They/Them/Theirs Pronouns: What are they?

Parker Hopkins, Digital Editor-in-Chief

In a recent Twitter post, singer Sam Smith announced that they use they/them pronouns. This comes a few months after they announced that they were non-binary. Many people have questioned this choice, claiming that they/them/their pronouns are inherently plural in the English language. This will hopefully help to clear up some of these questions.

First, you may be wondering what exactly ‘non-binary’ means. According to Merriam-Webster, it means “relating to or being a person who identifies with or expresses a gender identity that is neither entirely male nor entirely female.” But what does this really mean? Some people feel a disconnect from the binary genders of male and female entirely, while others still feel some connection to one of the two aforementioned genders. Many of these people refer to themselves as non-binary, since they don’t completely feel aligned with either of the two binary genders. 

Now that that is cleared up, it’s time to tackle the larger questions: aren’t they/them pronouns plural? And why do people use them for themselves?

No, the pronouns they, them and their are not strictly plural. Sure, they can be used to refer to more than one person, but they can just as easily be used to refer to an individual. You’ve probably used these pronouns in place of the usual he or she when talking about someone you can’t guess the gender of, and if you haven’t, you’ve probably heard someone who has. Singular they has been used for centuries; it’s not some new trend that kids are starting to use for attention. (In fact, the idea that people use they/them pronouns for attention can be very harmful and delegitimizing.)

As for why people use them, there are all kinds of reasons. Some people don’t use they/them/their exclusively, while others do. Most people use them just because they feel right. 

I use they/them/their pronouns, for example. When I first realized I was non-binary and started looking around for pronouns, it took a while before these ones stuck. It takes time and experimentation before someone will know what they’re comfortable with. But it’s important to go with what makes you comfortable and not what you think makes others comfortable.

Some people don’t even use the pronouns many people are accustomed to (see chart), while others don’t use pronouns at all. Pronouns are a way for a person to decide on how they are referred to. It’s all up to them and what they are comfortable with. No matter what, people will use the pronouns they want, and others should be ready to use those for that person.

If you’re ever wondering what pronouns someone uses, ask them. Sure, it might be a bit awkward at first, or they might give you a confused look, but it’s a habit that more people should be adopting. It helps to make the world more inclusive and hopefully ensure everyone’s comfort. Start out by asking your friends, or practice introducing yourself by saying, “My name is [name] and I use [these] pronouns.”