Same problem, until you realize that Leslie is sometimes a man’s name. (Given the number of enbies that rename themselves Sock or something, that can provide a clue)

    I don’t like this use of singular they. I think the enbies should be able to come up with something better. But, it works as well as he or she, with all the same problems at least for younger folks.

    It’s no Latinx.

    8
  30. Teve says:

    @Kathy:

    Do you get tied up in knots writing a scene between two characters of the same gender? I mean, you can only use “she” and “her” without bringing up names before the reader loses track of which “she” or “her” you mean,right?

    A few times per year I have to stop someone whose story is going, for example, “Tim and Mark ran into each other at the Kroger. Then he told him that his car…” Stop. Stop. Stop.

    3
  31. Michael Reynolds says:

    @Kathy:
    I don’t become confused because I know what info I need to add or subtract to make the situation comprehensible to the reader. But let’s try your hypothetical two-hander.

    A) Jane and Susie go for a walk. Susie ties their shoes.

    B) Jane and Susie go for a walk. Susie ties her shoes.

    You can play with it all you want, but B is the less confusing construction. I could write that with a reasonable expectation that a reader would understand.

    1) Jane and Susie go for a walk. Susie ties her own shoes.

    2) Jane and Susie go for a walk. Susie ties Susie’s shoes.

    Example (1) is clear but only because we avoid the pronoun. Example (2) is clear, but carries an echo effect.

    Describing action is simple when interactions are simple, (dog bites man) but becomes geometrically more difficult the more people you have in the action, the longer the scene goes on, and the more complex the action is (the airplane hijack scene by Bane in The Dark Knight Rises.) More moving pieces, the more clarity you need.

    2
  32. Michael Reynolds says:

    @Teve:

    A few times per year I have to stop someone whose story is going, for example, “Tim and Mark ran into each other at the Kroger. Then he told him that his car…” Stop. Stop. Stop.

    Every single time my wife tells me. story. Every time. The woman’s got a Newbury and multiple books on the bestseller list FFS.

    3
  33. Kathy says:

    @Teve:

    Bonus points, have both characters be of the same gender and have the same name.

    1
  34. Kathy says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    Written English is not the same language as Spoken English.

    3
  35. Mimai says:

    Wow! I came to this post expecting a blood bath, and yet all I see are people discussing/debating grammar. Not sure what, if anything, to make of that.

    4
  36. R. Dave says:

    @Mimai: Whatever political and philosophical differences we may have here, we’re all nerds first and foremost.

    8
  37. Mimai says:

    I don’t know what James thinks/believes wrt religion, but I suspect they (sorry, not sorry) have marinated in the culture of Christianity.

    Is the notion of the trinity “reflexively grating”?

    What about the gender of the holy spirit, which differs across Greek, Latin, and Hebrew languages?

    4
  38. sam says:

    @CSK:

    I get that. It probably feels awkward to refer to oneself as “we.”

    Tell that to innumerable monarchs. I’m just wondering how “They’s on first” works.

    1
  39. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @James Joyner:

    All pronouns have an alternative construction for the possessive form…

    Not the case for indefinite pronouns–somebody/somebody’s, anyone/anyone’s, and so on. BUT indefinite pronouns don’t have a consistent pattern either, and not all of them can be made possessive easily… for example, a possessive of “each” is cumbersome–we normally don’t say “each’s” and don’t usually write what we don’t say.

  40. MarkedMan says:

    @Mu Yixiao: But just to keep things nice and confusing, the male and female characters are different. Just the pronunciation is the same.

  41. flat earth luddite says:

    @Mimai:

    I came to this post expecting a blood bath, and yet all I see are people discussing/debating grammar. Not sure what, if anything, to make of that.

    Possibility 1: that this morning it’s all adults in the room (Bloodbath scheduled later today.)
    Possibility 2: that this isn’t a hot button for even us old confused types
    Possibility 3: that (so far) everyone just wants Demi to have a happy life

    Personally, I’ll go with Eddie and CSK and call people what they want to be called; my preference is their first name, but it’s their call. My co-workers are all used to my generic “kiddo” from the old coot, at least until they’re close enough for me to read their name tags (snark emoji here).

