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Sam Smith, the dictionary, and the battle for pronouns

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If roses had any other name, would they still smell as sweet?

Probably not, at least according to those who advocate for the use of “they” as a “nonbinary” pronoun. Those who identify as nonbinary, such as singer Sam Smith, increasingly prefer “they” to “he” or “she,” and no, it’s not a grammatical error.

The pop star made headlines last week for becoming one of the most high-profile celebrities to identify as nonbinary. “I’ve decided I am changing my pronouns to THEY/THEM,” he announced on Twitter, “after a lifetime of being at war with my gender I’ve decided to embrace myself for who I am, inside and out.”

The Associated Press was ridiculed for writing a story about Smith’s decision while still using the pronoun “he,” but the story has since been updated “to reflect Sam Smith’s pronouns.”

That’s just one example of how difficult the quibbles over gender-neutral pronouns can make speech — “Smith said they were excited and privileged for the support” is a momentarily confusing phrase, to say the least. It also raises concerns about how those who forget or refuse to use nonbinary language may be treated.

Journalist Ashley Dye called the AP’s story “transphobic.” In reality, the AP has guidelines regarding the use of a person’s pronouns: If someone prefers the pronoun “they,” simply use their name sans pronouns whenever possible, and if absolutely necessary, explain that they prefer the gender neutral pronoun.

Even America’s oldest dictionary has changed its approach to the issue. Merriam-Webster announced this week that it would be updating its definition of “they” to include usage as a pronoun “to refer to a single person whose gender identity is nonbinary.”

It also added “themself,” which was the plural pronoun before it was replaced by “themselves” in the 1400s and fell out of style. Well, until now. Move over, Chaucer, themself, according to the dictionary, is “now used chiefly in place of ‘himself or herself’ as a gender-neutral reflexive form of they when the reference is to a single person.”

The rise of gender binary pronouns doesn’t just mean we will have more difficulty communicating with each other. People who identify as nonbinary, such as Smith, clearly have deep-seated reasons for preferring “they” as a pronoun, and they may continue to request it. But people are going to slip up, or even refuse to use such pronouns. If etiquette expert Emily Post were to deal with such an issue, she might have advised using someone’s pronouns in their presence to be polite.

But for those who do not comply, for whatever reason, using the pronoun that corresponds to someone’s biological sex is not something-phobic or a form of hate speech. Not every request for accommodation is reasonable; the AP still does not permit “other gender-neutral pronouns such as xe or ze.”

Just as onlookers ought to be gracious to those who’ve chosen to change their pronouns, those who prefer nonbinary pronouns ought to extend the same understanding to others. They may request that people refer to them in a certain way, of course, but they cannot demand it by shaming those who would refuse.

They can decide which pronouns they prefer, but others may believe that a rose can still be called a rose, no matter what its pronouns are.