AP stylebook now allows the "singular they" in some instances

Originally published at: http://boingboing.net/2017/03/25/ze-zir.html


INB4 – What was they thinking?


If anyone doesn’t like singular “they” for a pronoun of unspecified gender, might I quote the Medley Marine Journal of March 3, 1794, “we would aſk [you] to coin us a ſubſtitute.”

From a nice review of attempts to fill missing English pronouns since 1792: The Words that Failed: A chronology of early nonbinary pronouns.


To this day style guides continue to horrify me; I remember once wanting to write for a certain gaming site and discovering this eight page, bullet point style guide so full of nit-picky minutiae that it was clear to me that the editor/owner wanted all articles to read like he had written them himself.

I understand the need for a somewhat unified style, as a given paper etc is indeed selling a product, but…what’s the value of hiring creatives if there is no room for a writer’s voice?


I Afaik, “they” in the singular sense still takes the plural conjugation…

“Someone fell while disembarking from the bus, but they were fine.”

It’s still a bit awkward when you know the person’s name (e.g. “Pat puts pickles on PBJs, but then again, they like it that way.”), but you know what? It’s just easier and more natural this way and grammarians can piss off.

I am actually a bit peeved with this recent “change”; it seems like a lazy half-measure.


Sir (or Madam), your contribution is excellent and fascinating, and I will continue to ponder it at my leisure.

For the time being, I would like to justify my unavoidable dismay at the use of “they” as a singular pronoun on the grounds that it is robbing Peter to pay Paul. It leaves us with fewer pronouns rather than more. In its attempt to obfuscate the difference between male and female, it leaves us unable to distinguish the singular from the plural.

I will continue to await a fuitable fubftitute.


We’re talking about pronouns, right? not euphemisms? :wink:


Das denken Sie?

(In German capital-Sie is plural they and polite singular and plural you, small sie is she. They get by. Also, we use you for both singular and plural and, being stuffy up ourselves English, have abolished second person singular altogether, even when referring to the deity.)


That link includes a bit I really hadn’t thought about:

Whether he legally included she when it came to voting or holding office would form a key argument in discussions for and against women’s suffrage in England after the 1860s.

i.e. If “he” includes “she” then the laws existing at that time allowed for women to do a lot more things than they did using the literal reading.


The U.S. Constitution intends “he” in this inclusive sense, and was otherwise intentionally written to be gender-neutral. Arguably, since “he” was often employed in a gender-neutral sense in historical English, the real problem is that men should stop colonizing this useful word and retreat to choose their own, specifically masculine pronoun. :wink:


Oooo the f-shaped s! It’s okay, people! I think this was meant to be sarcasm :wink:


I know written language isn’t the same as spoken language, but don’t most anglophones use the singular they in everyday language without even thinking about and without any political implications? I know I do, and my family, and friends, and most people I meet. For example, when visiting a doctor for the first time and you don’t know their gender. “I am going to a new doctor today. I hope they’re good.”

EDIT- Hell, I just did it there without even realizing it. “…when visiting a doctor for the first time and you don’t know their gender.”

EDIT - Like, who now would say “I am going to a new doctor today. I hope he or she is good.” or “I hope he is good.”?


You are correct. “They” has often been used to refer to an unknown or unspecified person who’s gender is unknown. It’s also used as a weasel word - referring to someone the speaker knows but doesn’t wish to identify for whatever reason. Which means “they” has a whole slew of meanings:

Third person plural pronoun
Gender neutral personal pronoun
Unknown gender personal pronoun
Hidden identity personal pronoun

Yes, it can get confusing. My oldest was telling me of an upcoming visit to a friend and kept saying things like “they have two dogs”. Turned out my interpretation of “they” was almost comically incorrect.


The English language could really use an overhaul with pronouns. In my opinion we could really use

  • An unambiguous gender-neutral singular pronoun that has a clear pronunciation and spelling (as “they” depends on context to parse singular from plural)
  • A plural “you” that basically serves the same function as “y’all” but without making grammarians wince


But seriously, no. No new words. The biggest problem with “Ze”, et al., isn’t the word itself, but the people who refuse (by choice or ignorance) to use it (including myself!).

Especially when old words are fine.


I’d like to know how you got hired to write for this site without understanding that you are writing for the site, not for yourself. I’m sorry but you just sound like a real noob about, really, everything involving getting paid to write for someone else.

Also, they didn’t hire “a creative.” They hired a writer.


if singular they is good enough for Shakespeare, it’s good enough for me!


Learning the rules of grammar back in the eighties I was taught that “they”, in addition to the third person plural, could be used as a singular pronoun for a person whose identity was unknown to the listener. This covered both the speaker not knowing the identity of the subject and the listener not knowing the identity because of obfuscation.


Enkita, different languages have different rules. Sometimes they can help inform us in our use of English, or suggest improvements to it, but they aren’t necessarily applicable.

Languages change, and I am generally happy with such change and will participate in such change when it seems useful. A new word may actually fill a need, and then I tend to like it. Or it may just take the place of a perfectly good word, in which case I won’t use it. My wife used the reflexive verb “represence” yesterday (ha ha, little dotted red line under there), and I found it perfectly cromulent. I could see where it fits a need: its meaning was obvious, and the explanation would be a circumlocution.

I don’t like changes that impoverish the language by taking away precision or choices. I would be thrilled if thee and thou came back into common usage; it’s a shame we lost them. In my family, people sometimes use them for purposes of getting attention.

Using “they” as a single person pronoun, to replace “he” and “she,” makes our language less specific, and thus less communicative. I think that’s a problem. Others don’t.

Oddly enough, my middle-school aged son brought up this very subject today. Out of the blue he said, “Dad, I hardly ever use pronouns at school anymore.” He went on to explain that there are so many kids who are very picky about using particular, sometimes idiosyncratic pronouns for themselves (n.b. of course we would also have to use “themself” -little red line there - if we use “they” as a singular) that he will just use their proper names again and again and never use pronouns for them (e.g. “I saw Pat today. I gave Pat a book.”) He saves pronouns for writing. He confirmed that “they” seems to be gaining ground as a substitute for “he” and “she,” and wondered whether it would be preferable to use the singular or plural verb with it when it is used as a singular pronoun.

When he asked me if I thought a new coinage could be sensibly derived, we agreed on “se” as a good choice for a new nonspecific singular pronoun and “seir” as a good possessive adjective. “Se” is similar enough to pronouns in other related languages, doesn’t bump into existing English words (as do sir, vis, per, em), and not awkward to pronounce in English, like the unfortunate “xe,” “hir,” etc. So “se” would be our preference. Until that happens, we will use whatever pronouns please others in speech, and use established English grammar in writing.

I think it would be neat if English evolved to include a nonspecific pronoun used in formal situations, and more specific pronouns of choice used in more familiar relationships or settings. Bring back the formal register!

1 Like