Language Corner

Will "they" ever change?

April 11, 2016
Image: CJR

Last week, we talked about some of the recent and forthcoming changes in The Associated Press Stylebook that were discussed and announced at the annual conference of the American Copy Editors Society.

But many attendees were surprised that no one asked about “they,” and the AP Stylebook editors did not discuss it. In fact, the stylebook editors themselves were surprised that no one had raised the question. After all, “they” had been a topic at many sessions at the ACES conference.

The issue, of course, is using “they,” considered a plural pronoun, in place of the singular pronoun “he” or “she” in a construction like “everyone should keep their own ticket.” As so many have written, the objection of strict grammarians is that “everyone” is singular, so it needs a singular pronoun.

Though people have been using what’s called the “epicene they” for hundreds of years, grammarians started demonizing it more than 100 years ago. The first edition of H.W. Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage in 1926 objected to it, opting for the universal “he,” reflecting the grammarians’ view of the time. But by the second edition, in 1965, Sir Ernest Gowers, who had revised it, had added this telling phrase: “In colloquial usage the inconvenience of having no common-sex personal pronoun in the singular has proved stronger than respect for the grammarians, and the one that is available in the plural is made to serve for the singular too.”

In other words, the ramparts have been crumbling for almost as long as they have been erected.

The Washington Post blasted one hole when it said it would start allowing “they” as pronouns for people who do not identify as male or female.

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And at the conference of copy editors–people who might be expected to go to the grave defending “they” only in the plural–there seemed to be a surprising acceptance, if Twitter is any judge. In sessions by grammarians, and in the keynote address by Kory Stamper, an editor of the Merriam-Webster family of dictionaries, the singular “they” was welcomed, if not always warmly:

And in one of the last sessions at the conference, another dictionary editor, Steve Kleinedler, let drop that, this summer, The American Heritage Dictionary would be adding “a sense for the use of singular they for a known person who identifies as neither male nor female.”

While both the Post and American Heritage are limiting the singular “they” to people who don’t want to be identified with a specific gender, it’s not a far leap for usage authorities to start approving “they” in other singular uses. After all, people use “they” all the time in speech, and using a gender or “he or she” in writing sometimes leads to clumsiness. When there’s no good “grammatical” alternative, but a word is already being used without confusion, acceptance can’t be too far behind.

In fact, Kleinedler wrote later, the American Heritage Dictionary’s Usage Panel (of which this columnist is a member) has regularly been surveyed about this topic, and there has been a shift:

The AHD Usage Panel was surveyed last year regarding uses of they/their in the singular, and for the first time, in certain contexts, a majority of the Panel approved.

Anyone who thinks “they” can be only plural may end up tying his or her writing into knots trying to avoid something that’s not a problem. It’s time to let them go.

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.