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Author Joyce Carol Oates issues sincere apology after tweet about pronouns stirs controversy

Joyce Carol Oates
Joyce Carol OatesPhoto: Larry D. Moore/via Wikipedia

Celebrated novelist and playwright Joyce Carol Oates decided to attack using the singular-they pronoun, causing an uproar on social media.

But in a refreshing twist, Oates listened to her critics, learned how her words were harmful to some people, and wrote a sincere apology, providing a blueprint for how other famous artists and thinkers can approach the public with an open mind.

Related: Gender-neutral pronoun ‘they’ is Merriam-Webster’s word of the year

Late last night, the 83-year-old writer and professor tweeted that she believes “‘they’ will not become a part of general usage, not for political reasons but because there would be no pronoun to distinguish between singular subject (‘they’) & a plural subject (‘they’). language seeks to communicate w/ clarity, not to obfuscate; that is its purpose.”

Despite claiming she is in favor of clarity in language, it wasn’t exactly clear which version of singular-they she was referring to. “They” can be singular when referring to a person who uses they/them pronouns as well as when referring to a person of unknown gender. The latter meaning has been used in English for centuries.

Readers pointed out how old Oates’s argument is, how long “they” has been used as a singular pronoun in English, how “you” used to only be plural until the 17th Century, and how disheartening it is for non-binary and transgender people to get talked down to when they ask for specific pronouns.

That could have been where the story ended if Oates were like another famous white, cis, straight, wealthy author who has also made anti-trans statements on Twitter: J.K. Rowling. But instead Oates continued to talk to fans on the topic and eventually showed that she learned something from the exchange.

First, she said that her original tweet was intended as a prediction, not as a normative statement. She also said that she’s “happy” to refer to someone with they/them pronouns if “so requested.”

But she still seemed to think that most people don’t use singular-they, calling the usage which has been around since at least Shakespeare “generational.”

Oates agreed with one person who said it’s just “respectful” to use they/them pronouns for people whose pronouns are they/them.

Then she retweeted someone explaining that using singular-they to refer to an unknown person is “used all the time.”

Later, she apologized to non-binary and trans people for her words.

“I didn’t at all mean this,” she wrote, replying to someone who explained that “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.”

“I do use the singular ‘they’ pronoun often,” Oates continued. “it was purely a speculative tweet & not meant to ‘invalidate.'”

“it’s purely a misunderstanding,” she told another person who said Oates “provided respectability to all the vicious transphobes out there.”

“I am 100% supportive of transpersons & have always been an adversary to those who are cruel to others, especially minorities,” Oates wrote. “so, thank you for correcting.”

Oates even clapped back at a Twitter user who calls themselves “liberal, not woke” who tried to stand up for her by accusing her critics of “cancel culture.”

“I think that words, however inadvertant, can harm, especially psychologically,” Oates wrote.

At least one fan was glad she apologized.

Oates’s Twitter presence is… interesting. Earlier this week, she called out Halloween decorations as insensitive to people who are grieving loved ones.

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