    5
  42. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @CSK: You and I would always say “ties her own shoes,” but that’s only because we’ve asked a thousand students “whose shoes? Jane’s or Sue’s?”

    1
  43. Mimai says:

    @flat earth luddite:

    To clarify, I was expecting it to be the blood of James (carry-over syntax from my previous post).

    He seems to have an occasional series that I call “Performative Self-Sacrifice.” I’m not sure what drives these: atonement for thinking naughty thoughts or for previous comments (“masking is performative bullshit”), community building, simple masochism, etc.

    They’re entertaining in a way…..like a campy movie or a slow motion train-wreck.

    5
  44. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    “In that example perhaps 1 person in 100 is confused. In my example 99 out of a 100 are confused.”

    True enough, but ~50% will be wrong if Jane tied Sue’s shoes for her. Just sayin’…

    1
  45. Gustopher says:

    I suspect that if Levato was using neo-pronouns, rather than singular-they, there would be similar complaints.

    “What is ze? It sounds like everyone talking about Levato has a terrible fake german accent!”

    “No, I’m just not willing to call Levato ‘crow.’ Levato tied crows shoes? Levato referred to crowself. Levato went to the store — crow needed to buy a pair of loafers.”

    So, ultimately, there’s a bit of “pick a gender, damn it” to this entire argument from James, et al. I really don’t think they mean it that way, but it’s there.

    The really pedantic part of me wonders why we make other people refer to our gender at all. Like, I’m pretty sure all of you have genders (or not!) but why are you bothering me with your gender?

    At least we have progressed enough as a society that we don’t definitively match gender with genitals, because I don’t want to have to acknowledge any of your genitals.

    5
  46. Gustopher says:

    @Mimai:

    I came to this post expecting a blood bath

    You can make it happen. I believe in you.

    5
  47. Mu Yixiao says:

    @MarkedMan:

    But just to keep things nice and confusing, the male and female characters are different. Just the pronunciation is the same.

    Yeah, but that’s irrelevant to my point. 😛

    1
  48. flat earth luddite says:

    @Mimai:
    Oh, I see. 3rd corner pile up at Talladega. Or Hammer movie marathon.
    Sorry, haven’t finished my second cup of coffee yet.
    Carry on, everyone!

    1
  49. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Mimai: We’re willing to get distracted by a side issue if the topic is controversial enough? We’re still all more conservative about gender-bias issues than we’d like to admit, so we willfully look for distractions to pull the thread off topic? I suppose I can come up with more suggestions if anybody needs additional.

  50. CSK says:

    @sam:
    Indeed. I should have made it clear that I was referring to us commoners.

  51. wr says:

    @Michael Reynolds: “It doesn’t work.”

    Wait — you’ve discovered something in the English language that can be confusing?

    10
  52. wr says:

    @wr: Also, time flies like an arrow; fruit flies like a banana.

    5
  53. sam says:

    On that last note: How to drive English learners insane:

    I take it you already know
    Of tough and bough and cough and dough?
    Others may stumble, but not you,
    On hiccough, thorough, lough and through?
    Well done! And now you wish, perhaps,
    To learn of less familiar traps?
    Beware of heard, a dreadful word
    That looks like beard and sounds like bird,
    And dead: it’s said like bed, not bead –
    For goodness sake don’t call it deed!
    Watch out for meat and great and threat
    (They rhyme with suite and straight and debt).
    A moth is not a moth in mother,
    Nor both in bother, broth in brother,
    And here is not a match for there
    Nor dear and fear for bear and pear,
    And then there’s dose and rose and lose –
    Just look them up – and goose and choose,
    And cork and work and card and ward,
    And font and front and word and sword,
    And do and go and thwart and cart –
    Come, come, I’ve hardly made a start!
    A dreadful language? Man alive!
    I’d mastered it when I was five!

