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AP Stylebook Says ‘They’ Is Okay

By Joseph Priest

If someone thinks it’s important for stylebooks to keep up with the times, they will be happy about updates by two major style manuals.

The Associated Press Stylebook and Chicago Manual of Style are now allowing the singular use of “they” in certain circumstances, and the announcements were the highlights of the annual conference of the American Copy Editors Society, which was recently held in St. Petersburg, and which I had the fortune to attend.

Colleen Newvine (seated at podium, left) and Paula Froke (right), editors of the AP Stylebook, announce the entry for “they” at the American Copy Editors Society annual conference in March.

The bottom line is that public relations professionals can now more freely use the forms of “they,” and we can ditch resorting to the stilted “his or her” usage and the changing-the-subject-to-a-plural solution in these kinds of sentences:

  •          Everyone has their own reason for choosing what candidate to vote for.
  •          The person feared for their own safety and spoke on condition of anonymity.
  •          Any consultant can set themself up with their own firm.

 

The new entry for “they” will be included in the new paperback version of the AP Stylebook and has already been added to the online version.

To get more perspective on this style change, read on. If you think you’ve got all you need, feel free to stop here, and have at it with using the singular “they” when needed in your writing. And if anyone has a question on this, they can email me at joseph.priest@syniverse.com to get more information.

A Bit of Background
To explain more on the “they” change, let’s take a few steps back. In English, there is no gender-neutral pronoun for a single person. “It” is our singular pronoun, and “one” is another pronoun option. The problems with these are that “it” is so devoid of gender that calling a person this can come off as insulting, and “one” is so impersonal that it can sound awkward or aloof.

We have a need for a singular personal pronoun in mainly two situations. The most common is when speaking generically: “If someone leaves a cookie in the classroom during recess, ______ may find it gone when class resumes.” Because we don’t know whether the person is male or female, we can’t include the correct pronoun. In spoken language, we typically resort to “they” in this situation without thinking twice. In the same way, when using a singular noun that refers to a group of people, we have no inclusive pronoun: “Everyone should be more careful about leaving ______ desserts in the classroom during recess.”

This conundrum led us to default to “he” in formal writing, but advancement in women’s rights and greater egalitarian awareness then led us to adopt the clumsy “he or she.” This tortuous usage was perpetuated because what’s known as “the epicene they” continued to be considered incorrect. Yet nearly everyone continued to use it in speech, and it’s been used this way for hundreds of years.

In fact, many of the criticisms of the singular “they” are without merit, as Anne Curzan, professor of English and associate dean for humanities at the University of Michigan, and keynote speaker at the American Copy Editors annual conference, has explained. First, she notes, as far as its history, the singular “they” has been in regular use in spoken English and informal prose for centuries. Second, to say it’s ambiguous is nonsensical, too, because she says ambiguity is often the point of its use, and all pronouns have some potential ambiguity. Finally, to say “they” is too informal for formal writing is a circular argument she contends, because many editors have spent much of their time to taking it out of formal, published writing.

The only real question concerning singular “they,” she concludes, is “whether we should and will let ‘they’ be used in its singular form in formal, edited prose without comment. That decision is within our control.”

New Rules for a New Usage
This decision is increasingly being made. The singular “they” was named Word of the Year for 2015 by over 200 language experts at the American Dialect Society’s annual meeting in January 2016, “they” was sanctified in the Washington Post style guide in late 2015, “they” has been used by such publications as the Baltimore Sun for years, and “they” is even mildly sanctioned by major dictionaries like The American Heritage Dictionary. What’s more, the singular “they” has long been common and accepted in British English. 

Among other factors, a driving reason for the AP’s style update is to reflect changes in the ways that people refer to their sexual orientation.

“We offer new advice for two reasons,” Paula Froke, chief editor of the stylebook, told the American Copy Editors Society 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.’” Specifically, the new rule states this:

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.

Moreover, from other updates that the AP Stylebook editors also announced at the American Copy Editors Society conference, it’s clear that the AP’s review of singular “they” was prompted in large part by expanding journalistic coverage of transgender issues. The entry for “LGBT” has now been updated to also accept “LGBTQ”; there’s a new entry for “homophobia, homophobic”; and a new entry for gender notes, “Not synonymous with sex.”

Testing the Waters
While the updates by the AP Stylebook and Chicago Manual of Style mark a major progression for the singular “they,” not surprisingly for such a significant rule change, the new rules have been designed to test the waters rather than allow full immersion. The new AP Stylebook entry for “they, them, their” reminds readers several times that rewording a sentence is preferable to using the singular “they”:

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.

It’s natural, though, that a new rule like this is structured conservatively, and public relations professionals and others who rely on AP style should not feel as constrained to adhere to this strict limitation as the rule states. 

Ultimately, style guides, like dictionaries, follow the language, not lead it, and they often accept usage years after it has become embraced by users. The “acceptable” uses of “they” are being accelerated more by issues of gender identity than by common usage, but the impact is the same, and the changes are long overdue.

In sum, I urge you to begin “theying” away when you come across a need for it in your writing. It has official precedent now and has to be better than continuing to use a sexist “his,” a patronizing “her,” a stilted “his or her,” or a let’s-bypass-this-problem-by-making-the-subject-plural cop-out.

What do you think? If anyone has a thought on this, I hope they let me know.

Both stylebooks emphasize that “they” should not be used without any limitations. Even so, this major style-rule change nearly marks the end for the insistence that “they” can only be a plural pronoun. In particular, the new recognition that singular “they” may sometimes be the best option marks a more widespread recognition of the need for a gender-neutral singular pronoun, and that singular “they” can fill this need.

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