Have you heard? The Associated Press Stylebook is “opening the door” to singular they. The new entry reads:
They, them, their In most cases, a plural pronoun should agree in number with the antecedent: The children love the books their uncle gave them.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. We do not use other gender-neutral pronouns such as xe or ze.
(quoted by Gerri Berendzen on the American Copy Editors Society website)
You might be thinking Why are people still talking about this? Hasn’t singular they established itself in the language?
I’d say that it has. I salute AP’ for recognizing that. Even so, they give the appearance of being dragged into it, kicking and screaming and holding their collective nose.
Opening the door — but just a crack
Consider the acceptable in limited cases clause. Use singular they, AP tells its writers, only when you really, really have to. Most writers, I think, and practically all speakers of English, would find that too restrictive.
Then there’s the clarity clause.
AP spokesperson Paula Froke reiterated that “clarity is key when using they as a genderless pronoun.” That sounds odd, since clarity is — or ought to be –the underpinning for everything in the AP Stylebook.
Of course writers who use it should make sure that the meaning of singular they is unambiguous in context. Just like everything else they write.
The most telling quote from Froke, though, is this one: “I write it naturally sometimes, too, and then have to go back and change it.”
Yes, it comes naturally. Even to a careful and accomplished writer like Paula Froke. If I’m a writer and something comes naturally to me, doesn’t that mean I’ve embraced it, or at least come to terms with it? The language evolves, and my use of the language should evolve too. Why resist it?
What about Chicago?
Now that AP has grudgingly come to terms with singular they, all eyes turn to the other popular arbiter: the Chicago Manual of Style.
The 14th edition of CMoS contained a note (at paragraph 2.98) in which they, too, cracked open the door to singular they. However, as a CMoS editor explained, “there was some regret at having written it” (note the passive construction) and the note was removed in the 15th edition.
The current (16th) edition shuts the door entirely on singular they: “it is still considered ungrammatical in formal writing” (5.46). Again, note the passive construction: who besides the CMoS editors considers it ungrammatical? I don’t know.
CMoS rightly places a premium on not distracting or offending readers. Yet I’ll wager that the number of readers who are distracted or offended by singular they in 2017 is minuscule.
I’m pretty conservative when it comes to matters of writing. I resisted singular they for a long time, believing that the distinction between singular and plural pronouns was worth preserving. Like any good technical writer, I also worried about precision and translatability.
Finally, after tilting in my writing against a few too many “overly awkward or clumsy” windmills, I admitted that singular they offers an easy, well understood, and commonly accepted way out.
What about preserving the distinction between singular and plural pronouns? I find that ultimately the distinction is insignificant: in context, the pronoun’s meaning is almost always clear.
While I still avoid using singular they when a ready alternative exists — and I applaud CMoS for giving us a handy list of alternatives (5.225) — I’ve found that sometimes it simply makes sense.
If a writer wants to use singular they, they shouldn’t be made to feel ashamed. (See what I did there? I easily could’ve avoided singular they by using a plural subject. But, and this is the point, I don’t think I needed to.)
What about you?
Do you use singular they when you write? What about in technical and scientific writing? In writing content that will be translated? I’d like to know what you think.