When Will ‘They’ Ever Learn?


By now Lingua Franca readers should know the position of Lingua Franca bloggers on the OK-ness of singular they, otherwise known as the epicene pronoun. (“Everyone who wants to go to the party should wear their best clothes.”) Anne Curzan, Lucy Ferriss, Geoff Pullum, and I have all laid out why we think the usage is grammatical, nonambiguous, unclumsy, generally better than such alternatives as he, she, or he or she (much less s/he!), and possessed of an impressive literary pedigree. It’s already widely used in writing in Britain and Ireland, and in American speech as well. But not yet in U.S. published writing. For that to happen, American editors and usage guides will need to step up to the plate and endorse singular they.

And they are starting to, albeit in a two-steps-forward-one-step-back manner. In 2015, Bill Walsh — the widely liked and admired Washington Post copy editor, now deceased — wrote in a memo to the Post newsroom:

It is usually possible, and preferable, to recast sentences as plural to avoid both the sexist and antiquated universal default to male pronouns and the awkward use of “he or she,” “him or her” and the like: “All students must complete their homework,” not “Each student must complete his or her homework.”

When such a rewrite is impossible or hopelessly awkward, however, what is known as “the singular they” is permissible: “Everyone has their own opinion about the traditional grammar rule.” The singular “they” is also useful in references to people who identify as neither male nor female.

“Permissible” is better than nothing. In 2017, the AP Stylebook likewise gave in a bit, though more grudgingly than Walsh (emphasis added):

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.…

In stories about people who identify as neither male nor female or ask not to be referred to as he/she/him/her: Use the person’s name in place of a pronoun, or otherwise reword the sentence, whenever possible. If they/them/their use is essential, explain in the text that the person prefers a gender-neutral pronoun. Be sure that the phrasing does not imply more than one person.

The big get in publishing, as opposed to newspapers, is The Chicago Manual of Style. Way back in 1993, the 14th edition of CMOS took a striking and valiant stand: “The University of Chicago Press recommends the ‘revival’ of the singular use of they and their”; noted was the “venerable use by such writers as Addison, Austen, Chesterfield, Fielding, Ruskin, Scott, and Shakespeare.” But in the next edition that got dialed back — way back: “… it is unacceptable to a great many readers … to use they as a singular pronoun.” (The “many readers” language reminds me a bit of Donald Trump’s “A lot of people are saying … ” trope.) The16th edition stood pat, in the passive voice: “… it is still considered ungrammatical in formal writing.”

The 17th edition of CMOS, all 1,144 pages of it, was published this month. Perhaps I was alone in immediately looking for what it had to say about singular they; perhaps not. In any case, here’s the relevant passage:

5.48 … While this usage is accepted [in speech and informal writing], it is only lately showing signs of gaining acceptance in formal writing, where Chicago recommends avoiding its use. When referring specifically to a person who does not identify with a gender-specific pronoun, however, they and its forms are often preferred. … In general a person’s stated preference for a specific pronoun should be respected.

The last two sentences, on people who do not “identify with a gender-specific pronoun,” are interesting. They echo similar language from the Associated Press and Washington Post and suggest to me that when singular they finally succeeds in “gaining acceptance in formal writing,” as it surely eventually will, it will be through this back door. That is, individuals who justifiably demand to be referred to as they will pave the way for its wider use as a singular pronoun.

Time will tell — and, as our camp has no choice but to play the long game, we can wait.

Meanwhile, I see the CMOS 17 ed. says, “The adverbs too and either used in the sense of ‘also’ generally need not be preceded by a comma.”

No comma before too, or either, either?? That outrage will not stand.

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