December 1, 2015

It has been a big week for proponents of non-binary gender identifiers. On Wednesday, The New York Times included a new honorific — Mx. — in a story that quoted Senia Hardwick, a bookshop employee who didn’t want to be assigned a gender by the newspaper.

It was a big step for the Times, which still hasn’t settled on a definitive style for the word, Kara Bloomgarden-Smoke wrote in the New York Observer:

Asked about the use of Mx. (pronounced “mix”) in the Times back in June, standards editor Philip B. Corbett seemed to be taking a wait and see approach to the word. “I don’t think we’re likely to adopt Mx. in the near future,” Mr. Corbett told the Times. “It remains too unfamiliar to most people, and it’s not clear when or if it will emerge as a widely adopted term.”

Now comes word via Washington Post style sage Bill Walsh that Washington’s paper of record will allow employees to use “they” to refer to “people who identify as neither male nor female.” Here’s an excerpt from his memo to the newsroom:

It is usually possible, and preferable, to recast sentences as plural to avoid both the sexist and antiquated universal default to male pronouns and the awkward use of he or she, him or her and the like: All students must complete their homework, not Each student must complete his or her homework.

When such a rewrite is impossible or hopelessly awkward, however, what is known as “the singular they” is permissible: Everyone has their own opinion about the traditional grammar rule. The singular they is also useful in references to people who identify as neither male nor female.

The Washington Post’s ruling is the latest salvo in a style dispute that has seen skirmishes between journalism greybeards on both sides. Earlier this year, the adoption of “they” as an acceptable pronoun surfaced several times during the annual American Copy Editors Society conference. My colleagues Kristen Hare and Lauren Klinger wrote about its potential for inclusion in The Associated Press stylebook, as well as its evolving usage in newsrooms across America.

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Benjamin Mullin is the managing editor of He previously reported for Poynter as a staff writer, Google Journalism Fellow and Naughton Fellow, covering journalism…
Benjamin Mullin

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