Nonbinary singular they has become so normal that people now want to know the rules for how to use it. Which is right, they is or they are? Is the reflexive themself or themselves? Even if your answer is, “Wait, what rules? There are no rules,” the fact that anybody’s asking is all the proof we need that English pronouns are continuing to change. Here’s the latest change: as we see in this tweet from the British writer and gender activist, Shon Faye, nonbinary singular they has become a verb:
A trans man described his period of identifying as nonbinary to me the other day as “I was they/themming at the time.”
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A common way to create new English words is to turn a noun into a verb. Verbing nouns gives us the verb chair, ‘to run a meeting,’ from the noun chair, ‘the person who sits in the chair at the head of the table’—which in turn re-nouns the original chair, ‘a piece of furniture.’ The verb burgle was formed by verbing the noun burglar. The phrase verbing nouns even illustrates itself by turning the noun verb into the verb verb.
Verbs can become nouns as well: the noun bead comes from the verb bede, meaning ‘to ask, pray’ (compare Modern English bid). As a nouned verb, bead originally meant ‘a prayer,’ a sense which soon transferred to the small, perforated balls strung together on a rosary, since each ball represented a single bead, or prayer.
As for “I was they/themming at the time,” it’s not a common practice, but pronouns can be verbed as well. Here is a rare 19th-century example of verbal he and she from the Oxford English Dictionary:
1880 Our ‘he-ing’ and ‘she-ing’ of ships, rivers, etc., is undoubtedly a relic of our poetical traditions.
It’s even more common to verb the second person pronouns thou, thee, and you. Here’s one of the earlier examples from the OED:
c.1450 None of hyghenesse schal thou another in spekynge.
In Modern English that’s, “No one of elevated status shall thou someone else when speaking.” To thou someone means to emphasize their low status, to talk down to them.
Perhaps the most famous verbed pronoun is the insult that the prosecutor, Sir Edward Coke, hurled at Sir Walter Raleigh at Raleigh’s trial for treason in 1603: “I thou thee, thou Traitor!”
Raleigh was a famous explorer, a poet of some repute, and a favorite of Queen Elizabeth I. But when Elizabeth died, the wheel of fortune turned, and Raleigh was put on trial for treason against King James. Being called a traitor was bad enough, but when Coke deployed the intimate ‘thou’ instead of the polite ‘you,’ a public insult quickly became a 17th-century meme.
The use of the pronouns thee and thou decreased during the course of the 17th century as singular you replaced thou in standard English in all contexts. Thou, thee, and thy persisted among Quakers, and second-person singular th- pronouns like tha survive in local dialects in England even today. But as long as the thou/you familiar/polite distinction applied, you could be verbed as well. Here are a couple of examples of the verb to you:
1673. A pestilent way that he has of Youing me.
1890. Now they ‘you’ all and sundry without respect of persons.
Before you replaced thou, people complained when someone addressed them using the wrong pronoun. Or they intentionally mispronouned in order to insult someone, as Coke did to Raleigh. But once the switch to singular you became complete in the later 17th century, thou lost its power to hurt. Here’s a verbed thee and thou from Modern English, where thou is not an insult but a descriptive nod to the days when thou was more common:
1990. The characters are forever theeing and thouing like so many Quakers.
Today the flashpoint over pronoun use has shifted from thou and you to the third person singular. Pronouns have become important signals of gender identity. Whether your pronoun is she, he, singular they, or a coined pronoun like zie or hir, it may hurt when someone mispronouns you by accident or through ignorance. And people still intentionally mispronoun others to insult them. But so far, as we see in the tweet from Shon Faye, they verb singular they not as an insult, but descriptively--in this case they/themming signals the speaker's own transition from nonbinary to trans.
Now that they can be a verb, it's possible to construct an entire sentence out of pronouns:
They they/them them.
You'll only find an example like that in a grammar book, not in ordinary use. But given this history of verbing pronouns, it’s possible that we’ll be seeing more they/themming, not to mention heing, sheing, he-sheing, and even zieing, as gender discussions become more open, more complex, and in some cases, even more volatile. So far the verbing of gender pronouns has occurred in neutral contexts. With luck, verbing pronouns like they/them will remain descriptive and not become an insult like thouing and theeing.