Language Corner


December 7, 2015
Transgender symbol by Rumpusparable

Language changes, we’re fond of saying. Sometimes it changes before our very eyes, as it has with three sensitive and socially conscious terms dealing with gender.

To start with the most visible change, The Washington Post has decided to allow “they” and “their” to be used as a singular pronoun in place of “he/she,” “him/her,” and “his/hers.” The Post style guru, Bill Walsh, wrote that the decision came not because so many people already use “they” in a situation like “everyone needs to decide on their own pronoun,” but because of “the increasing visibility of gender-neutral people.” These are people who either don’t identify themselves as either male or female or don’t want to be identified as such by anyone talking about them.

As Walsh wrote, “simply allowing they for a gender-nonconforming person is a no-brainer. And once we’ve done that, why not allow it for the most awkward of those he or she situations that have troubled us for so many years?”

Note that The Post does not require “they” to be used, but allows it when rewriting a sentence to avoid a gendered pronoun would be too awkward. Many people (read: editors and writers), though, don’t understand the nuance between “can” and “must,” so expect to see it in The Post more often than necessary.

As we have also written, “they” has been used for hundreds of years in place of the third-person singular pronoun without gender that English does not have. “Gender” in language is not the same as “sex” in people, though “gender” is used more and more frequently to talk about sexual identity, so it’s fitting that the way of talking about people’s “sex” has resulted in a change in “gender.”

Never assume what pronoun someone wants. Just ask–though avoid the ones audiences might not be familiar with, like “zhe.”

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The second change is the use in The New York Times of “Mx.” as a courtesy title for someone who did not want to be identified with any gendered pronoun. As has been reported, this was a one-time use. The Times style guru, Philip B. Corbett, said it was an exception, not a rule, and noted that “in referring to people who don’t identify as male or female, I think usage is still evolving, and there’s not one settled or widely recognized set of guidelines.”

That evolution can also be seen in a third change, one that received less media attention. The Associated Press added a new entry to its stylebook:

cross-dresser: Use this term instead of transvestite.

The stylebook did not have an entry on “transvestite” before this, but the change actually makes things easier for everyone, as well as notes the evolution in language.

The first edition of Webster’s New World College Dictionary did not define “transvestite” at all. The second, third, and fourth editions defined it as “a person who derives sexual pleasure from dressing in the clothes of the opposite sex.” The fifth edition, published in 2014, defines “transvestite” as “a person who adopts the clothing and deportment regarded as typical of the opposite sex.” In other words, the “sex” is gone from “transvestite.”

But “transvestite” and “transsexual” were frequently used interchangeably, without regard to whether the person was just dressing or living in the opposite sex. The use of “transvestite” has diminished in recent years as “transsexual” became the more common term for someone who was actually switching sexes, but the confusion still exists.

“Cross-dressing,” on the other hand, first appeared in WNW4, published in 2004, as “the wearing of clothing typically worn by the opposite sex.” There’s no sex in “cross-dressing,” and no sexual identity either, making it a much more neutral term, both language-wise and gender-wise. It’s a simple description, which is usually best.

Writers and publications will need to make their own decisions about what terms to use, of course, and in what situations. As things continue to evolve, the measured decisions taken by the AP, The Washington Post, and The New York Times can act as guidelines for what to do in each individual case. The style guides from GLAAD and the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association can also help.

Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at the New York Times, where she worked for twenty-five years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.