    6
  54. Michael Reynolds says:

    @wr:
    Have you just discovered that a writer’s job is to avoid confusion?

    Go ahead, @wr, write us a two page action scene involving complex action and mixed genders using the singular they. I have yet to see it done, but I’m open to persuasion.

    1
  55. Michael Reynolds says:

    @wr:
    One more point: why are we deciding that Lovato’s preferences have to be everyone’s? What if I don’t want to be ‘they?’ What if my preferred pronouns are ‘he’ and ‘him?’ Are we going to write scenes where some characters are singular he/she and others are singular ‘they?’

    1
  56. Mu Yixiao says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    One more point: why are we deciding that Lovato’s preferences have to be everyone’s? What if I don’t want to be ‘they?’ What if my preferred pronouns are ‘he’ and ‘him?’

    Then you are to be addressed using he/him.

    Are we going to write scenes where some characters are singular he/she and others are singular ‘they?’

    Yes.

    7
  57. MarkedMan says:

    I’m 60 and started writing “they” just a few years ago in situations like, “If you ask the technical Rep and they say…” It felt awkward in the beginning and now feels perfectly natural.

    As far as calling people by what they ask me to, of course, as long as it doesn’t promote a falsehood*.

    *Why the odd caveat? Interesting case. I recently found out that someone I know peripherally legally changed her first name to “Doctor” because she felt her many years prescribing crystals and incense and chanting was equal to actually earning a medical degree. I’m a close friend of a family member, so on the rare occasions I interact with her I call her by her middle name, which was formerly her first name. And given her age, and hard life, if she insisted on the “Doctor” within that family group, I would do so. But if I was put in that position in front of someone that might go to her for advice (very unlikely) I wouldn’t.

    2
  58. Teve says:

    (Teve ponders legally changing his first name to Comandante)

    5
  59. Nightcrawler says:

    Try as I might, I still find it awkward to use “they” to refer to a singular known person. However, I use it because it’s simply the right thing to do, especially since we don’t currently have a better solution in the English language.

    Additionally, “they” is a hell of a lot less awkward than some of the other proposed gender-neutral pronouns, such as zir/zee. Those are weird.

    1
  60. Stormy Dragon says:

    “And whoso fyndeth hym out of swich blame, They wol come up…” — Chaucer, “The Pardoner’s Prologue” of The Canterbury Tales

    “‘Tis meet that some more audience than a mother, since nature makes them partial, should o’erhear the speech.” — Shakespeare, Hamlet (1599)

    “Had the Doctor been contented to take my dining tables as any body in their senses would have done …” — Jane Austen, Mansfield Park (1814)

    “Every one must judge according to their own feelings.” — Lord Byron, Werner (1823)

    6
  61. Mu Yixiao says:

    @Nightcrawler:

    Additionally, “they” is a hell of a lot less awkward than some of the other proposed gender-neutral pronouns, such as zir/zee. Those are weird.

    And how the hell are they supposed to be pronounced?

    I remember seeing “xie/xir” listed somewhere and immediately thought “How is that pronounced??” Especially since X has so many variations. It can be a Z like Xavier, a ZH (Hmong) or an SH (Chinese).

    As a bonus, “xie” is pronounced “shee-eh” and means (among many other things) “crab” in Chinese.

    ETA: Ironically, all this talk of “they” and I mistyped it as “the” in my first sentence. Thankfully the Gods of Edit Buttons blessed me today.

    1
  62. @Michael Reynolds: Ambiguous writing often requires editing (as Mu notes above). But that’s true regardless of pronouns, yes?

    5
  63. Mu Yixiao says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    (as Mu notes above)

    Since we’re in a thread about getting picky on how to address someone… 🙂

    Mu is a surname. The given name is Yixiao. Asian cultures put the surname first.

    5
  64. @Michael Reynolds:

    What if I don’t want to be ‘they?’ What if my preferred pronouns are ‘he’ and ‘him?’

