The Washington Post
Until I’m told otherwise, I prefer to call you ‘they’
With the start of a new school year this fall, I am adopting a new practice. It is already common for my university colleagues and me to ask our students for their preferred pronouns at the beginning of the semester. In these efforts to thoughtfully ascertain how people choose to be described, not enough attention is paid to circumstances when it is most appropriate not to specify gender at all. I would never intentionally misidentify someone else’s gender — but I unfortunately risk doing so until I learn that person’s pronouns. That’s why, as I begin a new school year, I am trying to initially refer to everyone as “they.”
In so doing, I am employing a “default rule” — a concept whose importance I have studied during my career as a law professor. A default rule fills in the gaps in a legal relationship, setting a condition that holds generally until a specific value is agreed on. In contract law, for example, if an agreement leaves out the price, courts will fill the gap with a reasonable price. With organ transplants, some countries presume by default that people want to donate their organs; others, including the United States, presume that they don’t.
I have already adopted a number of default rules in my classes. For example, I sometimes flip what it means for a student to raise their hand when I ask a question: I tell the class, “Raising your hand means you don’t want to answer.” I find that more shy people participate when I presume by default that everyone wants to speak.
In the case of personal identity, I am drawn to default pronouns that don’t assume others’ gender. Instead of assuming someone’s gender identity based on how they look or dress or act, it is more appropriate to refer to them as “they” until I know better. And whenever possible, it is important to create early opportunities to learn their chosen pronouns, which has become standard practice in academic and other settings.
Starting with the inclusive default “they” is less likely to cause offense than using harmful stereotypes to guess at someone’s pronouns. In grade school, one of my children was advised to adopt a similar strategy to address female teachers as “Ms.” until the teacher said that they prefer “Miss” or “Mrs.” Non-identification is a much less costly default than misidentification.
Some people harp on how difficult it is to make this kind of linguistic change. But broadly adopting the singular “they” can actually reduce a speaker’s cognitive load. Years ago, my parents told me they liked “Ms.” because they no longer had to presume whether a woman was married or not. Calling people “they” by default similarly relieves the speaker of having to guess at someone’s gender. More importantly, it has the advantage of reducing gender-related assumptions that listeners might make. And it has the crucial benefit of more respectfully addressing people with nonbinary identities. Just as all-gender bathrooms make life easier for transgender people, using the singular “they” default, until told otherwise, affirms linguistic space in the classroom for people who do not exclusively identify as men or women.
You wouldn’t purposely misidentify someone’s race, and most people also follow the journalistic norm and “include racial or ethnic details only when they are clearly relevant . . . [to] the story.” Similarly, a speaker should avoid misidentifying gender, and they should also have a limited default ability to not mention gender when describing others. I would suggest that if you choose “he” or “she” as your personal pronoun, you might consider adopting “he/they” and “she/they,” because it would give others the freedom not to specify your gender when referring to you.
To be sure, using the singular “they” could confuse students who are accustomed to being referred to using only “he/him” or “she/her.” But this ambiguity can be easily resolved if professors explain that we have adopted a singular “they” default and create space early on for students to share their pronouns. To my mind, the benefits of avoiding gender assumptions in conversations outweigh the occasional confusion.
I care deeply about my students and will still ask for, learn and use their preferred pronouns. But this year, by starting with the default “they,” I hope to teach my class both the importance of default rules and a better way to avoid misgendering others.