The singular "they" is rapidly becoming acceptable to the editors of the major style guides.
It was only about a year and a half ago that I did a show about using they as a singular pronoun, but I told you this was an active area of language change, and there’s been enough new change that you need an update.
When we’re talking about the singular they, we’re usually talking about using they in sentences like these:
- Tell the next caller they won a car.
- Every student should thank their teacher.
- Who left their coat on the playground?
In these sentences, we’re talking about one person, but we don’t know whether that person is male or female. In the past, people might have written Tell the next caller he won a car or Tell the next caller he or she won a car, but as we’ll see, more people are starting to accept the pronoun they in sentences like these.
Back at the end of 2015, Bill Walsh admitted the singular they into the Washington Post style guide, and the attendees at the American Dialect Society annual meeting voted to make the singular they the word of the year.
Now both the AP Stylebook and the Chicago Manual of Style have updated their style guides to be more accepting of they as a gender neutral singular pronoun. But this is still an active area of language change, and the two style guides still disagree about how much they accept the singular they.
First, I’ll tell you about the specific changes, and then I’ll wax philosophic about what it all means (or something like that).
Chicago Manual of Style Update: Singular ‘They’
The Chicago Manual of Style took the more timid position of the two stylebooks. In the 17th edition, which will come out in September, the editors first distinguish between formal English and informal English.
Singular ‘They’ in Formal English (Chicago)
In formal English, Chicago would still rather have you avoid using they as a singular pronoun. However, you can tell that they’re struggling with the decision because the editors also want you to avoid gender-biased language, so they seem to grudgingly allow that if you can’t find another way to avoid using he as a generic pronoun, you can use they, even in formal writing.
Carol Fisher Saller, who gave the presentation at the ACES conference about the style guide updates, described meetings in which some editors wanted to go further than this and allow they to be used more broadly in formal writing. Further, in a later update on the Chicago website, they note that Chicago supports flexibility, writing
“Editors should always practice judgment and regard for the reader. For instance, some recent books published by the University of Chicago Press feature the use of the singular they as a substitute for the generic he. Context should be a guide when choosing a style, and the writer’s preferences should always receive consideration.”
So, in formal writing, the way I read Chicago style is that you should try hard to write around the problem, but if you can’t or you feel really strongly about proactively using they as a singular pronoun, it’s fine.
Singular ‘They’ in Informal English (Chicago)
When we move on to informal English, Chicago is more straightforward. They say it’s fine to use they as a singular pronoun in our “Tell the next caller they won a car” sentences.
‘They’ to Refer to a Specific Person (Chicago)
And then we get to a different kind of sentence: the kind of sentence we use for people who don’t want us to call them he or she. Again Chicago is straightforward, advising that “a person’s stated preference for a specific pronoun should be respected” even in formal writing. That means that if someone tells you their preferred pronoun is they, use it.
I’m struggling to come up with an example sentence that couldn’t be rewritten, but here’s an example to start with that I found in a direct quotation in a recent New York Times article about Alessandro Moreschi, the Vatican’s last castrato singer:
It’s been written that they sang with a tear in each note.
You could easily change that to It’s been written that Moreschi sang with a tear in each note, but the speaker used they.
And here’s another one. This time from a review of the TV show Billions. There’s a character named Taylor whose preferred pronoun is they, so a sentence describing someone named Axe pitching an idea to Taylor reads like this:
Axe’s pitch to them shows a surprisingly progressive understanding of the value of workplace diversity.
Again, the writer could have substituted Taylor’s name and written Axe’s pitch to Taylor shows a surprisingly progressive understanding, but the writer had already used Taylor’s name a lot in the paragraph so decided just to go with Taylor’s preferred pronoun and use they.
Anyway, just because I can’t think of a sentence that doesn’t require you to use they as a gender-neutral singular pronoun doesn’t mean they don’t exist. I’m sure they exist. If you can think of one, leave it in the comments.
‘They’: A Singular or Plural Verb?
