2
  • "Sir, Mr. Grapefield is waiting at the door"
  • "Invite them in then. I will see them shortly"

Can such a reference exist in English? Can we formally address or refer to somebody who identifies as a male or a female as "them" instead of "him" or "her"? This isn't a question about refering to nonbinary people.

In the regard to:

  • "There is somebody at the door," said the butler.
  • "Let them wait," the squire replied.
5
  • (1) You aren't addressing someone here. (You are speaking to your secretary or personal assistant, not to your guest.) (2) The use of "they"/"them" to refer to someone who identifies as nonbinary is increasingly accepted. (3) But Mr Grapefield takes the title "Mr", which strongly suggests that "him" would be the more appropriate term.
    – rjpond
    Mar 2, 2021 at 8:15
  • 3
    Can you clarify your question - is it (a) whether using singular "they" to refer to a nonbinary person is accepted in formal English or (b) whether using singular "they" indiscriminately, including for Mr Grapefield, is accepted in formal English?
    – rjpond
    Mar 2, 2021 at 8:34
  • @rjpond So in this case there shouldn't be obviousness? Mar 2, 2021 at 8:48
  • @rjpond Could you address both these questions? Mar 2, 2021 at 8:49
  • I would not be surprised if the question is closed as opinion-based, but I have attempted to answer it anyway.
    – rjpond
    Mar 2, 2021 at 9:12

1 Answer 1

3

Use of nonbinary "they" in formal English

This is a matter of opinion, but it the use of gender-neutral "they", including to refer to nonbinary individuals, is increasingly accepted - although it is also true that the more formal the situation, the less likely it is that linguistic innovations will be universally accepted, even if singular "they" has been around in some form for centuries.

At least some serious newspapers use singular "they" to refer to nonbinary people at least some of the time. For instance, a 2017 piece in The New York Times stated:

Today, many transgender people prefer the conventional “he” or “she,” but those who have adopted “they,” “them” and “theirs” as personal pronouns have become much more visible. Both The Washington Post and The Associated Press recently began permitting the singular “they” in their reporting on a case-by-case basis. A similar principle exists at The Times... Any instance of a subject asking for an unconventional pronoun becomes a conversation between the reporter, the editor and the standards desk, said Philip B. Corbett, The Times’s associate masthead editor for standards.

In the UK, a number of banks allow customers to specify their preferred title as "Mx". Traditionally, the commmunications of a bank with its customers are regarded as formal. Anything addressing someone with a title such as "Mr" or "Ms" is fairly formal. So "Mx" has (at least for some institutions and some users of the language) entered formal English, and it stands to reason that if the bank were referring to one of their customers who they knew preferred the gender-neutral title "Mx", it would probably use the pronoun "they" to do so.

Use of 'they' for someone with a known "binary" gender

In the case of Mr Grapefield, he has the masculine title "Mr", so "he" would be used. It is considered polite to use the correct pronouns, and it is a reasonable inference (certainly in the absence of other information) that "he" is the correct pronoun for someone with the title "Mr".

It would not currently be considered good formal English to use the title "they" indiscriminately, even where the gender of the person is known and is male (or female).

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  • So if He or She is obviously known then They cannot be used? Mar 2, 2021 at 9:31
  • 1
    If the reference is to a definite individual for whom it is known (or is a reasonable presumption) that "he" or "she" is appropriate, "they" should not be used (and rarely is). However, if the reference is to an unknown person then some speakers use "they" even where gender can reasonably be inferred (see languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=32244 ), but this is primarily an informal use.
    – rjpond
    Mar 2, 2021 at 9:38

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