    Isn’t the whole point of this that people can/should be called what they want. Hence, your pronouns are he/him and Lovato’s are they/them?

    I am not saying I find it easy to adapt, but since to me this is all about mutual self-respect of our fellow humans, I am willing to try.

    Are we going to write scenes where some characters are singular he/she and others are singular ‘they?’

    Yup.

    6
  65. mattbernius says:

    @Mu Yixiao:

    Mu is a surname. The given name is Yixiao. Asian cultures put the surname first.

    Yup. Though, as someone who has been referred to as “Bernius” for most of his life (or “Old Man Bernius” even in the days I was a young man), I think some of us are doing it intentionally. Also “Mu” is easier to remember than “Yixiao.” 😉

    But if you prefer going with going with given name, I’ll make that note going forward.

    1
  66. @Mu Yixiao: That is me being lazy. Too lazy to click the “reply to” and too lazy to remember the proper spelling of Yixiao when Mu is so much easier to recall. 😉

    However, since I might refer to Reynolds and not Michael, why can’t I refer to Mu rather than Yixiao? (people sometimes refer to me as Taylor on here).

    (And for the record, I do know how Asian names work).

    3
  67. mattbernius says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    Are we going to write scenes where some characters are singular he/she and others are singular ‘they?’

    Knowing what we know about language drift and evolution, there’s a good chance the answer is “yes.”

    Especially if said program/movie has decided to include a non-binary character.

    1
  68. @mattbernius:

    But if you prefer going with going with given name, I’ll make that note going forward.

    Same.

  69. Mu Yixiao says:

    @mattbernius:
    @Steven L. Taylor:

    Doesn’t matter to me. I was just having fun because of the thread topic. 😀

    5
  70. Mister Bluster says:

    @Mimai:.. Wow! I came to this post expecting a blood bath, and yet all I see are people discussing/debating grammar. Not sure what, if anything, to make of that.

    It’s what sets us apart from the Dolphins.
    (Everyone except George C. Scott and Trish Van Devere that is.)

    2
  71. Gustopher says:

    @Stormy Dragon: Each of those has the “they” referring to an indefinite person — the Shakespeare one referencing
    “a mother”, but as a category of audience (given that the gender of every member of that category is known, “she” would also work).

    Not the same. It really is a new usage to refer to individual, known people as singular-they.

    That said, no one has come up with a better plan. I wish they would.

    I suppose we could put Lavato in a hallway with a clearly labeled men’s and woman’s bathroom, and keep making them drink water, and wait for them to make a choice. But that seems cruel.

    1
  72. CSK says:

    @Gustopher:
    What’s wrong with Marge Piercy’s “per,” as in person?

    As “per,” Lovato can be be a non-binary individual, and continue to refer to perself as “I” without being inconsistent.

  73. wr says:

    @Michael Reynolds: “Have you just discovered that a writer’s job is to avoid confusion?”

    Of course. Alas, Demi Lovato, like so many other ungrateful people out there, has not designed their life to make the writer’s job easier.

    Personally — and as a writer and a grammar fanatic — I hate the singular “they.” But as with the taboo over “the N word” — a locution that I think grants it a singular power it doesn’t deserve — it ain’t my ox being gored here. If the singular people in the world want to ask my advice on what pronouns they should use, I will give them my opinion. Until them, I’ll let them make their own choices and not waste anyone’s time bitching about it.

    9
  74. @Mu Yixiao: Gotcha.

  75. wr says:

    @Michael Reynolds: “One more point: why are we deciding that Lovato’s preferences have to be everyone’s? What if I don’t want to be ‘they?’ What if my preferred pronouns are ‘he’ and ‘him?’”

    Literally nobody in the world is deciding this. People put down their pronouns because it’s how they choose to be referred to. If your preferred pronouns are he and him, I haven’t heard a sole complaining about that. Not even Demi Lovato.

