‘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.