For years, editors have been scratching their heads trying to figure out how to properly address genderqueer people or those who do not define as male or female.
However, when a former soldier and whistleblower named Bradley Manning wrote an open letter from prison in 2013, the issue went from the depths of the newsroom to wider prominence. Manning, who was serving his 35-year sentence in a male military prison at the time, wrote “My name is Chelsea Manning. I am female.”
Shortly after the letter was published, the Associated Press (AP) news agency issued a statement on AP journalists should report on Manning. It read: “The Associated Press will henceforth use Pvt. Chelsea E. Manning and female pronouns for the soldier formerly known as Bradley Manning, in accordance with her wishes to live as a woman.”
The decision led to a lot of discussion about appropriate referrals and pronoun use. Now, the AP is taking it a step further with the most recent update of the AP Stylebook. There are some fundamental changes in the latest edition of the organisation's "language bible" and it's worth taking note. So why are they such a big deal?
They – a singular person pronoun
Last week at the American Copy Editors Society (ACES) conference in St. Petersburg, Florida, the AP announced that the new edition would recommend using they as a singular personal pronoun “in limited cases”. Although the new version will only be out on May 31st, the AP says this change will take effect immediately:
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…
When the AP issued their 2013 guide for using the pronoun that a person prefers, they omitted one important detail: The entry didn't address people who don't use he/she/him/her. Questions surrounding the issue have been brought up at every annual ACES meeting since. Now, there is some clarity – and it embraces and reflects the language we use every day.
Every student eats their lunch
The singular they is far more inclusive than the use of he which sets the male form as a default. “Everybody eats their lunch” and “every student eats their lunch” are now both correct. Moreover, now it can include non-binary people as well.
If it’s too much of a bold step for you, consider this: ‘you’ is used as both singular and plural. You also made its way into dual usage as times changed, confining thee, ye, and thou to dusty history books. Today, nobody would be confused about you anymore.
The decision is just part of a bigger transition. Long before AP made a move, the singular they was adopted in the style guides of many big U.S. newspapers such as the Washington Post. While grammar purists cringed at the time, it was already being widely used in spoken language such as to avoid the clumsy construction of “his or her” in a sentence (for example: “Anyone who wants help with his or her homework should raise his or her hand now, please”).
"We stress that it's usually possible to write around that," Paula Froke, Lead Editor for the AP Stylebook told the ACES website copydesk.org. It's still preferable to use the person's name as a pronoun but even then, make sure to include something along the lines of “Chris, who is genderqueer and identifies as ‘they’.”
For some people, the changes to the AP guide don’t go far enough. The blog The Bustle argues "it's important to acknowledge that saying trans people ‘prefer' given pronouns has an invalidating effect. People don't ‘prefer' a particular set of pronouns; they use the pronouns that are appropriate to their identity. Thus, the push to ask ‘which pronouns do you use?’ rather than ‘which pronouns do you prefer?’”
Most outlets, however, have applauded the move. “Finally” said the Columbia Journalism Review and the overwhelming majority of trans community members on Twitter celebrated the fact their identities were no longer ignored.
What does this mean for you?
So, what does this all mean to you? You are most likely already using the ambiguous singular they in spoken language anyhow, such as “Someone left their keys on the chair, I wonder if they will come grab them before we close the bar.” But this new entry adds clarity on how to refer to non-binary people who do not use a gendered pronoun and encourages professionals to do so.
It should not be used however without explanation, for example, in contracts or legal documents, to avoid any form of misunderstanding. The AP guide says "rewording is usually possible and is always preferable. Clarity is a top priority.”
The move is not a complete endorsement, but a big step towards officially accepting a gender-neutral pronoun into the English language. In the end, the decision is also a political one too. Countless journalists and their home organisations around the world follow to guidelines set out by the AP in their writing. As language creates reality, this could also change attitudes and lead to less discriminatory language. In their 17th edition, the AP takes a stand against homophobia and heteronormativity, and for trans visibility and inclusion.
Still, the change could be new to your readers, so it’s extra important to quickly explain the use of singular they when referring to a non-binary person. And if you can’t imagine that someone would complain and protest for using “they” just look at this rant from the 17th century about the “evil custom” use of the singular “you”.