Language Corner

Stylebooks finally embrace the single ‘they’

March 27, 2017

They is here.

Two major style manuals are now allowing the singular use of “they” in certain circumstances. While this is a victory for common sense, the paths taken are unusual in the evolution of usage.

Both manuals, the Associated Press Stylebook and the Chicago Manual of Style, emphasize that “they” cannot be used with abandon. Even so, it’s the middle of the end for the insistence that “they” can be only a plural pronoun.

To recap: In English, there is no gender-neutral pronoun for a single person. In French, for example, the pronoun on can stand in for “he” or “she.” English has no such equivalent; “it” is our singular pronoun, so devoid of gender that calling a person “it” is often considered insulting. We could use “one,” but that is a very impersonal pronoun.

The need for a singular personal pronoun occurs largely in two situations. The most common is when speaking generically: “Every time someone gets too close to that cliff, _____ dies.” Because you don’t know whether the next person will be male or female, you can’t insert the correct pronoun. In spoken language, we commonly resort to “they” in that situation (changing the verb to “die” in the process). Similarly, when using a singular noun that refers to a group of people, we have no inclusive pronoun: “Everyone needs to be sure to tighten ______ safety belt before approaching the cliff.”

For hundreds of years, anyone writing formally would default to “he.” Advances in women’s rights led to the clumsy “he or she.” Many writers alternate “he” or “she.” This twisting and turning is because what’s known as “the epicene they” has been considered incorrect.

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Yet nearly everyone uses it in speech, as in “everyone knows they should use singular pronouns with singular nouns.” It’s been so used for hundreds of years.

But that’s not the “they” the style guides have let loose. Simply, the singular “they” will be allowed if someone does not identify as “he” or “she.”

We’ve written about this topic several times, most recently last year, noting that The Washington Post was allowing the singular they for someone who did not want to be “he” or “she,” and that The American Heritage Dictionary was including “they” as a singular in both the generic and identification uses.

The ramparts have been falling quickly. The big breach came at the annual conference of ACES: The Society for Editing (more formally the American Copy Editors Society), where both AP and Chicago announced their changes.

The AP Stylebook, used by many news organizations, includes its changes on “they” as part of what Paula Froke, lead editor of the stylebook, called an umbrella approach to gender issues in the new edition. (Though the 2017 printed edition will not be out for a couple of months, the changes are effective immediately and available in the online stylebook.)

“We offer new advice for two reasons,” Froke told the ACES conference. “Recognition that the spoken language uses they as singular and that we also recognize the need for a pronoun for people who don’t identify as a he or a she.”

That last is the driving reason for the change, and the stylebook entries reflect as much.

In stories about people who identify as neither male nor female or ask not to be referred to as he/she/him/her: Use the person’s name in place of a pronoun, or otherwise reword the sentence, whenever possible. If they/them/their use is essential, explain in the text that the person prefers a gender-neutral pronoun.

On “they” as a generic pronoun, the stylebook is a little less open:

They/them/their is acceptable in limited cases as a singular and/or gender-neutral pronoun, when alternative wording is overly awkward or clumsy. However, rewording usually is possible and always is preferable. Clarity is a top priority; gender-neutral use of a singular they is unfamiliar to many readers. We do not use other gender-neutral pronouns such as xe or ze.

Usage example: A singular they might be used when an anonymous source’s gender must be shielded and other wording is overly awkward: The person feared for their own safety and spoke on condition of anonymity.

Arguments for using they/them as a singular sometimes arise with an indefinite pronoun (anyone, everyone, someone) or unspecified/unknown gender (a person, the victim, the winner). Examples of rewording:

All the class members raised their hands (instead of everyone raised their hands).

Chicago, used by many books, magazines, and academic publishers, has always been more formal than newsroom style, and that’s reflected in its entries on “they,” appearing in the 17th edition this fall. As Carol Saller, editor of Chicago’s Q & A, said, some changes are “hard to describe and not easy to put in little bullet points.”

Demonstrating Chicago‘s permissible uses of “they,” Saller used the sentence “Carly cleared their voice and spoke.” In that instance, Carly does not identify as male or female, so neither “his” nor “her” is appropriate there. Chicago will also allow “themself” in a similar situation, with the entry reading: “Themself (like yourself) may be used to signal the singular antecedent (though some people will prefer themselves).”

About “they” as a pronoun of preference, Saller told the ACES audience: “This form of the singular they is not very controversial although it is still not found frequently in either formal or informal writing.”

But on “they” as a generic, Chicago, too, holds the line:

They and their have become common in informal usage, but neither is considered fully acceptable in formal writing, though they are steadily gaining ground. For now, unless you are given guidelines of the contrary, be wary of using these forms in a singular sense.”

In other words, for both AP and Chicago, the “they” that is more acceptable is the one found less often in spoken and written usage.

That’s a twist. Style guides, like dictionaries, follow the language, not lead it, and they often accept usage years after it has become embraced by users, if not by language sticklers. (As an example, see the outcry over AP’s acceptance of the equivalence of “over” and “more than,” a distinction imposed with no explanation by William Cullen Bryant.)

The “acceptable” uses of “they” are being encouraged more by issues of gender identity than by common usage, but the impact is the same. Though some might claim the style guides are caving in to political correctness or barbarism, in fact, these changes are too long in coming.

And it’s now only a matter of time before the generic singular “they” can come out into the light as well.

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.