For some time now, there has been a movement to address the English language’s need for a gender neutral singular pronoun. This need originates in the growing realization that using “he” to refer to a person whose gender you do not know is exceedingly troubling: in case studies and examples, then, all professionals become presumptively men.
In addition, people who do not fit into classic gender norms may not want to be shoved into them by “he” and “she” as English’s only singular pronouns. And as Marilyn Frye noted in The Politics of Reality, English’s use of only gendered singular pronouns requires use to constantly engage in “sex-marking” (the determination of others’ sex before we can know how to refer to them, relate to them, shake hands, touch them, interpret body language, deploy body language, etc.). It also requires each of us to constantly announce our sex by using the techniques that fit into established gender norms.
This reinforces rigid gender norms for dress and comportment and the maintenance of our bodies (hairy, or hairless? makeup, or not? heels, or tennis shoes?) in order to clearly signal and clearly determine each person’s gender and sex. Thus, many feminists have proposed, the absence of a gender neutral pronoun is one of many social and linguistic features that shore up traditional rigid gender norms and their content. Feminist science fiction has postulated a range of possibilities including some which have come into occasional usage, including “ze” for the pronoun and “zir” or “hir” for the possessive. The recent scifi novel Ancillary Justice features a main character who simply cannot sex mark people accurately, and so uses “she” to refer to all other characters in the book.
Increasingly, though, it seems we no longer need novel pronouns. Language users have naturally begun to adapt a word already in use. Consider the claim “Someone left their phone in the bathroom. I hope they come back for it.” We already use “they” in casual usage to refer to someone whose gender is unknown And for some time now, the use of “they” as gender neutral singular pronoun has been gaining formal endorsements. In January of 2016, the American Dialect Society adopted it as officially correct English, and the Washington Post had already integrated it into its style guide. The next big leap occurred when the Associated Press Stylebook, which is widely used by many news organizations and blogs as a guide to language usage, embraced “they” for this purpose. On Friday, March 24, 2017, the AP’s lead editor for the Stylebook, Paula Froke, had this to say:
We offer new advice for two reasons: recognition that 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.
We also can use this wherever we need a gender neutral singular pronoun. Perhaps knowing that it is available will also lighten the burden of constant announcing and marking of sex and gender.
As a side note, other revisions to the AP Stylebook that may be of interest to this blog’s readers include an explicit distinction between gender and sex. The entry on this 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.”
With the imprimatur of a more universal style guide like the AP Stylebook, teachers and authors who had not yet adopted these usages in grading and writing may need to do so.