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How Sam Smith’s gender neutrality causes challenges for language

Sam Smith has asked to be referred to as "they" and "them".Photo by Jeff Spicer/Getty Images - Credit: Getty Images

The singer Sam Smith’s desire to be referred to as ‘they/them’ throws up language challenges, says linguistics expert PETER TRUDGILL.

Sam Smith has expressed the wish to be referred to as they rather than he or she. Many people already operate this pronoun system when requested to do so, and are happy to use it.

It is not without its problems, however. If somebody says When Sam got home, they were very tired, how is that going to be interpreted? The first response of many native English speakers might well be to ask “Who was – who was very tired?”. This is because in normal everyday English, as spoken by many millions of mother-tongue speakers, they is plural, referring to two or more people. The natural reaction to hearing that sentence is therefore to try to identify which group of two or more people they refers to.

It’s true, of course, that singular they does occur rather frequently in everyday English, and has done so for centuries. We use it as a singular when we make statements like When the last person leaves, they should turn out the lights. This is sometimes said to represent gender-neutral usage – person refers to both males and females. But they is only coincidentally gender-neutral here. The crucial thing about they in this context is that it is indefinite.

Normally, personal pronouns are definite, referring to people or things whose identity is known. In When Mary got home, she was very tired, the pronoun she refers to a particular – and in this case, named – person. We employ they of a singular person only when their identity is unknown. This has nothing to do with sex or gender, but with indefiniteness. When voting was taking place in 2013 to elect the new Pope, commentators proffered statements such as When the new Pope is elected, they will have to… Everybody knew that the new pontiff would be male. What we did not know was exactly who it was going to be – which is why he was referred to as they.

There are other imaginable approaches to this issue. If we wanted to make it clear that they is being used a singular, we could use singular verb forms: When Sam got home, they was very tired; Whenever Alex plays golf, they wins. Most English speakers would probably find this difficult to do, however; and it would cause confusion in dialect areas where people normally say they was and they goes anyway. English does also have a genuinely gender-neutral third-person singular pronoun, namely it. It is neither male nor female. But saying When Sam got home, it was very tired is not very felicitous either. The problem is that it is normally used for things or animals (though we do refer to pets as he and she). So, while referring to human beings as it really would be gender-neutral, most people would probably find it disagreeably dehumanising.

But whatever pronoun solution English speakers come up with, it will not work for many other European languages. It would be no good using the equivalent of they in Spanish because ellos, ‘they’, refers to males and ellas to females – and ellos/ellas does not have the same history of indefinite usage as English they.

In many languages, gender also extends to forms associated with second-person ‘you’ and first person ‘I’ and ‘we’. If you’re speaking French and want to say “I’m happy”, you have no choice but to choose one of two forms: je suis heureux (masculine) or je suis heureuse (feminine) – there is no other possibility.

In Polish, you have to choose between male and female verb forms: przyjecha?em is ‘I arrived’ for a male speaker, przyjecha?am for a female; no gender-neutral choice is available.

Some Swedish people now use a new pronoun hen ‘(s)he’ rather than hon, ‘she’, or han, ‘he’ – we’ll see how that works out. But it’s not clear how this kind of solution could help French or Polish speakers seeking gender-neutrality.