Pardon my mess yet again. I’m cleaning up from the, um, initial reviews for Cleaning House – A Queer Contemporary Appalachian Fantasy.
I’m an adult, a seven-time author so I can take reviews be they positive or negative because they’re simply one person’s opinion. That said, far too many reviewers seemed to have problems if not completely visceral reactions to my use of they/them singular pronouns with one set of spirits within Cleaning House, leading them to lower their ratings for what they called an otherwise good novel. In short, I used they/them for my elemental spirits and some readers simply couldn’t wrap their heads around the concept.
Hang on to your hats, this might get a bit complicated if you think you’ve never run across singular they/them usage before now. Hint: you have.
(in my best academic-teacherly voice) First, gender-neutral pronouns in English aren’t anything new. They’ve been around for a very long time in some form or fashion, so what I’ve done by using they/them is nothing revolutionary. In fact, the Web of Language states that the use of gender-neutral pronouns in English has been around at least 650 years. Dr. Dennis Baron, AKA Dr. Grammar, from the University of Illinois, goes on in the linked post above to explain that, singular they/them is now widely accepted in most academic style guides, is generally passed over by editors, and is now becoming the recommended usage if the gender of someone is not known and, similarly, if the person involved identifies as non-binary.
Dr. Baron also states, “The New Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage dismisses objections to singular they as unsupported by the historical record of English and observes that, with few exceptions, the construction is ‘passing unnoticed’ by speakers of standard English as well as by copy editors. Singular they is also ‘approved’ by the Oxford English Grammar; The New Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage; The New Oxford Dictionary; the New Oxford American Dictionary; Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary; and the Cambridge Guide to English Usage…singular they (is) recommended by the Candian Department of Justice Style Guide and by the Washington Post Style Book.” (article linked above)
Again, the use of gender-neutral pronouns isn’t a new concept. In fact, English speakers use gender-neutral pronouns all the time.
We use it in the plural when a group is mixed in gender or we don’t know the gender of the individuals involved. (In this case, they is used in the plural.)
I talked to both committees and they said we should go ahead.
We also use it in the singular when we don’t know the gender of the person on the other side of the issue. IE, we are speaking about someone with a gender-neutral name.
I emailed Dr. Taylor Mines, on the topic. Would you like me to read their reply?
As for the conjugation (the art of matching the verb to the pronoun in a way that relays information like gender, number, and tense) aspect of they/them, we use what is commonly called a plural conjugation, identical to how English handles the pronoun you, a different conjugation than we use for he/she. For example:
- Are you going too?
- You are among the few who understand this.
How odd would the above sound as singular? And it’s also considered grammatically incorrect.
- Is you going too?
- Is we going too?
- You is among the few who understand this.
- We is among the few who understand this.
Here’s a great take on the use of gender-neutral pronouns from a Life Hacker article addressing the use of they/them for non-binary persons, which is important to understanding my usage of they/them in Cleaning House as well. No, I wouldn’t call Life Hacker exactly scholarly, but it’s a good article nonetheless.
“Gender-neutral pronouns are great because they allow you to speak to and about individuals without making what might be incorrect assumptions about their gender. Just because someone appears feminine or masculine doesn’t mean they are a man or a woman, after all—they could be agender or non-binary, or simply differ from your expectations of what a man or a woman looks like. Using gender-neutral pronouns allows you to include all people when you speak and encourages others to do the same. (“How to use Gender-Neutral Pronouns” Article Link).
We widely no longer default to the male in English. We’re past that. And we should be past struggling with the usage of they/them for agendered and non-binary characters in forward-thinking Speculative fiction, but we’re apparently not.
Back to my usage of they/ them for my elemental spirits in Cleaning House.
The spiritual elements— Earth, Air, Fire, Water, and in the case of the Appalachian Elementals series, Death as well— don’t possess gender. They are agendered. If they have a human lover, they might change their appearance to a more gendered one in order to please said lover, but they otherwise present as they please and prefer to be called they/them. It is humanity that interprets those presentations in the binary, as either male or female, which might be why readers sometimes struggle with they/ them usage, but I think there’s more to it than that based on the commentary.
There’s obvious enby/non-binary phobia happening in a few of those reviews, but I can’t properly address the issue within the scope of this blog post. Besides, I promised myself I would address and explain in the context of my writing, so I’m trying to stay there… for now.
Cleaning House uses a third-person limited point of view, meaning readers see everything through the eyes of a Human, through the eyes of Centenary Rhodes, so Cent’s references often derive from familiar binary terms, from the male and female. That said, Cent calls herself genderqueer, an older term for non-binary, but she goes by she/her because that is what she was raised with her current life and is accustomed to. Stripping all the Human binary references from a Human character’s perspective within a novel would have been difficult for both me, as the author, and for the reader to understand, especially since the latter is struggling as-is.
I’ll spare you more since this post is beginning to run long (500 words is the average blog post length, and this post is nearing 1000 words at this point). But, I’m already raising my brows about potential reactions to the next work in the Appalachian Elementals series. Keeping House has several non-binary Human characters. Some go by gendered pronouns and others go by they/them. This is their choice, and I am not, as the author, going to argue with my characters’ identities. I wonder how readers will react to this. I suppose I will eventually find out because I am not changing my usage for anyone’s comfort.
Lastly, this is the not my problem to sort through. I’m fine with who I am. I’m fine with my characters. It is up to the reader to decide why they’re uncomfortable and 1) walk away, 2) try to understand, or 3) embrace the characters for who they are.
P.S. This is not my first novel containing non-binary characters. Two of the alien species in my novel, Surrogate: Hunted and my upcoming novel Surrogate: Traditions, recognize non-binary as its own gender. You can read about Surrogate: Hunted here.
P.S.x2 Non-binary can include transgender identities, but it doesn’t always, so I am hoping readers of this post will be knowledgeable enough to understand why I don’t lump these identities together in the Appalachian Elementals series. One does not always equate the other. In fact, I know several non-binary people who are not transgender.
For those who might not know, this is the non-binary flag. They came. They saw. They conquered. And now, they, no we need your support, understanding, and respect.