Wandering Eye:

The case for singular they

In 'The His'er Problem,' from her 1998 essay collection "Ex Libris," Anne Fadiman talks about using gender-neutral language in writing, and describes reading a sentence "by my beloved role model, E. B. White: 'There is one thing the essayist cannot do—he cannot indulge himself in deceit or concealment, for he will be found out in no time.' I felt the door slamming in my face so fast I could feel the wind against my cheek." Using "he" as the supposedly neutral pronoun is exclusionary, but what do you do about a phrase like "to each his own"? Using "his or her" feels unnecessarily clunky, but in her essay, Fadiman objects to using "their" as a singular neutral pronoun—"The disagreement between pronoun and antecedent is more than I can bear," she writes.

While grammar sticklers might argue that it's totally incorrect to use "they" or "their" as a singular pronoun, Ben Zimmer, the executive editor of Vocabulary.com and a columnist for The Wall Street Journal, points out that singular they has been in usage for more than seven centuries, "appearing in the work of writers from Chaucer to Shakespeare to Jane Austen."

Singular they was a major topic at the American Copy Editors Society's national conference in March, which I attended. (Yes, it was just as gloriously geeky as you might imagine.) Especially given the rising visibility of transgender and genderqueer individuals who might not use "he" or "she" as their pronouns, it feels less inclusive and accurate to use a "his or her" construction than "their." After that conference, City Paper changed its style guide to include "they" as an acceptable singular pronoun, when it can't be written around—"if readers are upset about the change, they can complain to the copy editor," for instance, instead of "if a reader is upset about the change, they can complain to the copy editor."

The conversation about singular they has continued (at least in copy-editing circles) throughout the year. John McIntyre from The Baltimore Sun has long been OK with singular they, and, as he pointed out in April, has for years allowed it in copy "without a peep of protest from readers." The Pittsburgh City Paper started using it in August after covering a gender-fluid musician who used "they" as their pronoun. "When this has come up before, our solution had always been to write around it when possible, often by eliminating any pronoun use," Editor Charlie Deitch wrote in a post announcing the change. "But that is difficult to do and ignores the greater issue at hand: Who am I to write around someone's identity just because it's tough to write in a news story?"

Singular they made news again recently, when Bill Walsh, who has been a copy editor at The Washington Post since 1997, wrote about the style changes he's implemented recently at the Post. "For many years, I've been rooting for — but stopping short of employing — what is known as the singular they as the only sensible solution to English's lack of a gender-neutral third-person singular personal pronoun," he writes. "What finally pushed me from acceptance to action on gender-neutral pronouns was the increasing visibility of gender-neutral people." Using language that's more accurately inclusive is something that every grammarian should be able to get behind, regardless of what pronouns they personally use.

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