Each English language user is about to meet their language’s new gender neutral singular pronoun, with the release of the new Associated Press Stylebook

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.

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Each English language user is about to meet their language’s new gender neutral singular pronoun, with the release of the new Associated Press Stylebook — 3 Comments

  1. The editor notes, “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.”

    This example is chosen a bit unfairly; it fits the situation easily, precisely BECAUSE the first sentence uses a specific SINGULAR term that happens to be non-gender specific. Such a term almost DEMANDS a gender-neutral pronoun in the following sentence, and “they” works fine.

    But circumstances like this are rare. MOST of the time when a trans person is being referred to, there has been no gender-neutral SINGULAR word in the prior sentence, so the pronoun selected has to carry they burden of both gender-neutrality AND singularity. “They” doesn’t normally perform both such functions, so the user has to seek other, often awkward, ways to clarify that a singular person is meant.

    I do NOT find the word “they” to do the job. Even if it is used so frequently that people widely accept it as being applicable to trans people or others who do not want to declare one of the two major genders, it STILL will be ambiguous as to singular-plural. Can’t we do better than that?

  2. Paula Froke wrote that one of the reasons for [mildly] endorsing the use of “thy” is the following: “recognition that spoken language uses they as singular.”

    What she doesn’t acknowledge is that spoken language uses “they” as singular primarily when the fact that the referent is singular has ALREADY BEEN ESTABLISHED in the (or a) preceding sentence. Can anyone find a case where in normal, widely accepted usage, “they” designates BOTH gender neutrality AND a singular referent WITHOUT any prior indicator of number?

  3. I’m not sure why people find it such a terrible transgression to use a word in a new way, we do this often in English (and other languages of course) as language changes over time to meet the needs of a changing society. As “they” becomes common usage, the ambiguity will be mitigated by practice adaptations.
    I think both the acknowledgement of “they” in this way and the notes provided for gender/sex are a great step forward.

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