Sam Smith prefers pronouns 'they' and 'them.' Here's what it means.

Beth Greenfield
Senior Editor

When Sam Smith came out as gender nonbinary earlier this year, telling Jameela Jamil on her Instagram interview series, “I am not male or female. I think I float somewhere in between,” Smith also confirmed “he” and “him” were to remain the singer’s pronouns of choice.

That all changed on Friday, with a follow-up message on Twitter, announcing: “Today is a good day so here goes. I’ve decided I am changing my pronouns to THEY/THEM. After a lifetime of being at war with my gender I’ve decided to embrace myself for who I am, inside and out.”

In their open-hearted thread, Smith goes on to admit being “scared shitless” and “at no stage just yet to eloquently speak at length about what it means to be nonbinary.” Smith thanks non-binary and trans activists for inspiration, including Jonathan Van Ness, Laverne Cox and the organization GLAAD.

Smith’s announcement has been met with wide support on Twitter, with many people declaring they are “proud” of the pop star; plenty of others, though, took the opportunity to express confusion and downright hostility about Smith’s embracing of “they” and “them” as a singular pronoun.

“In a sentence ‘he was amazing last night’ am I supposed to say ‘they were amazing last night’ or ‘them were amazing last night’? Neither make sense as they’re both plural?” one person tweeted, echoing the bafflement of many.

But “they” as a gender-neutral singular is not exactly a new concept in the English language. When used with a singular antecedent, the word “they,” in fact, has a long history, dating back to at least 1300. And its more modern usage — in reference to a singular person who is known to the speaker, but whose gender identity is nonbinary — has also been gaining ground for years now.

In 2015, it was declared “Word of the Year” by the American Dialect Society, suggesting a growing acceptance of its use in relation to nonbinary gender identity. What’s more, the singular “they” has been officially approved by the American Heritage Dictionary, the Associated Press style guide used by journalists, and even the Merriam-Webster dictionary.

As Mackenzie Harte of GLAAD tells Yahoo Lifestyle, “They/them is a widely accepted pronoun that is used both for singular person and someone who is non-binary, which is supported in respected media style guides, including the AP style guide. Using the pronouns that someone uses to describe themself is a small step to affirm someone, and makes a big impact in making sure that a person is being respected for who they are."

Processing the singular “they,” when you hear it, “actually isn’t as hard as people think it is,” Geoffrey Nunberg, a linguist, who teachers at UC Berkeley School of Information, tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “After a certain amount of time, you get used to it.”

Nunberg, who wrote about the modern, singular use of “they” and “them” in a recent NPR essay entitled, “Even a Grammar Geezer Like Me Can Get Used to Gender Neutral Pronouns,” noted that it was high time people accept this change in language. “It’s not a lot to ask,” he wrote, “just a small courtesy and sign of respect.”

As far as the angry confusion that these and other socially-progressive terms (such as “Ms.,” back in the day) often elicit, Nunberg notes, “It’s never about language, never just about words. Words are really not very important, but become the proxies for these other attitudes.”

Individuals’ reasons for identifying as nonbinary, and for using corresponding pronouns of they/them (or even other options, including ze, zir and co) vary from person to person. As Smith described their feelings about it to Jamil, “Nonbinary/genderqueer is that you do not identify in a gender. You are a mixture of all different things. You are your own special creation.”

“Transparent” creator Jill Soloway, who came out as nonbinary in 2017, and who prefers the pronouns they/them, explained it this way in their 2018 book, She Wants It: Desire, Power, and Toppling the Patriarchy, “The promise of identifying as nonbinary felt like the promise of being held in a moment. Hovering in that space when you go through a revolving door and stop halfway through and there you are, not out or in, just in between… Not having to be in or out yet. Not having to choose.”

Asia Kate Dillon, of Showtime’s “Billions,” explained being nonbinary this way: “It’s a term used by some people, myself included, who experience their gender identity as falling somewhere outside the boxes of man or woman… Female is a sex, and sex is between our legs, and gender identity is between our ears.” And, Queer Eye’s Jonathan Van Ness told Out in June, “The older I get, the more I think that I’m nonbinary — I’m gender nonconforming. Like, some days I feel like a man, but then other days I feel like a woman… I think my energies are really all over the place.”

Whatever a person’s identity, pronouns are incredibly important, explains Lee Airton, PhD, assistant professor of gender and sexuality studies in education at Queen’s University in Ontario, Canada.

“Everybody’s pronoun, whether you’re transgender or not, is a constant reaffirmation by other people of who you are,” Airton tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “People who are cisgender, who have never questioned their pronoun because it’s always assumed correctly, as soon as that person started getting misgendered, they’d realize pretty quickly how important that is.”

Airton adds that “trans and nonbinary people aren’t any different in that our pronouns are very important, and just an everyday affirmation of who we are.”

As for why Smith made the announcement about using they/them many months after coming out as nonbinary, Airton surmises, “Nonbinary people have many different trajectories by which we come out.” And because it’s an identity misunderstood by many, and an area of life that may take more or less effort to explain (close friends, for example, vs. the general public), these revelations often take on a certain “patchwork quality.”

Airton, who founded the national social media No Big Deal Campaign to help people support everyone’s right to have their correct pronouns used, and also wrote a practical handbook for navigating these issues, called Gender: Your Guide, offers this basic advice to anyone worried or confused about how to address nonbinary individuals.

“Don’t be afraid about making a mistake. You will make a mistake. The point is making a good mistake,” they explain. “With a chill and calm tone of voice, just say, ‘Sorry,’ rephrase with the correct pronoun, and move on. Catching yourself is a victory. It’s a process that takes time — and nonbinary people know this.”

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