    7
  76. Sleeping Dog says:

    @Mu Yixiao:

    Actually, I’m waiting for a hyper progressive person to lecture me that I should use xe/zee, xir/zir for all pronouns, even when I know the gender ID of an individual and their preference.

    Somehow, I don’t see the neo-pronouns catching on and this will pass as well.

  77. wr says:

    @Michael Reynolds: “Go ahead, @wr, write us a two page action scene involving complex action and mixed genders using the singular they. I have yet to see it done, but I’m open to persuasion.”

    By the way, I just read the script by my trans student, in which one character was either trans or simply genderless. This character was referred to with “they,” the others were all “he” or “she.”

    Yes, it was a little confusing at first. I figured it out.

    5
  78. Mister Bluster says:

    I lifted this from the New Oxford American Dictionary in my MacBook.

    “The word they (with its counterparts them, their, and themselves) as a singular pronoun to refer to a person of unspecified sex has been used since at least the 16th century. In the late 20th century, as the traditional use of he to refer to a person of either sex came under scrutiny on the grounds of sexism, this use of they has become more common. It is now generally accepted in contexts where it follows an indefinite pronoun such as anyone, no one, someone, or a person:: anyone can join if they are a resident;: each to their own. In other contexts, coming after singular nouns, the use of they is now common, although less widely accepted, esp. in formal contexts. Sentences such as : ask a friend if they could help are still criticized for being ungrammatical. Nevertheless, in view of the growing acceptance of they and its obvious practical advantages, they is used in this dictionary in many cases where he would have been used formerly.

    I live in a college town. I spend a lot of time in restaurants and cafe’s that are staffed by high school and college students and other citizens in their 20’s to 40’s or so.
    The most common greeting I hear the help (male and female) convey to customers of all ages and genders is: “Welcome to Chili’s guys.” or “I’ll be with you guys in a minute.”
    On the street or in the grocery store or anywhere a social encounter might occur I commonly hear girls meeting up with acquaintances of both sexes address each other as guys. “What are you guys doing tonight?”
    It is a far cry from 40 years ago when I greeted Jill Pope and her female friend when I saw them about town.
    “Hi guys.” I said.
    “@!#%!&!! DO WE LOOK LIKE GUYS TO YOU?”
    She yelled as she ripped me a new one.
    We’ve come a long way baby!

    3
  79. wr says:

    @Sleeping Dog: “Somehow, I don’t see the neo-pronouns catching on and this will pass as well.”

    I suspect that if they solve more problems than they create, they’ll stick around. Otherwise they’ll go away. I remember people making fun of Ms in the early 70s, but that turned out to be really useful. People now make fun of Latinx, and so far that doesn’t seem to be particularly useful, and I’d bet it will go away within the decade…

    1
  80. Teve says:

    @Mister Bluster: guys is an interesting word. It either refers to a group of males or any group of humans, depending on the context.

    “I only date guys” means males. When a girl says to three girlfriends, “what are you guys up to?” It’s anyone.

    1
  81. Mister Bluster says:

    eenie meenie chili beanie
    where did the EDIT key go?
    Presto Chango
    John and Paul and George and Ringo
    I’ll tell #one “make it so!”

    I am quoting the Amazing Gregorio!

  82. Mu Yixiao says:

    @Teve:

    guys is an interesting word. It either refers to a group of males or any group of humans, depending on the context.

    Just as long as it isn’t “youz guys”.

  83. Stormy Dragon says:

    One other wrinkle I’d like to note:

    “You” was originally purely plural second person, but over time usage changed. So anyone claiming their resistance to the singular “they” is purely based on grammar but who doesn’t similarly insist on continuing to use “thou” as the singular second person pronoun probably does not fully understand their actual motivations.

    7
  84. Kylopod says:

    @Stormy Dragon: McWhorter brings a quote from the 1600s by a critic complaining about singular you:

    Is he not a Novice and unmannerly, and an Ideot and a Fool, that speaks You to one, which is not to be spoken to a Singular, but to many? O Vulgar Professors and Teachers, that speak Plural, when they should Singular…. Come you Priests and Professors, have you not learnt your Accidence?

