Thoughts on genre, language, grammar, and other
rhetorical and linguistic norms
rhetorical and linguistic norms
This past week, the AP style guide announced changes for the next edition. One big change getting a lot of attention is its official approval of using “they” to refer to singular rather than plural people. As great as the move is for including people with non-binary gender identities, their endorsement of “they” is limited.
I want more.
Here’s what the AP blog describes as one of the key passages in the new guide:
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…”
In other words, do everything you can to avoid using “they” to refer to just one person. I can imagine how journalists will “explain in the text that the person prefers a gender-neutral pronoun.” Something like, “Alex argues that their (note that “their” here refers to just the one person, Alex, who prefers a gender-neutral pronoun) gender should not a factor.”
Elegant. And so much better than just writing, “Alex argues that their gender should not be a factor.” (Does sarcasm come across in writing? Not very well.)
The AP defends its position by saying we’re not used to singular “they,” that “gender-neutral use of a singular they is unfamiliar to many readers.”
Except that’s not true. We may not be used to singular “they” to refer to a specific individual like Riley, but we’re all used to using “they” for the singular without marking gender. And we may even be used to some uses of “they” to refer to a specific individual with a specific gender.
In fact, it has a long history:
From the 1526 Tyndale English version of the Bible (from Wayne Leman, Better Bibles blog)
So lyke wyse shall my hevenly father do vnto you except ye forgeve with youre hertes eache one to his
brother their treaspases. (Tyndale, 1526)
Notice that we’re forgiving a male “brother” their trespasses.
From Jane Austen’s Emma (from pemberley.com)
Emma Woodhouse to Mr. Knightley [discussing Harriet Smith]:
"Who is in love with her? Who makes you their confidant?"
Since we know Emma assumes Harriet’s potential lover is male, “their” here too is used instead of the gender-specific “his.”
These passages are usually quoted to show the long history of using “they” to refer to singular nouns where the gender is not specific. Contemporary examples are everywhere:
If anyone has a question, they should step to the microphone.
Whoever spilled red wine on my white rug should clean up their mess.
Although it’s a favorite shibboleth of some grammar snobs, such use of “they” is so common in speech most people wouldn’t notice it. And I suspect it’s now more commonly used and less often noticed in writing as well as speech.
In the past few years, that singular use of “they” has received a flurry of endorsements—by the Washington Post in 2015 and the American Dialect Society in 2016, to name two biggies.
Several great language blogs have written about this use of “they” (you’ll find multiple entries on this use of “they” on language log)
And Geoff Nunberg has a nice summary of the issues and its history on npr.org, “Everyone Uses Singular 'They,' Whether They Realize It Or Not”
But until relatively recently, that use of “they” has been banned by style guides and handbooks. And it is still shunned in the new version of the AP style guide. Quoting from the key passages in their blog again,
“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. ”
That’s why I want more from them.
We now have two reasons we need the singular “they”:
And I might add a third reason--
I’d like to suggest we go even further and make it noticeable.
What if we just start using “they” as the singular pronoun in all cases—known gender or not, individual person or not, gender-specific preference or not?
I like how Jane Austen created their characters with strengths and flaws.
Tell Emma that they should stop meddling.
Tell your brother to put away their toys, now!
I know, I know, it sounds weird. Our ears aren’t used to it. And I’m enough of a linguist to know that this is not how language changes. We could all start campaigning against “he/him/his/himself” and “she/her/hers/herself” and those gender-specific words would remain dominant. And besides, those words work when we know the gender is male or female. And besides again, having just one form for both singular and plural would create some ambiguity, like there currently is for the singular and plural “you.” Why do you think we have the words “y’all” and “you guys” and “you’uns” and “you folks”?
But there’s a reason to try, a reason to start raising awareness about those gender-specific usages--
equity and social justice.
So there’s a fourth reason we need singular “they.” So that we’re all “they.” No one stands out as the “they” in a room of “he"s and “she"s. If they want to stand out, they’ll have to do it in ways other than the pronouns we use to refer to them.
Let’s all be them.
According to Merriam-Webster dictionaries, they “have evidence in our files of the nonbinary they dating back to 1950, and it’s likely that there are earlier uses of the nonbinary pronoun they out there.” So isn't it about time we use the language we need?
Yep, it’s optimist Amy again, wanting us to try even if it’s pie in the sky, wanting us to strive to do the right thing, even if it wouldn’t work. If the AP style guide wants writers to insert an explanation whenever one of us prefers to be referred to as “they,” let’s go with it:
Amy wrote an idealistic blog post, but they prefer idealism to inequity (the use of “they” here permits
all people to be treated equitably, if only in this small way)