The AP Takes A Small Step Forward With Gender-Neutral Pronouns

Sandy Huffaker/Getty Images News/Getty Images

On Saturday, the Associated Press announced multiple changes regarding the use of gendered and gender-neutral pronouns. The news came during the AP's session at the American Copy Editors Society's annual conference, and while many other updates were also added to the Stylebook, it was the AP's decision to allow usage of the singular "they" that sparked the most conversation throughout social media.

The entry on pronouns has been updated as follows:

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.

However, though the change was largely seen as a positive one for the LGBTQ community, the rule's insistence that journalists avoid using the pronoun when possible kept some from celebrating the update as a full endorsement.

In an interview with Poynter, Tiffany Stevens, a reporter from The Roanoke Times who identifies as non-binary and prefers the pronoun "they," expressed some dissatisfaction with the guidelines instructing writers to either use a person's name or rephrase sentences to dodge using the singular "they." They said, "That's just being a frustrating stickler for grammar, which changes every century. At worst, it's erasure."

But while Stevens did not give a fully ringing embrace of the AP's new stance on gender-neutral pronouns, they still consider it a positive move. "The fact that it's being accepted by The Associated Press, that's super exciting," they said. "Non-binary people as an identity aren't recognized in general in America."

In addition to the new (limited) acceptance of the singular "they," another notable gender-related change is the pronoun "he" no longer being the neutral option to use in cases where a person's gender is unknown. These fall under the "limited" scenarios in which "they" is acceptable.

The 2017 AP Stylebook will be available in print on May 31, but it's effectively immediately online.