Being a Better Writer: The Non-Gender of “They”

Welcome back, readers! Were your weekends interesting for you? In a good way? I hope so. Mine went pretty well, myself. Got a little more done on Stranded, and then watched as a truly amazing amount of book sales (by my standard) rolled in for Axtara! I’m not sure if it was the acknowledgement that you can find it on store shelves in Germany or what, but this weekend Axtara shipped quite a few copies.

Which was good to go with the bad. For a minor life update, the place I’ve been renting for the last few years is being sold. This is … less than desirable. The state I live in has a reputation when it comes to realtors that’s even above and beyond that of a normal state for being unscrupulous and dirty. So for example, the last time a landlord tried to sell a place I was renting, their relator tried to get everyone in the house evicted because they wouldn’t show it for her. That’s right: She wanted those living there to do her job for her. She got extremely upset when they wouldn’t.

Side note: This tangent got a little long. I do recommend reading through it (as it concerns not just me), but if you’re here for Being a Better Writer, jump down to the next break, then come back and finish this.

This relator also didn’t care at all for things like state laws requiring 24-hour advance notice of showings. I woke up to people in my rented house … and not just in there, but going through my stuff. The agent actually encouraged the kids of the people she’d been showing the house to start playing with my Wii console.

So yes, I have a distrust of realtors already, and today our landlord called us out of the blue and said ‘Hey, someone’s coming over today, and I’ve been told that by contract they don’t have to honor the 24-hour state notice. My hands are tied. I’m trying to get them to postpone it, but I signed that contract.’

Yeah … My distrust grows. Worse, if they’re willing to violate that part of the contract, the chance of the common practice in this state of bullying residents out to sell the unit “clean” goes way up. Our contracts are year to year, and this year extend through July. But I have a worrying suspicion that like so many other happenings in this state, our realtor will attempt to bully us out ASAP regardless of contract, either by looking for any sort of loophole that can get us evicted, or just simply by claiming that the new owner isn’t bound by any pre-existing contracts (imagine how life would be if that worked).

Worst of all, even if we manage to hold that off, such activity does not tend to enthuse new owners for the current tenants, even if the tenants aren’t the ones violating all the laws.

Sands, that’s a lot of text. Sorry to dump that on you guys. Just … bleh. If things get “dicey” in the upcoming months, this would be your forewarning as to why.

But tenant protections in the United States are awful. Well, not awful, just … not enforced very well.

Oh, and before I get a million comments saying “document everything” I learned that the last time. You can bet that if this showing happens today, I will not only be on hand but with a phone to record everything.

Also, I understand that while my current situation might suck, I’ve got it a lot better than most people in the US right now. Evictions are a historical high, housing and rental corporations are consolidating at a terrifying rate, using their new monopoly powers over whole cities and even states to send rental rates through the roof or even just hold empty buildings for the property value. I read an interview near end-2020 with a real skag-licker of a housing CEO who was giddy with how many people he was kicking out around Christmas because it was making him several hundred million dollars. This same skag also bragged that he (his company) now owned over a third of all American rental units. Meanwhile, homelessness, already climbing every year since 2016 (prior to which it had been trending downward … huh) is set to pass already historic highs. As much as nearly nine percent of the entire United States is at high risk becoming homeless in the coming year thanks to the effects of Covid-19 and the actions (read: greed) of rental companies.

So yes, I know my situation, while not great, is far from the grimness shared by almost ten percent of the United States. My rent hasn’t doubled in the last year. I still have a unit to pay rent on. My utilities weren’t cut off as a “cost saving measure.” Or any of the other horrible questionably legal junk that plagued the lives of many people in the US last year who were merely trying to have the bare basics to survive.

My point being with all of this: My situation isn’t as grim as a lot of other people’s in this country, but that’s … really setting a low bar. Would that my situation was the worst of it, with a realtor ignoring state laws to try and push a sale. But unfortunately, for a lot of people in the US, especially some of those nine percent barely hanging on, their situation is far worse.

