That guy and their red face

Today I was walking with my son, and we passed two men going the other way. I said to him, “Did you see how one of those guys was really red in the face?”

“No, what’s so special about them being red in the face?”

“I think he was drunk. Sometimes when people get really drunk, their faces get red that way. Not every red face means the person is drunk; sometimes it could be windburn-”

“So they might just have windburn?”

“Well, no, it’s a different pattern of redness…”

The conversation went on like that, with me using he pronouns to refer to the man, and my son using they pronouns. And no, he wasn’t talking about both of the men, he was talking about the one with the red face. I know this because he’s used they pronouns to refer to classmates in his all-boys gym class, and to his teachers who take the “Ms.” honorific and wear makeup and high heels.

I’ve been meaning to write about this for a while, but I figured tonight is a good night to post it, since the lexicographers are talking to the copy editors about singular “they.”

I grew up using “singular they” for generic referents: “If anyone needs help with this reading, they should talk to me.” I was familiar with the “the pronoun game,” as it was called in Chasing Amy, where the lesbian and bisexual characters obscured their sexuality by using “they” to refer to their (specific) partners. Being transgender and a linguist, I’m familiar with a relatively new use of “they” pronouns: for specific genderqueer or agender people who don’t want to be identified with any gender.

My son’s use of “they” doesn’t fit any of these established uses. He is using it for specific individuals whose gender is either male or female, and already known to us. I asked, and none of these people asked to be referred to with gender-neutral pronouns. I don’t have the impression that this is a conscious effort on my son’s part, either. It just seems to be the third person pronoun that he uses for everyone.

I don’t know if my son’s classmates use it this way, or if it’s just one of those quirks that comes from growing up as the child of two linguists. I haven’t yet heard him use “they” to refer to any immediate family members, or to people who are present. I’ll post an update if I hear anything like that. In the meantime, have you heard this use of “they”?