Last Friday, at the annual conference of the American Copy Editors Society, the editors at the Associated Press announced that the AP Stylebook will henceforth include guidance on when it is acceptable to use grammatically plural they, them, and their to refer to a singular antecedent — what we know as the singular (or epicene) they.
Previous guidance for using pronouns is fairly limited in the stylebook, almost incidental, and it’s what you would expect. In the 2016 edition, the their, there, they’re entry begins, “Their is a plural possessive pronoun and must agree in number with the antecedent.” The his, her entry in the same edition does nudge readers toward gender-neutrality in pronouns, but does not go so far as to advocate the use of singular they: “Do not presume maleness in constructing a sentence. To avoid the clumsy his or her, the pronoun his is sometimes used when an indefinite antecedent may be male or female. . . . When possible, however, revise the sentence to avoid gender.”
This new recognition that singular they may sometimes be the best option marks a more widespread recognition of the need for a gender-neutral singular pronoun, and that singular they can fill that need.
To be sure, the Associated Press has accepted singular they, but it’s still far from actually endorsing it: The new AP Stylebook entry for they, them, their reminds readers several times that rewording a sentence is preferable to using singular they. The entry begins like this:
In most cases, a plural pronoun should agree in number with the antecedent. … 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.
The AP Stylebook offers broad guidance on when singular they is appropriate, but again, the emphasis is on rewording to avoid it:
A singular they might be used when an anonymous source’s gender must be shielded and other wording is overly awkward.
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.
The entry ends with some syntactical guidance for using a word that is conceptually singular but grammatically plural:
When they is used in the singular, it takes a plural verb: Taylor said they need a new car. (Again, be sure it’s clear from the context that only one person is involved.)
From other updates that appeared at the same time, it’s clear that the AP’s review of singular they was spurred in large part by expanding journalistic coverage of transgender and gender-nonbinary issues: the entry for LGBT has been updated to also accept LGBTQ; there’s a new entry for homophobia, homophobic; and a new entry for gender notes, “Not synonymous with sex.”
Singular they is nothing new at Copyediting.com. We’ve been advocating for it for some time. But the acceptance of singular they by the Associated Press — the go-to usage guide for journalists around the world — could be the last major turning point toward widespread acceptance.
Certainly some people — whether guided by prescriptivist, political, or religious fervor — will decry this move and portend the end of civilized English discourse, or of civilization itself.
Let them wail. English will move on without them.