March 24, 2017

For the first time, The Associated Press now permits journalists to use “they” as a singular pronoun. The AP announced the style change Friday at the American Copy Editors Society conference in St. Petersburg, Florida.

The change follows years of questions among copy editors, reporters and editors about the use of language specifically about people who are non-binary and don’t use gendered pronouns.

The change is in effect online and will be in the print edition of the 2017 AP Stylebook on May 31. The new edition includes 200 new and updated entries.

Here is the singular “they” entry, 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.

“It’s about time,” said Wall Street Journal columnist and linguist Ben Zimmer.

Questions about the AP offering guidance was a big theme at ACES two years ago, he said. At the time, the AP noted they were starting to wrestle with it. Last year, the topic came up again.

“The fact that it’s being accepted by The Associated Press, that’s super exciting,” said Tiffany Stevens, a reporter with The Roanoke Times. Stevens is non-binary and uses the singular ‘they’ pronoun. “Non-binary people as an identity aren’t recognized in general in America.”

But both Stevens and Zimmer agreed that while the change itself is a step, it’s a small one. The new guidance notes that using a person’s last name and rewording are preferable to singular “they.” It still offers a way to “un-pronoun” for people who feel like singular “they” is grammatically incorrect, Stevens said.

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“That’s just being a frustrating stickler for grammar, which changes every century,” they said. “At worst, it’s erasure.”

“The idea that you could get away with just using the person’s name always seemed to be a bit of a copout to me,” Zimmer said. “I’ve seen that kind of pronoun avoidance happen.”

In 2013, the AP issued guidance on using the pronoun that a person prefers, but the entry didn’t address people who don’t use he/she/him/her.

The AP isn’t the first to offer thoughts on how to use singular “they.” The Baltimore Sun started using it in 2012. In 2015, The Washington Post’s late Bill Walsh issued guidance allowing for the term. Poynter also used it, with an explanation, in a story about Stevens.

The AP’s guidance means smaller newspapers might follow suit, Stevens said.

Even with the guidance, however, people trying to follow the style guide will have a lot of hoops to jump through, Zimmer said. Still, the change shows a growing awareness of an issue that reporters are increasingly covering people who are non-binary. Usage can also be confusing for readers, Zimmer said, so properly explaining why it’s being used will help everyone get used to the idea that “they” could refer to a singular person.

“Style guides sometimes move in baby steps,” he said. “This seems to be a step in a good direction, even if it’s not a full-throated endorsement of singular they.”

Stevens agreed.

“It feels both exciting and grudging at the same time,” they said.

Here are a few other updates and changes the AP announced on Friday:

Correction: Tiffany Stevens name was misspelled as Stephens in one instance. We apologize for the error. It has been corrected.

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Kristen Hare teaches local journalists the critical skills they need to serve and cover their communities as Poynter's local news faculty member. Before joining faculty…
Kristen Hare

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