    1
  85. Monala says:

    @Mu Yixiao: the first time I heard “youz guys” in real life, it was while listening to a speech given by Boston mayor Tom Menino.

  86. Mu Yixiao says:

    @Monala:

    I’ve come to learn that it’s more prevalent in Pennsylvania (Philly, I think, more than Pittsburgh), but it’s definitely common in Chicago.

  87. Stormy Dragon says:

    @Mu Yixiao:

    Pittsburgh has it’s on equivalent “yinz”, which is prevalent to the point that “yinzers” has become a slang term for people with a stereotypical Pittsburgh accent.

  88. CSK says:

    @Monala: @Mu Yixiao:
    “Youse guys” is very big in New York, too. And Jersey.

  89. Kylopod says:

    @CSK:

    “Youse guys” is very big in New York, too. And Jersey.

    I live in New York, and I’ve never heard it here, or anywhere else I’ve been. I’ve definitely heard “y’all,” as well as “all y’all.”

  90. MarkedMan says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: When my Chinese colleagues use their Chinese names, they almost always use both names. Given that 100 Chinese surnames cover about 90% of the Han population, and that it was expected during Mao’s time that a “good” Chinese name consisted of a one character (one syllable) surname followed by a one character given name, I suspect using both names is the only way you are likely to single out one person in even a small crowd.

    Of course more and more younger people have two character given names, and I even knew someone who had a three character, but he was not Han.

  91. Mu Yixiao says:

    @Stormy Dragon:

    Pittsburgh has it’s on equivalent “yinz”

    I saw a video on accents in all 50 states, the PA woman mentioned the “youz guys” and “yinz” difference, but I couldn’t remember which was in which city. Hence the “I think”.

    Yinz is, I’m fairly sure a derivation of you’uns. I can’t remember where that’s popular, though. I know I’ve heard it. But I’ve been to so many places in the US when I was touring that it all sort of blurs together. Except for Lahnie and Pawlie (and Lahnie’s brutha Mahty) in Woosta (Worcester).

  92. Monala says:

    @Mu Yixiao: Just like curb cuts, originally added to help people in wheelchairs navigate streets and sidewalks, have also helped parents with strollers and people with canes, etc., pronouns in signature blocks can be helpful to many people beyond just those who are trans or nonbinary. Consider people with common across gender first names (e.g., Dana, Jordan), or nicknames (e.g., Pat, Alex), or unfamiliar names in other languages (e.g., Yixiao – sorry!). This is especially true when a lot of your interactions with people in work situations may be remote or online. So the spread of this practice is a good thing. (We started adding signature pronouns at my job last year, although we were told that if you didn’t want to add it, you didn’t have to).

    2
  93. David S. says:

    I use ze/zim when talking about generic people, preferred pronouns when I know and remember them for specific people, and the usual he/she guessing for specific people whose pronouns I don’t know.

    Not really different from someone having a preferred name. On this site, I am “David S.”, not “Davey” or “DS”. If someone tells me they’d prefer to be known as “Chris,” I won’t ask if they mean “Christopher,” or “Christine.” I say “Chris”. Not exactly complicated.

  94. Sleeping Dog says:

    @wr:

    Ms. does solve a problem and it flourished because women adopted it in droves. I also think Latinx will fade, not long ago I saw a stat that among people of Latin American heritage only 3% used it and 20% were offended by its use as it diminishes their Spanish heritage. The neo-pronouns will be only used by a self selecting group.

    1
  95. Stormy Dragon says:

    @Mu Yixiao:

    Oh there’s way more than two accents in Pennsylvania:

    https://aschmann.net/AmEng/index_collection/AmericanEnglishDialects.png

    Broadly speaking, the Philadelphia area is an Atlantic Midland accent, and the Pittsburgh area is a Pittsburgh accent. Other parts of the state speak an Allgheny accent (western part of state besides Pittsburgh), an East Midland (Central part of state), an Inland North accent (North of state), or and Eastern North accent (North east corner of the state), and then as a finally complication there’s a line running through four of those six regions separating them into sub-dialects that pronounce long-o’s differently.

