Daily Tedium

They Stopped (Sorta)

The Associated Press finally allows the singular “they” in some limited instances—a big move in the world of copy-editing.

By Ernie Smith

Last summer, I wrote an impassioned plea in favor of embracing the singular “they,” which I called “the Rodney Dangerfield of grammar.”

Basically, this word use, which has no simple singular equivalent that doesn’t dive into awkward gender politics when the subject’s grammar hasn’t been revealed, has been written around for hundreds of years by newspapers and in other formalized grammar settings. The Associated Press, notably, had resisted changing its mind on this issue, even as the linguistic tide started to favor it.

Until now, that is. Last week, the AP formally weighed in on the issue, allowing the use of “they” in some instances after holding its nose about the idea for a long period of time. The key entry:

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

Arguments for using they/them as a singular sometimes arise with an indefinite pronoun (anyone, everyone, someone) or unspecified/unknown gender (a person, the victim, the winner)

It’s good to see the Associated Press starting down this road, but it feels like the path to get there is awful slow.

As I pointed out in my piece last year, the reason for not doing this appears to be less about historical precedent and more about a sort of linguistic formalism, implemented midway through the process, that much of the world appears to have basically ignored.

I wish they were moving faster on this issue, but I’ll accept that it’s probably a big step that they did anything at all.

(On a side note: Famed Washington Post copy editor Bill Walsh, a noted author who I mentioned in my piece, passed away just days before the change was implemented. His support for the singular they, which he formally added to the Post’s style guide in 2015, likely played a role in convincing the AP to come around on the issue. He’ll be missed in the copy-editing world and beyond it.)

Ernie Smith

Your time was just wasted by Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is the editor of Tedium, and an active internet snarker. Between his many internet side projects, he finds time to hang out with his wife Cat, who's funnier than he is.

Find me on: Website Twitter