We are often taught to distinguish the nonrestrictive clause — something that adds information — from the restrictive clause, which is something that is essential to the meaning of the sentence. For the former, we use “which” and set it off with commas: “The car, which I drove yesterday, broke down.” Restrictive clauses come with a “that,” “who” or “whom” and no commas: “The car that I drove yesterday broke down.” Observing distinctions like this is a refinement, accessible to most only by way of tutelage, and yet many cherish them.
Spanish offers one of my favorite examples of refinement. A corner in a room is a rincón, but a corner on a street is an esquina. This is a distinction that would never occur to me to build into a language that I was making from scratch, because in English a corner is a corner. To me, and I suspect many, that difference in Spanish between “rincón” and “esquina” seems more perceptive than English’s way, even if initially counterintuitive.
Using “they” is a refinement in the same way. Throughout history, there is evidence of some people who do not feel comfortable in the roles traditionally assigned to men and women, including those who feel they embody aspects of both. Examples include the muxes, who are part of the Zapotec community in Oaxaca, Mexico, and the mahus among Indigenous Tahitians and Hawaiians; both groups are recognized in their cultures as being a third gender.
For a language to have a pronoun referring to these individuals can be seen as a step ahead, a refined distinction that signals increasing sophistication in how we see people as well as how they see themselves.
Some of the more passionate responsesto my piece were from readers who seem to think it urgent to warn me of a larger movement afoot that I could not be aware of in my role as jolly linguist — that the little pronoun would lead to the wholesale rejection of sex and gender differences throughout society.
The idea that “they” will encourage the falling away of these distinctions reminds me of an analogous case. Imagine someone who is against the teaching of critical race theory — that power differentials must be the main concern of all intellectual and moral endeavors and justify essentializing white people as oppressors and nonwhite people as spiritually and ethically defined by their victimhood — saying that schoolchildren shouldn’t learn anything about racism and slavery at all. The rationale would be: You can’t teach racism because it’s part of the larger curriculum I object to.
Note how flabby the argument seems that to keep those lessons from our children requires schools to zip up about race and racism completely. Certainly the schoolteacher dedicated to critical race theory ideas will also teach about slavery, but this hardly suggests that no one should teach about slavery at all.