And if you need to pair the pronoun in cases like this with a verb that is different depending on whether it’s singular or plural, use a plural verb. For example, if you were talking about Taylor’s response to Axe’s proposal, you could write They were happy with the proposal.
This seems to be one of the things that bugs people most about using they as a singular pronoun—I see a lot of snotty comments about how we should write They is—but it’s actually not unprecedented in English. The pronoun you is both singular and plural, but we always pair it with a plural verb. We write You are not going to like this whether we’re talking about one person or a room full of people.
So that’s Chicago. Let’s move on to the new AP style.
Singular ‘They’ (Associated Press)
The biggest difference between Chicago style and AP style is that AP doesn’t break it down as more acceptable in informal English and less acceptable in formal English—perhaps because the AP Stylebook is primarily for news writers, its users aren’t quite as varied as Chicago’s. And even though the Associated Press also recommends writing around the problem whenever possible, the Stylebook’s tone also seems just more generally accepting or less grudging than Chicago’s, depending on how you look at it.
The AP also wants you to respect people’s pronoun choices, although they note that they do not use other gender-neutral pronouns such as xe or zir, so they aren’t that accepting. (Chicago didn’t specifically address that topic.)
And then they say, generally, that if you try and rewriting is too awkward or clumsy, it’s fine to use they in our “Tell the next caller they won a car” kind of sentence.
‘He’ as a Gender-Neutral Pronoun
A related change that is more about what isn’t in the Stylebook than about what is in the Stylebook is that it no longer says that it’s OK to use he as a gender-neutral pronoun. The last edition said it was OK, and the AP was one of the last stylebooks that I’m aware of to say so. They were the last holdout in my mind, and now they no longer specifically support it. Instead, the entry reads
“Do not presume maleness in constructing a sentence. Usually it is possible, and always preferable, to reword the sentence to avoid gender.”
And they go on to say again if rewriting isn’t possible, use they and just make sure your readers can tell you’re writing about only one person.
All the Feelings
So, what does it all mean? As I’m sure you’re probably aware, people have a lot of feelings about these changes. At the American Copy Editors Society meeting, a cheer erupted in the room when the Associate Press made their announcement. But I’ve also seen comments from people who feel like it’s the end of the world.
I did a poll on Twitter, asking people how they felt about the changes and giving just the very simple possibilities of yay, boo, and don’t care. And of the 581 people who responded (I presume most of whom follow the Grammar Girl account), 58% voted yay, 31% chose boo, and I raise a glass to the 11% who bothered to check the don’t care box. You can hang out with my husband someday.
So the majority like the changes, but if you don’t like them, you aren’t alone. And if you don’t like the singular they, you don’t have to use it unless you’re writing for an editor or client who wants you to follow AP or Chicago style or another stylebook that favors the singular they.
I’ve been thinking a lot about my TED talk because it was about this kind of language change, and my premise was that we vote on language change with our usage and our lobbying and our complaints. If I remember correctly, both the AP and Chicago presenters said they were reacting to comments they see on their website and social media accounts and to usage questions they see from writers. Gender-neutral pronouns have been a topic at the style guide sessions at the ACES conference for at least the last couple of years, and I know that neither the AP nor the Chicago editors consider themselves activists for language change. They tend to be relatively cautious and react to what they see in the real world and, in the case of the AP, what they see their writers doing. They follow. They don’t lead.
So, people voted. They voted when they left comments for the editors. They voted when they turned in their articles using the singular they, and eventually the editors took notice, tallied the votes, and decided it was time to make these changes.
One cautionary note that I think is worth making is that as far as I can tell, standardized tests such as the SAT and ACT still mark the singular they as wrong. So if you’re a teacher or studying for one of those tests, you still have to think of it as wrong, at least for the test. And as a teacher, I know it’s easier to teach students straightforward rules than to try to explain that it’s wrong on the test, but fine if you’re writing for a newspaper, but that’s the state of the language today. But don’t worry, it will probably change again in a couple of years. In fact I’m sure it will because if there’s one constant you can count on, it’s that language change is constant.