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The Associated Press didn’t announce any earthshaking changes last week at the annual American Copy Editors Society conference. But Ben Zimmer did notice a recurring topic.

“It feels like at every session I’ve attended, singular ‘they’ has come up,” said Zimmer, a Wall Street Journal columnist and the editor of

Zimmer was on a panel Friday with Emily Brewster, an associate editor with Merriam-Webster, and they both addressed the question there. But it’s not really a new one.

“The question of whether or not it’s OK to use singular ‘they’ has been around for hundreds of years,” said Brewster.

In old English, “you” was once plural, but “they” as singular has been disparaged for a long time, Brewster said. Now, Zimmer said, there are some newer arguments for using singular “they.”

“At one level, it’s a matter of whether the English language is heading toward greater acceptance of ‘they’ being construed as a singular pronoun,” Zimmer said. “People have different judgments about its acceptability, but in general it’s considered more acceptable when ‘they’ agrees with an antecedent that is generic (as in ‘Everyone should return to their seats’).”

One argument made for the singular “they,” Zimmer said, is it’s an alternative to using “he” generically, “as in ‘Everyone should return to his seat.’ That has become increasingly disfavored, especially since the push for non-sexist language advocated by feminists since the 1970s.”

For awhile now, John McIntyre has been writing about singular “they” on his language blog, “about the evidence of its usage, and suggesting that not only is there the need for an epicene first-person pronoun in English,” said McIntyre, an editor at The Baltimore Sun and a former ACES president, “but we already have one, and it’s they.”

Stump the editor

More recently, singular “they” is being considered as an alternative to he and she for people who don’t identify as male or female or who don’t identify with any gender all. The Associated Press already recommends identifying someone by the pronoun that person prefers, but what if someone doesn’t prefer either?

Zimmer pointed out how a recent article in The New York Times showed the quandary editors can find themselves in when trying to respect subjects while also following grammar rules.

From the article:

Gieselman, a 21-year-old senior majoring in gender studies, was chatting cheerfully from a futon, legs tucked sideways, knees forward. In the tidy, poster-filled apartment that Gieselman shares with a roommate near campus, we were discussing the dating landscape. Gieselman, who came out in seventh grade, blushed and smiled shyly: “My partner was born female, feels female. The partners I’m attracted to are usually feminine people.”

Gieselman, too, was born female, has a gentle disposition, and certainly appears feminine (save for a K. D. Lang cut). But Gieselman self-identifies not as a gay woman but as transgender. Unlike men and women who experience a mismatch between their bodies and their gender identities and take steps to align them, Gieselman accepts having a womanly body, and uses the term — along with “genderqueer” — to mean something else: a distinct third gender.

“What the Times did in that article and other articles I’ve seen is just to avoid using pronouns entirely,” Zimmer said. “You end up having to do linguistic somersaults in order to avoid making any choices on pronouns.”

Julie Scelfo, the reporter who wrote the story, said that in her first job, her editor had a rule: “‘if it’s in a skirt, it’s a she.’ This allowed us to write about drag events without ever getting into questions of gender identity. Today, this would never work for any serious publication as it could potentially rob the reader of important, nuanced information about a source.”

In reporting the story for The New York Times, Scelfo discovered how hard it is to write without pronouns. She wrote a piece about not being able to use “they” in referring to the story’s main source.

My editor was stumped on receiving the draft: Wasn’t my use of “she” and “her” incorrect? But using “they” to refer to a single person would confuse readers. We had to take out all the pronouns.

I was horrified, but attempted to rewrite every single sentence pronoun-free, a frustrating and exhausting experience. Instead of a pronoun, the name might be used. Quote attributions — she saids — might be dropped. A sentence might be flipped or pared down. Then there was more rewriting to make the contortions appear more natural — like when a yoga instructor reminds you, midcrow pose, to smile and relax your facial muscles.

Pronoun avoidance isn’t a good long-term solution, Zimmer said, “but I think that the fact that it’s becoming more of an issue in gender identity, which is being written about a lot, I think that kind of social development will encourage editors to rethink their policy about singular ‘they’ and not say, ‘oh, we can’t accept this because it’s not grammatical.'”

“Really the only thing standing between its acceptance and the usage that we see is that editors edit it out,” Brewster said.

Look out, whom

Teresa Schmedding, ACES president and deputy managing editor/digital at the Daily Herald in suburban Chicago, said she isn’t opposed to singular “they.”

“But I’m also a fan of dropping whom.”

After we spoke, Schmedding asked members of the ACES Board via email how they felt about “they.”

“I think it’s safe to say that not all ACES board members are embracing it as much as I am, but more than half that responded today have no objection, in general,” she said. “Some publications may have a more formal writing style that may dictate adhering to more formal language rules.”

In a session on Friday with editors from The Associated Press, the question came up again.

“I understand that some people prefer ‘they’ when referring to an individual,” AP’s David Minthorn said in the session. “We will note the preference.”

“There are pronouns being used that are not mainstream, so to speak,” Minthorn added. “I don’t think we’ve completely wrestled with that.”

It’s working in Baltimore

One example of changes in editing and language norms, Zimmer points out, is the use of Ms. In the late 60s and early 70s, using Ms. was seen as a feminist statement, he said. “And now it doesn’t seem remarkable in any way.”

The same thing could now be happening with the use of the singular “they.”

“I fully support an expanded range of pronouns but understand the reluctance to adopt singular ‘they’,” Scelfo said. “While there is indeed a historical precedent for doing so, ‘they’ was only used as a stand-in for ‘he or she; on second reference, not as a primary subject. And given that American English-speakers are accustomed to using ‘they’ to refer to a group of people (instead of an individual), it can feel awkward to use ‘they’ for a single person. That said, I’m sure it’s something we can get used to, or, personally I would prefer we adopt an alternative gender neutral option, like ‘Ze,’ which could be deployed in a range of circumstances.”

Singular “they” isn’t just an issue for people with fluid gender identities, Zimmer said, “but I would say that the embrace of singular ‘they’ takes on added significance now that it is becoming a prominent marker of non-binary gender identities. And those in the media will increasingly need to grapple with these issues in a serious way.”

In Baltimore for most of the last year, McIntyre has let instances of the singular “they” through, and hasn’t heard a peep about it.

“Not only has there not been a complaint from a reader, nobody on the staff has said anything to me about it,” he said. “Either all the retired English professors are dead — and I know some of them, so I know that’s not true — or it has become so commonplace that it frequently passes unnoticed in edited, published work.”

Related: AP Stylebook change: BLT is now acceptable on first reference.

Nine ways journalists can do justice to transgender people’s stories.

Resources for reporters on all beats (including sports) who cover LGBT people

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