Why does our office use the pronoun “they”?

February 11, 2020 - Rick Yachiw, Analyst

If you have ever read, or been the subject of, a report by the IPC, you may have noticed our office tends to use the pronoun “they” to refer to an individual. Grammatically, using plural pronouns in a singular context likely goes entirely against what our high school English teachers taught us is proper grammar. I am here, though, to say it is okay to go against these rules – really, it is.

The most obvious reason our office uses “they” is to protect an individual’s identity. By not using specific or what are known to be traditional gender identifiers such as “he” or “she”, we can further protect an individual’s identity, particularly that of an applicant or a complainant. Revealing the gender of an individual (or revealing how someone identifies their gender), along with providing other details about them or the circumstances of their access request, can lead others to determine that individual’s personal identity. One of that last things our office ever wants to do is unintentionally reveal who someone is.

Another reason is because “they” is generally thought to be gender neutral. According to the Oxford Dictionary, the term “gender” refers to “the state of being male or female (chiefly in cultural or social contexts)”, while being “neutral” means being “impartial” or “unbiased”. Gender neutral pronouns, then, do not associate to any particular gender, and so are ungendered. The use of “they” has developed growing acceptability in the English language as a useful way to refer to individuals who do not identify with a particular gender. The Trevor Project, which is a crisis intervention organization for LGBTQ youth, states it simply: “[h]aving a pronoun [they] which can correctly identify non-binary people helps us communicate clearly and respectfully with each other”. The use of “they” in our reports, then, is a way for our office to show respect and not assume how individuals identify themselves.

So, there you have it. The IPC’s use of “they” is about limiting the identification of an individual in a report, and also about using respectful language. Would our high school English teachers disagree with us for breaking the rules on pronouns in this way? Perhaps, but sometimes breaking the rules makes sense.

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