sunset singularity

In Search of Non-binary Language

Writing the Spaceport series crashed me into the inadequacy of the English Language.

I’ve always been a bit of a grammar geek. I may not always get it right, but I care.

Then I began writing alien characters. In Spaceport, these aliens are not “other” but are instead people, individuals, that the humans come to understand and work with. The pronoun “it” is completely inappropriate in this context.

Perhaps I am a bit Victorian, but I do not think that it is appropriate to discuss anyone’s sexual identity, preference, or practice in polite society. This is not judging someone’s existence, this is merely accepting that sex does not generally belong in the early stages of polite conversation. Can you imagine going up to an alien and asking about their sexual habits in the first conversation?

In college, we used s/he as a pronoun in formal writing. It seems not to have caught on.

Given that I want to write a fairly chatty story, I think these will just get in the way:

  • Ey/em/eir/eirs
  • Ne/nem/nir/nirs
  • Xe/xem/xyr/xyrs
  • Ze/hir/hir/hirs
  • Ze/zir/zir/zirs

“Ey is over there. Ne wants something to eat, but I’m not sure what xe eats. Does anyone know what ze eats?”

My poor alien would starve to death because all of the humans would be completely distracted trying to sort out what that pronoun means. Sorry, no food for you until we know your kind’s mating rituals so we can use the appropriate pronoun, if we even have one.

They/them/their seems to be the accepted alternative in modern language. Except that I was taught it was grammatically incorrect to use those pronouns for a single individual. I have struggled with they/them for a few months, because I know that when I start writing this way the grammar police will attack.

Fortunately language is fluid. Language changes over time. And my language is changing. As an author, I can choose how my writing will influence the language in the future.

While debating this issue, I became a big fan of several on-line shows starring Sam de Leve (Shield of Tomorrow and now Callisto6). I’ve known many individuals whose sexuality does not match my own, but Sam is the first person I’ve come across who includes their pronouns in their introduction. This is becoming a common modern practice, especially among the younger people that Spaceport is intended for. Sam is brave and funny and creative.

When I tell friends about programs that Sam stars in, I find myself tripping over pronouns and being looked at strangely, because apparently I’ve suddenly lost my ability to use language correctly.

I find myself backed right into the same corner as I am in my writing.

I’ve reached a decision.

They/them/their is now singular as well as plural.

If this bothers the grammar police, I suggest they rewrite the grammar guides.

2019 update. I’m so glad that the grammar police were listening. They is now considered both singular and plural. Check it out…it is in the dictionary.

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  1. Good for you! I have read some sci fi (can’t remember the book) that used alternate pronouns for an alien race and once I caught on, I was fine with it. Don’t let the grammar police stop you.

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