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The singular, gender-neutral ‘they’ added to the Associated Press Stylebook

A gender neutral sign is posted outside a bathroom in Durham, N.C. (Sara D. Davis/Getty Images)

The Associated Press Stylebook, arguably the foremost arbiter of grammar and word choice in journalism, has added an entry for “they” as a singular, gender-neutral pronoun in its latest edition.

“We stress that it’s usually possible to write around that,” Paula Froke, lead editor for the Associated Press Stylebook, said in a blog post on the American Copy Editors Society’s website. “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.”

Some journalists “write around” it by simply using the person’s name with each reference to avoid a jarring construction such as, “They is going home.”

The decision, announced Thursday at the American Copy Editors Society conference in St. Petersburg, Fla., now appears in the online stylebook and will appear in the 2017 print edition on May 31.

Via Poynter, the new entry reads in part:

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 …
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 new stylebook also includes an updated section on gender, which reads, “Gender refers to a person’s social identity while sex refers to biological characteristics. Not all people fall under one of two categories for sex or gender, according to leading medical organizations, so avoid references to both, either or opposite sexes or genders as a way to encompass all people.”

Additionally, it added its first entry for “homophobia, homophobic,” which it stated are “acceptable in broad references or in quotations to the concept of fear or hatred of gays, lesbians and bisexuals.”

“It’s about time,” Ben Zimmer, language columnist for the Wall Street Journal, told Poynter. “Style guides sometimes move in baby steps. This seems to be a step in a good direction, even if it’s not a full-throated endorsement of singular they.”

“Because of this change, transgender and gender-nonconforming people will gain greater respect and dignity in the media,” writer Jacob Tobia, whose preferred pronouns are gender-neutral, told NBC News. “It’s great to know that I won’t have to fight so hard to have my pronouns respected by journalists.”

The Washington Post, which uses its own style guide, officially embraced the usage of the singular “they” in 2015.

“For many years, I’ve been rooting for — but stopping short of employing — what is known as the singular they as the only sensible solution to English’s lack of a gender-neutral third-person singular personal pronoun,” wrote the late Bill Walsh, a longtime Washington Post copy editor.

“The only thing standing in the way of they has been the appearance of incorrectness — the lack of acceptance among educated readers,” he continued. “What finally pushed me from acceptance to action on gender-neutral pronouns was the increasing visibility of gender-neutral people. The Post has run at least one profile of a person who identifies as neither male nor female and specifically requests they and the like instead of he or she.”

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The singular “they” made further gains in January 2016, when it beat out popular phrases “on fleek” and “thanks, Obama” as the American Dialect Society’s Word of the Year.

Zimmer, who presided over the vote, told The Post the selection both acknowledged something commonly used in the English language while “also playing into emerging ideas about gender identity.”

“It encapsulates different trends that are going on in the language,” Zimmer said. “It’s a way of identifying something that’s going on in the language which ties to issues of gender identity and speaks to other ways that people are using language to express themselves and present their identity.”

The usage of nontraditional pronouns has become more common in daily life, particularly in universities, during the past few years. Students attending orientation at American University, for example, offer their preferred gender pronouns alongside their names and home towns when introducing themselves.

“We ask everyone at orientation to state their pronouns,” Sara Bendoraitis, the university’s director of programming, outreach and advocacy, told the BBC, “so that we are learning more about each other rather than assuming.”

Critics of allowing students to choose preferred pronouns have mocked the practice. After the University of Michigan announced a “designated pronoun” policy, one student chose the “pronoun” “His Majesty” in protest.

“The more and more we go down this road of political correctness at these universities,” Grant Strobl, the student in question, told Fox News, “the question is: When will that end? How much is the university willing to sacrifice its pursuit of truth and its mission for this fantasyland of political correctness?”

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