Neil Gaiman has long been an ally of trans and non-binary people, and he poked holes in a 'grammatical' argument for not using they/them pronouns.
Editor's note: This article was originally published on December 16, 2021. It has since been updated.
For every fantasy author out there being a transphobe, there's another one being inclusive and calling out transphobia. While JK Rowling makes it a point to punch her transphobe card every two months on the bird site, Neil Gaiman is fighting the good fight. He was one of the 1,800 writers who signed an open letter declaring their support for trans and non-binary people in the wake of one of JK Rowling's transphobic rants. This week, Gaiman handed a free English lesson to a person who thought they had hit gold to weaken the argument of people using 'they/them' pronouns, reported God.DailyDot.
Transphobes have long claimed that people shouldn't be using they/them pronouns because it is grammatically wrong. Imagine hating people over their identity and then using grammar to justify the fear and hate. The argument goes that it is wrong to use they/them as a singular pronoun and hence it shouldn't be used to refer to an individual. Gaiman pointed out to one Twitter user that their argument didn't hold water but you have to wonder, even if it did, wouldn't you grant people the basic respect of recognizing them as they prefer to identify themselves. Even if it meant being grammatically wrong, especially when you consider the harm and damage that can be caused by misgendering someone.
"Their" as a singular pronoun goes back to the 1300s...— Neil Gaiman (@neilhimself) December 13, 2021
It all started after a Twitter user wrote, "Any English teacher who used "they/them" as a singular pronoun should lose their teaching license. Twitter account documenting 'Conservative self owns' underlined the use of "their" in the very tweet while referring to an English teacher. Gaiman, author of 'The Sandman' and 'American Gods,' quote tweeted the account and wrote, "That's beautiful." Another Twitter user tried to play 'Devil's advocate,' tweeting: "The context is different. ‘Their’ in that second sense acts as a stand-in because the sex/gender of the subject is unknown. It is an abstraction as a placeholder. When the abstract becomes a concrete individual, a singular noun is appropriate." At the core of the argument remains the concept of a gender binary that invalidates non-binary people and trans people.
Gaiman pointed out that their argument was faulty, and said the use of 'their' as a pronoun could be traced back to 7 centuries ago. “‘Their’ as a singular pronoun goes back to the 1300s…” replied Gaiman, before posting a link to Oxford English Dictionary backing up his statement. “The Oxford English Dictionary traces singular they back to 1375, where it appears in the medieval romance William and the Werewolf,” reads the explanation by the dictionary. “Except for the old-style language of that poem, its use of singular they to refer to an unnamed person seems very modern.” The poem, translated from Middle English, goes, “Each man hurried . . . till they drew near . . . where William and his darling were lying together.”
Not really -- you can find it in https://t.co/SB058I3A1W and judge for yourself. But getting closer to our day, you'll find the singular "they" in Jane Austen, Shakespeare, Dickens and George Bernard Shaw.— Neil Gaiman (@neilhimself) December 14, 2021
The Oxford English Dictionary also explains that viewing language by rigid rules also doesn't do justice as it constantly evolves. The Oxford English Dictionary throws up an example of the same citing Quakerism founder George Fox writing a book in 1660 explaining that anyone using the singular “you” is being grammatically incorrect because he was trying to preserve the pronoun “thou.” Of course, no one says "Thou" now but that's just how language evolves with time. The only thing that appears to have not evolved is transphobes clinging on to the archaic concept of gender binary because they think it somehow diminishes their own identity.
"Any teacher" isn't the same as "Any teachers" but "any" can indeed be used for both singular and plural. And yes, thanks for playing.— Neil Gaiman (@neilhimself) December 15, 2021
Considering JK Rowling has reared her transphobic head again, we'd just like to highlight the words from an open letter signed by more than 1,000 literary figures, including Stephen King, Margaret Atwood, and Neil Gaiman from last year. “We are writers, editors, journalists, agents, and professionals in multiple forms of publishing. We believe in the power of words. We want to do our part to help shape the curve of history toward justice and fairness," read the letter, reported Pink News. "To that end, we say: non-binary people are non-binary, trans women are women, trans men are men, trans rights are human rights. Your pronouns matter. You matter. You are loved.”