Why I made the switch to they/them pronouns in blog posts, web copy, and social media content

By Brittany Taylor

When I was a wee tater tot, I attended a teeny private elementary school. It had its assorted quirks. Our art teacher also taught R.E. In gym class, we ran around a big drainage ditch. There was one wonky swing that was hung a little crooked and resulted in several kids, myself included, wrapping themselves around a pole.

You know, normal small-school stuff.

We also had a Spanish teacher, as many schools do. I learned the colors in kindergarten, the days of the week in first grade, an assortment of vocabulary from second on up. Again, normal school stuff.

The things we’re taught

One of the things I learned under the tutelage of this Spanish teacher was pronouns. In Spanish, as in all romance languages, the masculine pronoun supersedes the feminine. There can be 20 women and 1 dude and you’re talking about all of them like they’re a homogenous group of guys because…well, that’s just the way it is.

Of course, English isn’t like that. English isn’t a romance language. English is a bastard language with more rules than any single entity ought to have. The one rule it doesn’t have is that masculine-majority-of-one thing. We’ve got our genderless third-person pronouns—it, they, them—and we’ve got the work-around mouthfuls.

And of course, we’re taught to write using mouthfuls rather than simpler, bite-size pronouns that actually make more sense in many contexts. So, as a slightly larger tater tot, I scribbled out sentences by the mouthful. I’d write things like “one must not curse in front of the principal because one could be suspended” and “he or she ought to straighten his or her shirt so that he or she doesn’t look like a slob.”

Eventually, I neatened up my phrasing. If I could, I avoided pronouns entirely. Sometimes, though, you just can’t do it. Sometimes, you need that third-person.

Then what?

The things we adopt

As a 20-something journalist, I adopted both the snark of my underpaid compatriots and the desire to subvert linguistic and stylistic norms. In my personal writing and in my work, I stuck it to the patriarchy by making she/her pronouns my default rather than the more standard he/him fallback.

It made sense at the time, I thought. After all, The Magazine catered to an audience of mostly girls. My blog and social media audience comprised mostly women who shared my sensibilities. Why not go the she/her route?

The industry gatekeepers—the AP Style Guide and assorted national newspapers—remained rather strict in their pronoun guidance. I remember the she/her substitution throwing up a stir every so often among my grammar police friends. It was not by-the-book. It was not inclusive. It was less formal. It was incorrect. The arguments went on, unresolved.

The things we realize

Western culture continued to evolve. We began to talk more about and to and with people who have been forced to the fringes of society for millennia. Minorities that have rarely been given a microphone were brought into the spotlight. Terms like nonbinary and Latinx became mainstream.

While this conversation was occurring, media was in a mess of our own making. We didn’t have any consensus on what these words meant or how we should use them. There were a few loud, progressive voices pushing outlets to change their style guides to reflect their audiences and the people they write about.

And then the gatekeeper ruled: They/them is the new neutral, the new singular pronoun of choice when gender is in question, when introducing a hypothetical situation, and when they/them is preferred (we actually argued about using a person’s preferred pronouns!). He-or-she and him-or-her can hit the road—and good riddance to it, I say.

The things we don’t get until we do

I’m embarrassed by my reaction to the Associated Press changing its approved pronoun style: I scoffed. I thought it couldn’t possibly have anything to do with me. Good for other people, I reasoned. It wouldn’t affect the writing I was doing as a woman for an audience of mostly other women.

I kept using my she/her pronouns for the examples I dreamed up in my copy. I’d write in heteronormative, cisgender situations without a second thought. I felt my continued use of female pronouns was sticking it to the patriarchy—and I certainly felt good about that.

And then, quite suddenly, I didn’t.

I don’t remember what it was that changed things. It could have been any number of interviews, any number of Reddit advice threads, any number of Captain Awkward letters or Facebook posts or YouTube videos. I wish I remembered. I wish I could link you to it right now.

The gist of whatever it was that made the importance of pronoun usage click for me was simple. It was a nonbinary person explaining that when they read posts that used gendered pronouns when no gender distinction was called for, they felt excluded. That simple choice a writer made, likely due to reflex rather than any real consideration, pushed them further into the fringes.

After I read that explanation, I decided that I didn't want to be that writer. I want to choose the most inclusive, welcoming, community-building language I possibly can. I don’t want my thoughtlessness to be something that affects someone negatively.

I had been told, but until that moment, I did not appreciate what I was complicit in.

The things we do to be better

Language is not just a writer thing. It’s a business-owner thing and a person-living-in-the-world thing. If we can do something that will make another person feel respected and valued and human and seen and heard and loved, we should do that thing every single time.

Changing pronouns costs me nothing. It is quite possibly the smallest change I could make. Maybe no one will ever notice. But maybe there’s someone reading this who’s nodding along, thinking, “finally.” Maybe there’s someone out there who feels a little shinier than they felt a moment ago, a little more welcome, a little more like a citizen than an outsider.

As a writer, as a boss, and as a person, that’s how I want to make people feel. I want people to feel like they belong here, in this safe circle, because they do. Unless you’re an asshole, I want you here. And if you’re an asshole who’s trying to be better, I want you to stay and keep trying.

SeeBrittWrite.com hasn’t made the transition to they/them pronouns in blog posts and copy site-wide yet. It should be complete by the end of December, as I go back through my archives and revise my posts and pages.

Will it be perfect going forward? Probably not. My reflexively cisgender she/her-ism is a habit I’m working every day to break. Every day, I get a little better, and every day, I learn more about how to make this site and my writing more inclusive and accessible.

As I grow and change, I’ll be sharing my evolution with you here on the blog. I have quite a lot to do on the accessibility front; I know it and I’m soaking up best practices to open my work up to every person who might want to consume it.

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- Brittany Taylor

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