I’ve long espoused the utility of the singular they as a handy pronoun for when the sex of the subject is hypothetical or unknown. But as a copyeditor, I’m beholden to convention—it’s not for me to tell an author they should use a form that some people consider ungrammatical. My job is to provide clarity and avoid bumps along the way.
But I’m more convinced after the American Copy Editors Society national conference last week that the days are numbered for the unpleasant stricture that they is always plural and English simply must do without an epicene pronoun. Use of the epicene they might have been the most-discussed issue at the conference, especially as it relates to issues of gender identity.
When I started an editing project that referred frequently to hypothetical children and sometimes necessitated a singular form, I suggested we go with “he or she” but also “she or he.” This usually is fine, but sometimes there are multiple references to an unknown singular child in a single sentence. There are times when I’ve thrown up my hands and let “they” do the job.
Important aspects to a child’s sense of self are their increasing level of independence and their ever-changing temperament, and each child must know what is expected of them as individuals.
Don’t send me suggested edits—I see the options. I will spend several minutes on such sentences, reworking them, and yet I don’t find this sentence objectionable.
I’ve always assumed the change is coming, but more slowly than I’d prefer. But after ACES, I think things might be happening quickly.
What might make the singular they more broadly acceptable is the idea that not everyone identifies with a particular gender. It is hard to pin a gender identity on a transgender person or someone who considers themselves genderqueer or gender nonconforming. We could go with the biological, labeling a person by predominant sex characteristics, but what purpose does that serve beyond convenience? It imposes identity.
Instead, most publications accept calling a person by the pronoun they most identify with, so a person transitioning from male to female would be called she regardless of how far along they are in the process. The Associated Press Stylebook says this:
Use the pronoun preferred by the individuals who have acquired the physical characteristics of the opposite sex or present themselves in a way that does not correspond with their sex at birth.
If that preference is not expressed, use the pronoun consistent with the way the individuals live publicly.
That covers most situations, but it presumes he or she covers all ground. It doesn’t. Most people are comfortable being called she or he, but the epicene they clearly can be the pronoun preferred by the individuals. And if we’re referring to a hypothetical group, how can we say how individuals would identify?
Clarity and accuracy are the goals, and they can cause confusion because we expect it with a plural antecedent. But it has an increasingly useful place in the language, and I expect that we’ll see increasing acceptance.