Why singular ‘they’ usage is soaring

By Taige Hale

We all say it. Most of us use it in conversation on a daily basis: the singular “they.”

Even though most people use the singular “they” in conversations, it does not mean it is officially allowed in professional writing styles. For journalists in particular, AP Style recently recognized the use of the singular “they” as a gender-neutral term, not as a way to avoid wordiness.

Photo courtesy: Feministing

“They” is a pronoun usually referring to more than one person. Using the singular “they” means a speaker or writer using “they,” “them” or “their” while referring to one person.

For example:

Using the singular “they” sounds something like this: “Everyone needs to turn in their homework.”

Technically, the correct sentence is: “Everyone needs to turn in his or her homework.”

Since reporters and editors are trained to revise stories for the easiest readability, allowing the singular “they” makes sense. Very few people say “his or her” while speaking to others and the use of the singular “they” in stories cuts out words.

Sean Hagewood, news coordinator for Nebraska Today, says he does not mind the use of the singular “they.”

“The English language is always evolving,” he said. “I think that’s how people talk and I’m a big fan of writing how people speak. Saying ‘he or she’ or ‘him or her’ sound clunky.”

Hagewood also said that most readers are not likely to notice this so-called mistake.

“It is a non-issue for them. I think journalists and grammar sticklers are the ones that will notice it,” he said.

Alongside reducing word congestion, the singular “they” is now recognized as a popular gender-neutral pronoun.

The Associated Press announced a style change in March allowing journalists to use the singular “they” in limited cases saying:

“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, AP encourages journalists to try and reword whenever possible. Since the AP Stylebook does not recognize the use of xe or ze as gender-neutral pronouns, readers are most likely not familiar with the use of gender-neutral pronouns in stories. Clarity for readers should be top priority.

Even though AP just recently opened the door for the usage of the singular “they,” newspapers across the United States have made it a part of their guidelines for more than a year. The New York Times and Chicago Tribune have been writing about the subject since 2011, and The Washington Post adopted the singular “they” in the paper’s guidelines in 2015.

While AP Style is just now recognizing the singular “they,” newspapers and people have recognized this subject for a long time. The use of the singular “they” in journalism can prevent wordiness and can sound more natural to readers. It also provides journalists with a gender-neutral term for people that do not identify as male or female.

So, why not use the singular “they” in journalism stories? We all say it on a daily basis.


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