Friday, March 31, 2017

He, She, or They—What do you say?

In previous posts, I’ve said that in language and communication, changes will happen. The change may be slow, circuitous, or controversial; but changes will occur.

Last week at the annual American Copy Editors Society (ACES) conference, an editor from the widely-used AP Stylebook made a stunning yet long-expected announcement that signals a major change in one area of language usage. The AP Stylebook is used by copy editors, journalists, and businesses in the United States and other countries, and it’s heavily relied upon as a top grammar style and usage guide for the correct use of the English language. It’s not the only style guide, but it’s in the top three.

This change will not greatly affect your everyday life, but you’ll probably begin to notice its increased use over the upcoming months—even though the usage has been occurring for a while. Since the change is directly related to daily communication in speaking and writing, I thought it would be helpful to give you an update; it pertains to these words: they, them, their.

As reported March 24, 2017 by ACES at, the AP Stylebook is now allowing “use of ‘they’ as a singular pronoun or gender-neutral pronoun.” The stylebook’s lead editor, Paula Froke, said that usually, everyone can “write around” (that is, avoid using) this new rule, presumably by using the traditional “he” or “she” when referring to someone.

Now before we get all worked up over the change, I will give you the editor’s rationale:

“But we offer new advice for two reasons: recognition that the spoken language uses ‘they’ as singular and we also recognize the need for a pronoun for people who don’t identify as a he or a she.”
The new rule in the stylebook to which Ms. Froke referred is this:

“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.”
So in this announcement, many questions were raised and answered (for the moment) by the stylebook’s representatives. To make all of this clear, I continue quoting directly from the ACES website article, and I’ve bolded some key points that are interesting. My impression is that the AP Stylebook does not prefer or endorse this usage; they are simply accepting it and allowing it if necessary for clarity.

Froke said clarity is key when using ‘they’ as a genderless pronoun.

“We specify that you need to make clear in the context that the ‘they’ in question is just one person,” Froke said. “We don’t, among our own staff, want to open a floodgate. But we recognize a need for it, so we want to open it a bit.

“The whole issue is difficult. We worked very hard to come up with a solution that makes sense.

“Clarity is the top priority. Our concern was the readers out there. Many don’t understand that ‘they’ can be used for a singular person.”

But Froke also acknowledged that in speech, ‘they’ is often used as singular.

“I write it naturally sometimes, too, and then have to go back and change it,” she said.

The style entry notes that when “they” is singular it takes a plural verb.

Colleen Newvine, product manager for the AP Stylebook, said people don’t have to use ‘they’ as singular but “if you find it best, it’s allowed.”

“Some people will be furious; others won’t think we’ve gone far enough,” Newvine said.

So what does this mean for us in our everyday communication with others? As the ACES article implies, continue using “he” and “she” when you’re certain that he is a he and she is a she. When there is doubt or if you don’t want to identify if the person is a he or a she, consider using the words they, them, or their. Clarity is our top goal.

Here are five typical examples where the new rule could be used.
1. I spoke to someone yesterday, and they told me to do it.

2. When in doubt, call up a company representative and ask them how it’s supposed to work.

3. I met an interesting person today, and their ideas on the issue were outstanding.

4. Someone just emailed me, and they gave me the information I needed.

5. I spoke to the manager yesterday, and they said they were going to do it.

Thank you for your time this month, I appreciate it, and please bookmark my blog for easy reference.

Randall Ponder, Baton Rouge, Louisiana USA        @randallponder

1 comment:

  1. Thanks a lot for this concept. I am looking forward to read your more post about this topic.