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They/Them: The common gender-neutral pronoun may not be as new as you think

The use of the singular "they" has been traced back to the 1300s.

TAMPA, Fla. — Pronouns. They're something you grew up learning in elementary school; but as society progresses, so has the conversation around gender-neutral identities.

"Pronouns give us our identities or allows people to recognize us for who we are and it shows respect," Trans Services Program Coordinator Kiala Emmons said.

Those who are non-binary commonly choose they/them as their pronouns. It's a decision that has had the internet grammar police up in arms for years now, but Emmons says it's not about that. Using someone's chosen pronouns is rather about respect and recognizing the space that a person holds.

"If you're respecting someone that's what we all would like as Americans," she said. "I think that it just really sends a message that we can respect each other, we can coexist and we can be here and we are inclusive."

RELATED: Instagram announces dedicated area to add pronoun choices to profiles

The war on words is nothing new, especially when it comes to the use of the gender-neutral pronoun "they." Critics say it should only be used in plural cases, but historic written texts say otherwise.

English already lacks a gender-neutral singular pronoun "to correspond neatly with singular pronouns like everyone, someone, and anyone, and as a consequence they has been used for this purpose for over 600 years," as Merriam-Webster explains.

Add in the fact that the Oxford English Dictionary has traced the use of "they" in the singular form back to "William and the Werewolf" circa 1375 and several iterations in the Middle Ages and the argument against "they's" application, grammatically, becomes a futile one based in discomfort. 

"Since forms may exist in speech long before they’re written down, it’s likely that singular they was common even before the late fourteenth century. That makes an old form even older," Oxford adds.

Not to mention "they" was named Merriam-Webster's word of the year in 2019, and the Associated Press in 2017 began recognizing "they" as a singular gender-neutral pronoun.

RELATED: Getting on board with nonbinary they/them pronouns: Here’s what you need to know

But what about in today's modern world? Emmons says the focus is now more about helping people refer to someone based on how they identify.

"I'm just they. I am who I am and you can call me they," she says is the message using a person's chosen gender-neutral pronouns sends.

When it comes to the spike in people including their pronouns in their social media bios and email signatures, Emmons says it's a way for a person to let others know they are a "safe person," or an ally.

She adds that we, along with the identities that fall under the LGBTQ+ umbrella have evolved over the years and that using they/them holds a space for that queer identity.

In the end, Emmons stresses respect is key to the mission of inclusivity, even if it requires a reminder. 

"As we become adults we kind of forget that and we have to be reminded that our pronouns are "she" and "he " and now "they," she said.

RELATED: Raising Sparrow: Not a boy or a girl. This Florida family is raising a gender-neutral 'theyby'

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