Why I'm Not Impressed The AP Approved Singular "They"

by s.e. smith
Scott Olson/Getty Images News/Getty Images

The Associated Press stylebook is being updated, and one of the major changes is the adoption of singular "they," as announced at the American Copy Editors Society conference last Friday. While the organization is making numerous changes to the media's style Bible, this one provoked a big response — from those who want to die on the hill of singular "they" to thrilled members of the trans community.

Aside from being useful for describing entities of unknown gender, or hypothetical entities, singular "they" has also been adopted by a number of nonbinary, agender, and otherwise gender nonconforming people who don't use masculine or feminine pronouns. Some use other gender-neutral pronouns and there are a number of examples in use, like xe, zie, and ve. Some don't use pronouns at all.

The problem that a lot of journalists faced was that if they worked in newsrooms that were sticklers for AP style and they quoted, cited, interviewed, or otherwise discussed people who used anything other than "he" or "she" as a personal pronoun, they had to either misgender them on orders from an editor, or avoid using pronouns altogether.

I confess that while I'm delighted the AP has decided to join the 21st century — or Middle English, which is when singular they was first used — and in so doing to allow journalists to do the same, I'm actually not that impressed with their revised guidelines. Reading the subtext, they feel more like extremely grudging concessions than an acknowledgement that the way people are using language is changing.

The AP should have unilaterally endorsed the use of singular "they" for subjects who use it, and should have at the very least left the door open for the use of additional pronouns. They didn't.

In response to Bustle's request for comment, the AP provided only a copy of the full guidelines, which include some key points:

They, them, theirIn 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…

After years of fighting over this in newsrooms, this is what journalists got: A grudging admission that we can use singular "they" when it refers to a specific subject or it simply can't be avoided without being clumsy.

I say grudging because the phrasing in the AP update makes the organization's contempt for singular "they" quite clear. It's "acceptable in limited cases," which is hardly a ringing endorsement. The organization says that "singular they is unfamiliar to many readers" despite the fact that it's in common English parlance pretty much everywhere. Readers aren't delicate flowers. They've encountered it and probably used it, and they can also tell the difference between singular and plural "they" in context.

You're supposed to avoid singular "they" even when it is someone's pronoun, the AP says, unless you simply can't dance around the issue any longer. If you do deploy it, the AP demands that journalists specifically call out singular "they" as a personal pronoun with an explanatory line, along the lines of: "Kirsten, who is genderqueer and prefers 'they'..."

Yet this kind of disambiguation isn't necessary for "he" and "she." Why not? Shouldn't we be clear that everyone cited and discussed in an article is in fact comfortable with the pronouns being used? I brought this up in a conversation with an editor at one point when she asked me to disambiguate someone using singular "they," and I said I'd be happy to do so if I could do the same with every other person in the piece, noting that cis people aren't ordinarily required to justify their pronouns.

The language "preferred" is also quite telling — while this sounds like semantics, it's important to acknowledge that saying trans people "prefer" given pronouns has an invalidating effect. People don't "prefer" a specific set of pronouns, they use use the pronouns that are appropriate to their identity. Thus the push to ask "which pronouns do you use?" rather than "which pronouns do you prefer?"

The AP also gets in a dig at "xe" and "ze," highlighting the fact that while the battle over singular "they" has been long, the battle over pronouns that aren't "he," "she," or "they" is likely to be even longer. There's a notion that people using "nonstandard" pronouns are behaving like "special snowflakes" and one of the reasons why is that their pronouns are consistently invalidated and treated as something cute and made up. I'm still not really clear on why people are so offended by other people's pronouns, since it doesn't really have any bearing on their lives, but it's a big problem.

I refuse to misgender people for the sake of the newsroom's convenience or the delicate sensibilities of readers.

Allowing journalists to use the correct pronouns when reporting on people would help normalize the diversity of pronouns available in English, and I'm pretty sure readers are up to the task. Humans are adaptable. English itself is highly adaptable and that's one of the things that makes it such a fascinating language.

The trans community in particular seems ready to celebrate the crumbs AP decided to throw them, but I'm withholding my praise. The update also includes revisions to "gender" that are much more inclusive and specifically acknowledge the complexity of gender — "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" — so I know they can do better.

As a journalist, I want to be able to refer to my subjects with the appropriate names and pronouns. If I can't, I can't cite them, because I refuse to misgender people for the sake of the newsroom's convenience or the delicate sensibilities of readers. This is important purely from the perspective of accuracy in reporting, and of course it has larger social implications.

We're living in an era of increased trans visibility, and of a growing awareness that there are more than two genders. News organizations need to receive affirmative confirmation that naming and gendering people correctly is good practice, rather than this halfhearted concession to the inevitable.