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  • Jennifer Rubio

The singular they: when's it okay?


It's by far the biggest news this month in copy editing circles: The AP stylebook, bastion of contemporary usage and news-appropriate language, has declared the singular "they" to be acceptable.

This is a big deal for a number of reasons. First and foremost, it's a step in favor of equality for those among us who identify as non-binary. Language is a powerful arbiter of cultural norms, and while this isn't a political blog by any stretch of the imagination, I will wholeheartedly support any language trends that allow people to be treated like human beings and accepted as part of the infinite diversity that is humankind.

But oy, is it ever a load off a copy editor's back, too!

Late last year I worked on a book that did a lot of referring to a generic doctor or health care provider. Needless to say, there was a a whole lot of "they." And though it just about killed me to do it, I had to flag it. We had lengthy discussion as to the many options for how to resolve this problem — use "he or she" in all instances? Pick one? Switch off at every reference or every chapter? In the end, we opted to switch each chapter, and add a bit of awkward language explaining our decision — despite the fact that if we'd stayed with "they," perhaps one reader in a hundred might be bothered by the fact. (Not to mention that it erases the existence of non-binary doctors and health care providers.)

So I'm encouraged by the AP's decision here. At the same time, a word of warning: not every "they" is okay.

If you're speaking about an individual person of indeterminate or non-binary gender, that's when you want to be using the singular they. "Your doctor can help you, and they can also refer you to a specialist." "You'll be connected to a representative, and they will ask your name and address to verify your identity." Et cetera.

But if there's any way to ascertain the gender of the person you're speaking about, it's your job as a writer and researcher to identify that gender. "The president's spokesperson issued a statement in which he said..."

And please remember: a company, organization or institution, no matter how large, is never a "they"!

INCORRECT: "We spoke to the company and they referred us ..."

CORRECT: "We spoke to the company and it referred us ..."

ALSO CORRECT: "We spoke to company representatives and they referred us ..."

Sadly, the AP's decision doesn't help my friend with the book; the Chicago Manual of Style still says:

While this usage is accepted in casual contexts, it is still considered ungrammatical in formal writing. Avoiding the plural form by alternating masculine and feminine pronouns is awkward and only emphasizes the inherent problem of not having a generic third-person pronoun. Employing an artificial form such as s/he is distracting at best, and most readers find it ridiculous. There are several better ways to avoid the problem. For example, use the traditional, formal he or she, him or her, his or her, himself or herself. Stylistically, this device is usually awkward or even stilted, but if used sparingly it can be functional.

Chicago's current policy on this still holds the line on the erasure of non-binary people, and makes things difficult for writers such as my friend, who have to refer repeatedly to a person of indeterminate gender. But hope springs eternal for future stylebook changes, and the AP decision is a great first step.

So go forth and use the singular "they," news writers. Just please ... use it correctly.

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