  96. gVOR08 says:

    I fear my indifference to what Lovato wishes to be called was compounded by not knowing who Lovato is. I was just curious enough to check WIKI where I was bemused to find,

    Lovato rose to prominence for their role as Mitchie Torres in the musical television film Camp Rock (2008) and its sequel Camp Rock 2: The Final Jam (2010)

  97. Stormy Dragon says:

    @Kylopod:

    I’ve definitely heard “y’all,” as well as “all y’all.”

    “y’all” and “all y’all” have different clusivities. “y’all” is a second person plural where all the referenced parties are present and “all y’all” is a second person plural that references parties that aren’t present.

  98. DrDaveT says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    Couple of years back I asked online whether anyone had managed to write fiction incorporating the singular all-purpose, ‘they.’ No.

    Yes. Graydon Saunders’ Commonweal series uses non-gendered pronouns except in explicitly sexual contexts. It’s a remarkably effective way to demonstrate how little it should matter what plumbing a particular character has.

    4
  99. Monala says:

    @Stormy Dragon: I’ve also heard “all y’all” used to emphasize that you really mean everyone present. Example: mom says to kids and their friends who’ve made a mess in the house: “I want y’all to clean this up, and I mean all y’all.”

    1
  100. DrDaveT says:

    @R. Dave:

    “Singular they” as a reference to a specific, known individual is both unconventional and confusing, thus failing the basic function of language, which is communication, not personal validation.

    I guess that hack Shakespeare needed a better editor then.

    Seriously, you have it backwards. Usage of “they” was much more fluid in the past, until a few influential pedants in the 18th and 19th centuries pushed their own personal preferences as “correct usage” in widely-circulated books. We know exactly who invented the idea that “he” should be used in cases where the gender is unknown. Why you care what some pompous Victorian male thought about pronouns is beyond me.

    If you want to do some research, I’d recommend Dr. Anne Curzan of the University of Michigan as an actual authority on the history of prescriptive usage.

    1
  101. DrDaveT says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    It doesn’t work.

    You’re right. The loss of “ye” in everyday speech, forcing “you” to function as both singular and plural, has made English entirely incomprehensible. Communication is no longer possible.

    2
  102. Mimai says:

    @Monala: This. I’ve been on the receiving end of said locution. Sometimes, a plural “all” is added for special emphasis. “…and I mean alls y’all!!!”

    2
  103. DrDaveT says:

    @Gustopher:

    It really is a new usage to refer to individual, known people as singular-they.

    No, it really isn’t. Shakespeare did that too; I just don’t have the quotation handy to prove it.

    The insistence that “they” must be plural is an upper-class Victorian pedant invention. You could look it up.

  104. DrDaveT says:

    @Stormy Dragon:

    So anyone claiming their resistance to the singular “they” is purely based on grammar but who doesn’t similarly insist on continuing to use “thou” as the singular second person pronoun probably does not fully understand their actual motivations.

    Correct in spirit, but not in particulars. “Thou” is the first person familiar pronoun; English used to have the same double pronoun set that French preserves to this day in tu/vous. The singular and plural second person formal pronouns were “you” and “ye”*. You can see them in action in the King James Bible, which was written in a deliberately archaic style.

    *Note that this “ye” is not the same as the “ye” in “ye olde shoppe”. That one is actually a misreading of “þe”, where the first letter is thorn, which English used to use but doesn’t any more. Not grammar or usage, but orthography.

  105. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Mu Yixiao: In Korea, there is a builder of luxury apartments (luxurious in their own minds if no where else) called “Xi” and pronounced chai-ee. (No, I don’t get it either.)

