“Now, therefore, O our God, listen to the prayer of your servant and to his supplication…” – Daniel 9:17
Each year, the American Dialect Society (ADS) chooses from all the words in the language a Word of the Year, which they think captures that year’s zeitgeist. Past selections have included #blacklivesmatter (2014), occupy (2011), app (2010), tweet (2009). Last month, they announced 2015’s selection: the singular “they.” This refers to the usage of the traditionally plural pronouns they/them/their as singular pronouns. For instance, if I were speaking about you sitting alone in front of your screen, I might say, “They’re reading their email.”
Recently, more and more trans* and gender-nonconforming people have chosen they/them/their as their preferred pronouns, and this is why the ADS chose it. As trans people have become more visible, more accepted, and more celebrated, an awareness of the limitations of the English language’s gendered pronouns has led people to attempt all manner of workarounds and inventions. This one seems to be winning.
If you’re a member of the UCC, this shouldn’t be hard to get used to: after all, we’ve been working on inclusive language for God for a long time, playing with pronouns in order to recognize that God is both many-gendered and beyond gender. And if you’re a Christian or Jew who’s ever read the Bible, it shouldn’t be too hard, either. In big chunks of the first part of the Bible, the one god of the Israelites is called by the grammatically plural name Elohim. Call it the divine “they,” like the royal “we” but for God. Speaking of which, don’t forget that you’ve been working with a sort of opposite version of this for some time: the Trinity, three persons whom we consistently refer to in the singular.
So if the singular “they” is hard for you, fear not; you’ve been practicing for this moment for a long time.
God, for all the ways you prepare us for the now without us even realizing you are doing it, thank you. Amen. (P.S. That was the plural “you.” Amen.)
Quinn G. Caldwell is the Pastor of Plymouth Congregational Church, Syracuse, New York. His most recent book is a series of daily reflections for Advent and Christmas called All I Really Want: Readings for a Modern Christmas. Learn more about it and find him on Facebook at Quinn G. Caldwell.