We as a nation really need to clean up our act. Because I’m certain that when the founding fathers (yeah, invoking that) set out to found a nation, objectives like “At least ten percent of them should be homeless” and “the majority of all housing should be controlled by one or two individuals,” if found at all in their goals, were only there as “never let this sort of tyranny happen again.”

Because, you know, numbers-wise it really does look a lot like serfdom, which they wanted to get away from.

Okay, we’re done talking about that for the moment (though please, do go back and read through it later if you didn’t now, as it’s something that needs to change for the better). Now it’s time to dive into Being a Better Writer and the first posted topic from list #17!

Which … actually isn’t one requested by a reader, because I populate these lists on my own too, and this one is one of those. It’ll also be a shorter one … but no less interesting. And it actually was inspired by a few personal encounters with it.

So to begin, I’ll start with a question: If a friend and I are discussing the sex of an unborn baby, and I use “they” to refer to said baby, and my friend uses “it,” is one of us using the wrong word?

This might seem like an odd question to some of you, but I promise that it isn’t. See, this is actually a very real situation that I have found myself in multiple times.

One of these times was a baby announcement. The excited parents, in speaking of their child (whose gender wasn’t yet known—too early) made a statement along the lines of ‘They’re only a so far along’ at which point a, shall we say, more elderly individual (whose generation would rhyme with “zoomer”) said ‘They? So it’s twins?’

‘Oh no,” the parents replied. ‘We just don’t know the gender yet.’

“But you said “they,”‘ came the confused reply. At which point I had to step in and point out that “they” is a non-gendered word, and can be used to denote an individual whose gender is unknown, in place of he or she.

To which I received baffled confusion. And it wasn’t the first time.

See, I’ve run into the same thing with Alpha and Beta Readers as well. There exists a portion of the population out there in a, shall we say, particular age range, that holds that “they” is a plural term, and not a non-gendered one.

The thing is, they is a non-gendered term. It’s perfectly acceptable to use “they” in a sentence like “They stepped through the door” instead of he or she, especially when the gender isn’t known.

This isn’t a modern development either. In fact, “they” has been used as a non-gendered term for centuries. Its use as such goes all the way back to Shakespeare (who uses it in his plays) and before. In fact, it would seem that the word was created non-gendered. “They” can refer to a singular person, male or female.

So then what’s with the weird pushback? And what does any of this have to do with your writing? Well, rest assured, it does have a bit to do with your writing. And that comes down to audience.

See, in digging into this (and I’m not the only one that has done so; Tom Scott talked a bit about this in a recent video, and there are other articles out there on the web discussing the “they” anomaly) I found that there was a very sharp “line” around the use of “they” as a non-gendered term.


Hear me out. While this has nothing to do with The Pinch (which I do still recommend reading), the line around “They is not a non-gendered term” seems to be largely confined to that singular age-group.

Weird, right? But in what I’ve experience with Alpha and Beta editing and then external digging and observation, it’s true. There’s a single generation/period of time where “they” stopped being non-gendered. Well, not stopped, but use as such became considered informal and improper. Members of that era still use the term in casual slang conversation, but just in that: Casual slang. Using “they” as a non-gendered term? It isn’t “proper English.”

Except that for everyone around that generation … it is. Gen X, the Silent Generation, etc etc … They is a non-gendered term. Always has been.

Okay, so this does mean something for your writing, and in this case it involves audience. We’ve talked about writing for an audience before and how you need to know what your audience wants and expects. And usually, when we talk about this, we’re referring to things like genre, plot, character, etc. Give the audience that wants a mystery novel a mystery novel, etc etc.

