Gender-Neutral Pronouns: Singular ‘They’

Mignon Fogarty
7-minute read
Episode #563

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.

singular they poll

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.



About the Author

Mignon Fogarty

Mignon Fogarty is the founder of Quick and Dirty Tips and the author of seven books on language, including the New York Times bestseller "Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing." She is an inductee in the Podcasting Hall of Fame, and the show is a five-time winner of Best Education Podcast in the Podcast Awards. She has appeared as a guest expert on the Oprah Winfrey Show and the Today Show.

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