Tag Archives: American Copy Editors Society

They, It Isn’t So

Pronoun TheyThere’s much debate in editing circles about using “they” as a singular as well as a plural pronoun.  At the April 2015 conference of the American Copy Editors Society (ACES), the topic came up several times, according to linguist and Wall Street Journal language columnist Ben Zimmer, a panelist who also covered the event. Zimmer wrote he “found growing acceptance of a usage that has long been disparaged as downright ungrammatical.”

Standard grammar dictates “they” and its related forms agree with plural antecedents only. However, English lacks a gender-neutral singular third-person pronoun, and “they” has for centuries grudgingly served that purpose, much to the grammarians’ chagrin. Still, as pointed out by ACES panelists, writers from Chaucer to Shakespeare to Jane Austen have done it.

“They” often becomes singular in common usage. Usually its antecedent is generic, not referring to a single known person, as in, “The crowd screamed for a foul, and they clearly affected the referee.” Thornier situations ensue when the antecedent more clearly refers to one person, however. A follower of this blog may not like what they see in this sentence, for example.

Lately, transgender issues (including extensive coverage of former Olympic decathlon champion Bruce Jenner’s announcement) have highlighted the need for a more inclusive pronoun.  “The singular ‘they’ avoids having to assign a static role to someone transitioning from one gender to another,” Zimmer notes. “Many who identify as transgender or gender-fluid would prefer the use of the pronoun ‘they’ rather than he or she.”

Pronoun PosterIn my view, the best way to write your way out of this grammatical quandary is to make the antecedent of “they” plural whenever possible, as in these examples:

The job of an independent journalist is to find out what they can and let their readers and viewers know.

Better: The job of independent journalists is to find out what they can and let their viewers and readers know.

When a reporter digs out information, they are doing their job.

Better: When reporters dig out information, they are doing their job.

When that simple fix isn’t feasible, using “they” definitely sounds and looks (on the printed page) less clunky and more natural than singular alternatives that seek to include both genders, such as “he or she,” “he/she” or “(s)he.” Sweden has enjoyed some acceptance of the pronoun “hen” as a gender-neutral alternative to “han” (“he”) and “hon” (“she”), but English alternatives (also including “thon,”  “xe” and “ze”) have failed to gain traction. “They, “‘ on the other hand, is already in common use. “Even grammatical sticklers may be coming around to it,” Zimmer wrote in his column.

Ironically, as noted by Merriam-Webster associate editor Emily Brewster at the conference, the main force blocking acceptance of the singular “they” is persnickety editors who take it out. The esteemed Chicago Manual of Style (16th edition) says, “While this usage is accepted in casual contexts, it is still considered ungrammatical in formal writing.” So there.

Personally, if I thought the situation sensitive, I would ask the client for his or her (or the corporate “its”) preference. If you can’t make that kind of decision, better to hire an editor to make it for you.

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Filed under Behind the Words, Commentary, Grammar