Opening the door to singular they

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.
Cover of the 2017 AP Stylebook
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.

Cover of Chicago Manual of StyleThe 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.

5 thoughts on “Opening the door to singular they

  1. Jeana Routh

    Admittedly, my background in linguistics biases me in preferring a descriptive approach to understanding the syntax of natural languages over the prescriptive mindset that is the heart of style guides and middle school English classes… so I am impatient to see this progress more quickly! As you noted, the overwhelming majority of speakers use and understand this convention. That said, I of course adhere as best as I can to the company style guide for all my “official” writing.

    I got a bit of a chuckle over this line coming from a native speaker of English: “I resisted singular ‘they’ for a long time, believing that the distinction between singular and plural pronouns was worth preserving.” Fortunately, you (singular? plural?) already have a lot of experience in determining from context whether a pronoun is intended to refer to one or multiple people. We do it all the time since dropping the second-person singular “thou,” so an ambiguous “they” should (and does) come naturally 🙂

  2. Mark Baker

    You know, this has me wondering what this “formal writing” is that the style guides speak of. What exactly makes one piece of writing formal and another not? What is the difference in function between one and the other?

    Thinking about it, I cannot come up with any definition of formal that has anything to do with the function or interpretation of a text. A text should be written in the language that best informs its intended audience and in a way that is sufficiently precise for its purpose. There are infinite shades of audience and purpose, so no simple dichotomy will suffice to distinguish types of language that work for a particular audience or purpose.

    So what is this formal/informal dichotomy about? As far as I can see, the only application of it that makes sense is one of social distance. One uses formal language to establish or acknowledge and respect social distance: one language to address your betters, one language to address your peers. Except, who acknowledges or respects social distance or its shibboleths anymore?

  3. Active Voicer

    Larry, I’d be interested to hear a foreign language translator or a globally aware linguist weigh in on this issue. I’ll try to find one willing and direct them here. (There I do it too!) Our content is converted into many local languages–as is the case for a lot of software. Though this might make sense for native English writers, it might create issues for readers in other locales. IOW, the assertion that the overwhelming majority of speakers understand this convention is not a given. Perhaps you have expertise yourself in global English principles or single-source content for a global audience?

    @Mark As for formal vs. informal: It’s more than mere “social distance,” which to me implies an unnecessary, unfortunate and artificial superior vs. inferior intention. Some content that still uses a formal language includes: Legal documents, academic research, security procedures, or policy manuals. These commonly feature third person, no contractions, inflexible structure, subordinate clauses, passive voice. While you might argue that each of these could be written in an approachable and less formal way, we’re focused on the function or interpretation of the existing content and not our wishes for readability. Would you agree that the function of formal writing is to remove the writer and remove ambiguity? Sometimes, is it also to remove the individual reader also and refer to a collective all-y’all? Concise facts, leaving nothing open to interpretation, following a traditional format and expressing no empathy for the reader might actually be a way of providing information that improves information exchange. A guide about how to put fuel into an airplane that is in-flight is not necessarily successful if its written like a People magazine feature. Your thoughts?

    1. Mark Baker

      As I said, every communication should be written for its audience and purpose. That does not effectively resolve down to a simple dichotomy of formal and informal. The language that achieves one purpose for one audience is different from that which achieves another purpose for another audience. To suggest that formal language is language that achieve a particular purpose for a particular audience it to suggest that informal language is language that achieves no purpose for any audience, and that is clearly absurd.

      That said, there are substantial efforts underweigh at multiple levels to simplify the language used in writing contracts and statutes, in reporting academic research, and particularly in security procedures where obscure formulaic language can confuse and thus cause danger. The history of these formalisms in not that they aid comprehension, but that they defeat it. They are, for the most parts, shibboleths, meant to exclude outsiders from the profession, not to communicate its information clearly to the public, and tolerance for them is diminishing every year.

      There is no such thing as concise facts that leave nothing open to interpretation. All language is interpreted in terms of the knowledge and experience of the individual reader. To avoid misinterpretation, we have to write in the language of the people who will be reading the content.

      There are certain professions, medicine for example, that have formalized terminology for some of the things they talk about, but doctors and nurses are trained for years to understand that language. It is not clear or concise or free from misinterpretation to anyone who has not had that training. And again, the formalisms of one a particular profession have nothing to do with the formalisms of another particular profession, and most professions, let alone most ordinary people do not have any such formalize vocabulary in which they are trained. Even if their language is specialized, it is not formalized. Ambiguity is not avoided by sticking to supposedly unambiguous terms, but by telling your story in sufficient detail to eliminate any possible false interpretation. And, frankly, the main why in which ambiguity is avoided is through conversation.

      So again there are formal languages for parts of the discourse of some professions (and only parts) and there is informal jargon in just about every profession and interest group under the sun, but there is no single distinction between formal and informal language that has anything to do with comprehension.


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