As a copyeditor, I have long believed in the utility of the singular they as an auxiliary pronoun that can be used when the subject’s sex is unknown or hypothetical. As a copyeditor, however, I am bound by convention. It is not my job to tell authors to use forms that others consider ungrammatical. My job is to make sure that things are clear and to avoid any bumps in the road.
After the American Copy Editors Society’s national conference last week, I am more convinced that the days of the annoying restriction that they are always plural and English must do without an episteme pronoun are over. The most discussed topic at the conference was the use of the epicene they, particularly in relation to gender identity.
When editing projects often referred to hypothetical children and sometimes required a singular form, we suggested that we use “he/she” but also “she/he.” However, sometimes multiple references to a single child are made in one sentence. Sometimes I have to let “they” handle the job.
The most important aspects of a child’s self-identity are their independence and changing temperament. Each child must also know what their expectations are.
I don’t need suggestions for edits. These sentences will take me several minutes to correct and rework, but I find the sentence acceptable.
Change is inevitable, I have always believed it. But it has been coming slower than I would like. However, after the ACES conference, I believe things may be changing quickly.
The idea that not all people identify with one gender might make the singular they more widely acceptable. It’s difficult to assign a gender identity to a transgender person, or someone who is genderqueer or nonconforming. You could use the biological method of identifying a person based on their predominant sex characteristics. But that is just for convenience. It creates an identity.
Instead, most publications will accept the pronoun that identifies a person. So a person who is transitioning from male or female to male would be called she, regardless of where they are at the time. This is what the Associated Press Stylebook states:
The pronoun to be used by those who have the same physical characteristics as the other sex or present in a manner that is not compatible with their sex at the birth.
Use the pronoun that is consistent with how the individuals live publically if the preference is not expressed.
This covers most situations. However, it assumes he and she cover all ground. It doesn’t. Although most people feel comfortable calling someone she or he the epicene can be used by individuals to identify themselves. How can we tell individuals how they would identify if we are referring to a hypothetical group?
Clarity and accuracy are the main goals. they may cause confusion as we expect it to have a plural antecedent. It has an increasingly useful place in the language and I expect it to be accepted more.