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Prolific writer Joyce Carol Oates apologises after ‘they’ pronoun tweet sparks controversy

Patrick Kelleher October 7, 2021
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Joyce Carol Oates, writer, Ronchi Di Percoto, Italy, 2010.

Joyce Carol Oates, writer, Ronchi Di Percoto, Italy, 2010. (Leonardo Cendamo/Getty)

Acclaimed writer Joyce Carol Oates has apologised after she suggested that the singular “they” pronoun will never become “part of general usage”.

On Wednesday (6 October), Oates tweeted a link to a New York Times op-ed by linguist John McWhorter. In his article, McWhorter argued in favour of the use of gender-neutral pronouns such as “they” and “them”.

Sharing the article, the 83-year-old author added: “‘They’ will not become a part of general usage, not for political reasons but because there would be no pronoun to distinguish between a singular subject (‘they’) & a plural subject (‘they’). Language seeks to communicate w/ clarity, not to obfuscate; that is its purpose.”

Joyce Carol Oates was widely criticised for her remarks. Many pointed out that the singular “they” has actually been used for centuries and is far from a new development, while others asked her to respect trans and non-binary people’s lived experiences.

In a rare occurrence for Twitter, what subsequently unfolded was a mature, respectful conversation that concluded with Oates offering a sincere apology.

Joyce Carol Oates was told to avoid staying ‘stuck in the past’

One Twitter user responded to Oates to tell her that she was “wrong” on her understanding of the use of “they”.

“I am trying to get better about this,” Ron Waxman wrote. “It is hard after decades of using ‘he’ or ‘she’. Don’t stay stuck in the past.”

Oates quoted Waxman’s tweet, adding: “I am happy to say ‘they’ if the context requires and a person has so requested. My remarks were that it is not likely that a plurality of English-speaking persons will use ‘they’ in referring to an individual, not that it is good or bad; just a neutral conjecture.”

The author closed out her tweet by suggesting that the adoption of gender-neutral pronouns is a “generational” issue, which led to more criticism.

From there, Oates continued to double down on her bizarre claims.

The tide finally started to change when writer and journalist Sim Kern pointed out the impact her words could have on trans and non-binary people – particularly those who deal with misgendering and incorrect pronoun usage on a daily basis.

Kern summed up the issues succinctly when they wrote: “Being trans in this world is hard enough without the most powerful voices in our profession using their enormous platforms to attack us and try to invalidate our identities.”

That tweet, it appears, had an impact on Oates.

“Gosh! I did not at all mean this. I do apologise, truly. You are quite right. (But it’s very hard to think of myself as a ‘powerful voice’ – as one who lives with cats.).”

She continued: “I do use the singular ‘they’ pronoun often. It was a purely speculative tweet and not meant to ‘invalidate’.”

Oates’ apology played out over a number of tweets in which she directly responded to those expressing dissatisfaction with her comments.

Crucially, when one Twitter user tried to absolve Oates of wrongdoing, she happily corrected them.

“You’re not wrong, Joyce,” the Twitter user wrote. “Cancel culture can’t cancel the English language. You haven’t harmed anyone.”

But Oates didn’t agree.

“But I think that words, however inadvertent, can harm, especially psychologically; so, what was meant as a linguistic speculation, had evidently real-life significance, not unlike taboo words which we should respect for their meta-linguistic power.”

Oates went on to retweet some of her critics – and also shared a link to the Black Trans Fund, a national resource designed to uplift and support Black trans social justice leaders.

She closed out the discussion by saying that she wouldn’t be deleting her original tweet – and she explained why, too.

 

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