  106. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Mu Yixiao: In Korea, most people (except foreigners [usually multisyllabic names]) go by their surname unless you are an intimate of the person or addressing a child. Is that different in China?

  107. Kathy says:

    @DrDaveT:

    Ask and ye shall retrieve:

    A Comedy of Errors, Act IV, Scene 3:

    There’s not a man I meet but doth salute me
    As if I were their well-acquainted friend

    Emphasis added.

    If Shakespeare did it, isn’t it sacrosanct?

    1
  108. DrDaveT says:

    @Kathy:

    There’s not a man I meet but doth salute me
    As if I were their well-acquainted friend

    The beauty of this example is that (1) he’d already assigned an explicit gender by saying “man” instead of “one”, and (2) it would scan just as well if he’d said “one” instead of “man” or “his” instead of “their”. He* clearly chose to use “their” to refer to a singular male.

    *Or, perhaps, the publisher or scribe. ACoE is from the First Folio, which was probably transcribed from Shakespeare’s handwritten notes or players’ part-scripts. It’s faintly possible that a transcription error occurred here, but such an error would imply that this construct seemed perfectly fine to the publisher.

    1
  109. Kylopod says:

    @DrDaveT:

    he’d already assigned an explicit gender by saying “man”

    Except “man” doesn’t necessarily indicate a gender. The notion that it does is itself a modern construct.

    “The temperament of man, either male or female, cannot help falling down before and worshiping this nonseeking, sacrificial note.” — Theodore Dreiser

  110. DrDaveT says:

    @Kylopod:

    Except “man” doesn’t necessarily indicate a gender. The notion that it does is itself a modern construct.

    The fact that Dreiser felt it necessary to clarify that he meant both somewhat undermines your case here.

    Checking the OED, it is certainly true that usage of “man” to mean “person” goes all the way back through Old English to Germanic. On the other hand, the usage to mean exclusively “male person” (or “adult male person”) goes back every bit as far, and the explicit “but I’m not a man, I’m a woman!” rejoinder goes at least back into Old English as well. English has been confused in this regard since before it was English.

  111. George says:

    @CSK:

    I agree, and it can be funny. One acquaintance of mine liked to be called Colonel, though he never had any military experience. We called him that, and as far as I can tell it never caused any problems. And someone calling themselves say “Doctor” or “Sir” who hadn’t earned the titles in the usual manner would probably also give themselves away long before they caused any problems (ie a self-titled doctor would presumably not be allowed to walk into an emergency room and start performing surgery).

    I notice some people are starting to use “it” as their chosen singular pronoun, and after you get used to it there’s little confusion: Billy tied noticed its shoelaces were loose so stopped to tie them.

  112. Gustopher says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    It doesn’t work.

    This amuses me, since my job as a software engineer is often to make changes to existing systems that they were never designed for, and then work out all the problems this will create and how to solve them.

    “What if we decided that a tractor could be a person?”
    “What?”
    “Right here, in the data model, the entity that is harvesting is a tractor, but kumquats are harvested by hand, so it’s a person.”
    “We could use an undefined tractor…”
    “No, we need to know which tractor harvested which kumquat.”
    “Because?”
    “It’s part of the produce tracking system.”
    “Fine… what is a person’s manufacturer?”
    “God? Their parents?”
    “Fine, but I’m not coding their ethnicity as the model number.”

    This is literally what I do most days. At least the good days. (The bad days are changing the logging from text to json format for 40 services, one by one, different each time).

    So, yeah, now singular-they is a pronoun for specific people. Go figure out what it breaks and how to work around it.

  113. Gustopher says:

    @Kathy: again, not a specific man, but a generic man.

    Show me someone referring to Richard III or other specific identifiable man or woman as singular they, and then you will have something.

    And then I would say find a reference in the 20th century, because the language changed between Shakespeare’s time and our own.

    We seldom say “I bite my thumb at you!”, even though that also has precedent in Shakespeare.

  114. de stijl says:

    The Pittsburgh yinz.