But we don’t often talk about writing a book that’s aimed at a specific age or generational group. But despite not talking about it here on the site, it happens a lot. Major publishers quite often write books aimed at a specific age-groups or generations. Generations specifically have works marketed toward them all the time, boomers being one of the most common as they, being the largest block of population in many countries around the world, make for an ideal “target.” In fact, according to a number of studies, the majority of most media, from music to books to news has been, for the majority of the average boomer’s existence (from birth until quite recently) been aimed exclusively at them.

If you’re curious about this and its effects on the population (as well as worldview) then again, I recommend checking out Willetts’ The Pinch.

Anyway, the point is that there’s a very real reason for one to look at the age range intended for their title and then let that effect the editing process. Say, for example, by writing a book that is both for and will be marketed towards boomers … and making sure one doesn’t use the word “they” as a non-gendered term.

Or, to use another example, realizing that one’s editor is from that age group, and is making changes based on a generational use of that word that isn’t shared by any other generation. Or a few select Alpha or Beta readers being confused by the usage when no one else is.

There’s not really a solution to this, but in being aware of it, you can at least be both forewarned and perhaps, think a bit more on which “side” of this your intended audience leans.

Now, while the title of this post is indeed calling out “they” I do feel I should point out that while “they” is a great case-example of this kind of difference of word-use across audience, it is not the only difference of writing across different audiences. Knowing your audience can and should impact what sort of words, phrases, terminology, etc, that you use in your work. They just happens to be a really interestingly strong example of this.

Now, as to the question I’m sure some of you have wondered … Why? What made one generation flip so hard on one specific word?

Well … I don’t know. That isn’t to say I don’t have a theory, one that was tossed at me from someone who grew up in that era and has been developed a little. But it’s only a theory. No fact here that I know of, but I’ll drop the theory on you anyway.

Basically, if you know your history, then you know that post WWII the economies of a lot of places boomed (part of where the “boomer” generation gets the name). Well, as part of this process, the birth of modern advertising began to take shape and boom along with it, and while on that path …

The gendering of everything. See, advertising and marketing discovered during this era that rather than selling one single product, changing something small like the color and claiming that there were two products, one for men and one for women, almost doubled sales. So everything possible became “masculine” or “feminine.” Everything. There was no space for something that was gender neutral, because that didn’t sell.

And then, somehow, you have the generation that grew up during this era completely baffled by the use of “they” as a non-gendered term? I don’t know about you, but that seems like something a bit stronger than coincidence.

I could be wrong. As I said, it’s a theory. But it does line up pretty well.

But that’s neither here nor there for your writing now, so let’s wrap this up. At the end of the day, what does this post mean for you and your writing?

Well, the first thing it should make you think about is your intended audience, and how they might interpret the words or phrases you use. “They” is very clearly a non-gendered term, as we established, and has been for hundreds of years … save with one distinct generational group (and yes, that’s still as weird to me as it may be to all of you). So when writing something for that specific generation, perhaps consider that they may see a term or word differently, or used in another way.

The obvious jump from there is slang, of course, and colloquialisms, which change use and meaning from generation to generation and audience to audience. If you’re writing to a specific group or age, researching the proper usage of popular terms and how they are used would definitely be advisable.

This is something that is not second nature, and might be tricky. Language, even if it doesn’t see large changes, still feels the influence of drift over time. Phrases I used in high school, slang and colloquialisms, even words used to describe scenes, events, or people, are fully removed and separate form those used by high schoolers now. If you’re writing very contemporary fiction, getting such information right can be the difference between the intended audience enjoying your work … or setting it down with a look of baffled confusion.

So, from “they” to “simp,” keep the use of language among your target audience and in your work in mind. And yes, rest assured that if you’re using “they” as a non-gendered word, you’re correct. And if not, well, you’re still correct inside a certain sphere of readers.

Now good luck! And get writing!

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One thought on “Being a Better Writer: The Non-Gender of “They”

  1. I’m sorry to hear about your rental woes. As always, justice seems only available to those who can afford to sue. And thank you for you recommendation of The Pinch.


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