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Conflicts are always brewing in the grammar world. This time, I'm talking about the singular "they."

I'll need a little time to explain the concept. Have patience.

A sentence often starts with a pronoun or noun that indicates the subject is one person but of unspecified gender.

Here are examples of pronouns: everyone, each, anybody, anyone, nobody, no one. These are called singular indefinite pronouns, but you don't have to remember that title to understand the concept.

Other singular nouns might be preceded by an "a" or an "an."

So here's how sentences would start:

A voter can't change ...

A graduate feels ...

Each candidate expressed ...

Everyone must bring ...

A person researching ...

When you have a visitor, you should offer ...

Next, you add some sort of tie-in to the sentence's subject. This is where you have to decide whether to use "his" or "her," even though you don't know the gender.

One common way of doing so is to simply go with "his." So:

A voter can't change his decision after Election Day.

Each candidate expressed his disapproval of oil drilling off Virginia's coast.

A graduate may feel as though his past is ending and his future starting. (At times, they say hokey things at commencements.)

Some call this use of "his" sexist. Why should you assume the voter is a man? Many are likely women.

Some people will instead write a form of "he or she."

Everyone must bring his or her own book to book club. (Also some wine.)

Many people find that solution unwieldy.

Other people use the somewhat clunky "s/he."

A person researching ancestry hopes to learn things s/he doesn't know.

Still others follow a singular pronoun with a "they." And that's what people argue about the most.

Before: A police officer should turn off their body camera when entering a home, privacy advocates argue.

After: Police officers should turn off their body cameras when entering a home, privacy advocates argue.

The Associated Press Stylebook, which guides newspaper editors, discourages the singular "they." Editors say a singular noun needs a singular verb and a singular pronoun. "They" is a plural pronoun.

The online book has a section in which the editors are asked about matters that may not be thoroughly explained elsewhere on the site.

One editor writes, "When the gender isn't clear, avoid they or their for a singular antecedent; rephrase to avoid grammatical dissonance."

Dissonance is the worst.

One person wanted this sentence to be OK:

Everyone can make a difference by using their talents.

Instead, AP offered two alternatives:

Everyone can make a difference by using his or her talents.

People can make a difference by using their talents.

Here's another example:

When you have a visitor, you should offer a cookie to them.

When you have visitors, you should offer cookies to them.

The Chicago Manual of Style, which provides guidelines for book writers and editors, agrees with the AP Stylebook policy. The editors offer a few other ways to rewrite sentences to avoid the singular "they."

• Use "him or her," but sparingly.

Everyone can make a difference by using his or her talents.

• Repeat the noun.

A person researching ancestry hopes to learn things the person doesn't know. (I find that awkward.)

• Remove the pronoun.

Everyone can make a difference by using talent. (Again, awkward.)

• Use "the" instead of "his or her."

A voter can't change the decision after Election Day.

• Use the neutral pronoun "one."

A person can make a difference by using one's talents.

Editor and language expert John McIntyre notes that some not-too-shabby writers use the singular "they." Among them: Chaucer, Shakespeare, Byron, Jane Austen, Thackeray, W.H. Auden, Edith Wharton and George Orwell.

He decided a few years back to allow the singular "they" to run in the Baltimore Sun. He says no readers have complained.

Professor and language blogger Anne Curzan says the singular "they" has been used for centuries, and many, many people continue to use it.

Some people say the word is ambiguous, but, at times, that's on purpose. You don't want to give the listener too much information.

A certain co-worker said they were rallying for a raise, and their supervisor agreed.

Curzan also acknowledges that the singular "they" is the informal way of speaking, and that's OK. Formal rules slowly change.

But prescriptivists, who want language rules to remain, despise the singular "they."

Because I follow AP style, I'm likely to continue to excise the singular "they." But I find the topic is entertaining.

Whatever side the language experts come down on, they're likely to continue discussing and arguing for a long time.

Sources: Grammar Bytes, Merriam-Webster, Poynter, Ragan's PR Daily, Arlington Connection, Chronicle of Higher Education, The Guardian, The Washington Post


Style on 04/15/2019

Print Headline: They see 'they' as OK for 1


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  • RBBrittain
    April 15, 2019 at 2:47 p.m.

    This article is outdated; the AP Stylebook and Chicago Manual of Style have both allowed limited use of the singular "they" since 2017, though both still suggest the best option is to find a way around it. Also, the article ignores another reason for the singular "they" that comes from modern gender theory: Some people, known as "non-binary" or "gender non-conforming", identify as neither male nor female; they believe "he or she" excludes them. (Some of these people even insist on special pronouns like "ze", but both AP & CMoS still reject these pronouns.) Thus, the singular "they" is the most inclusive pronoun for this situation; though "he or she" is still preferred in formal writing, I suspect even that will disappear in the coming years. (I agree with the author that "s/he" is just plain wrong.)

  • RBBrittain
    April 15, 2019 at 3:02 p.m.

    Full disclosure: As many commenters here know (one even "deadnamed" me, or intentionally used my male birth name), I identify as a transgender woman. I now serve on the board of directors of the Arkansas Transgender Equality Coalition, which has treated non-binary people as part of the Arkansas community since its founding in 2014, even though some non-binary people don't identify as trans. (We respect "ze" even though the AP & CMoS don't, but most of our community sticks with "he", "she" or "they".) I do consider myself slightly non-binary (after living 50 years as a man it's hard to shake some male traits), but usually prefer "she" or "her". Still, I strongly believe in respecting the singular "they".

  • RBBrittain
    April 15, 2019 at 3:04 p.m.

    *Arkansas trans community