Updated: Aug 24, 2021
An earlier version of this column was published on the blog of ACES: The Society for Editing. This was last updated on August 24, 2021.
It was the decade of the epicene pronoun, as the usually plural they gained new acceptance with its singular sense as a way to avoid assumptions or make generalizations about gender.
They was declared by the American Dialect Society to be the Word of the Decade at its annual conference in New Orleans on Jan. 3, 2020. In early December 2019, they was chosen as Merriam-Webster’s Word of the Year after a big spike in lookups and because the sense of the word as a nonbinary preferred pronoun was added to Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary in September.
It’s good choice: the new sense of they has become established in recent years and there is an emerging acceptance of they as a substitute for more specific pronouns.
Editors generally appreciate what’s happening to they because it fixes a flaw in the English language. But changes, especially gradual changes, create uncertainty. Usage guidelines are easiest when there is no wiggle room; singular they creates questions. The one situation where style guides agree that singular they is fine — as a person’s preferred pronoun — is actually an uncommon use.
Outside of the personal pronoun use, the Associated Press Stylebook and the Chicago Manual of Style still advise that the epicene they is not yet fully accepted and that it is better to resort to he or she or write around constructions that otherwise would require a singular pronoun.
The Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association released its seventh edition in the fall of 2019, and it followed the lead of these other style guides with new advice on they as a pronoun for those who identify as neither male nor female. But APA Style goes further than AP Style or Chicago, advising that “writers should always use the singular they to refer to a person who uses they as their pronoun.”
The Chicago Manual of Style 17th edition, updated in 2017, advises: “When referring specifically to a person who does not identify with a gender-specific pronoun, they and its forms are often preferred.” It also says, “In general, a person’s stated preference for a specific pronoun should be respected.”
The AP Stylebook, in an entry added in March 2017, suggests that repeating a person’s name or rewording is preferable to using the epicene pronoun, but it allows for they with explanation.
The American Medical Association’s AMA Manual of Style also now endorses they for when “rewriting the sentence as a plural would be awkward or unclear.” That language is in AMA’s 11th edition, published in February 2020.
The Modern Language Association’s MLA Handbook and the U.S. Government Publishing Office’s Style Manual, both updated in 2016, are silent on the epicene they.
The nonbinary use of the pronoun is new and specific. The number of people who prefer they as their personal pronoun is relatively small. Those who identify as male or female tend to prefer that gender’s pronoun regardless of what sexual characteristics they were born with. To simply use they to refer to a transgender person can be insulting. (Note that a construction using personal pronouns was selected as the American Dialect Society Word of the Year for 2019.)
We can’t declare yet that we have resolved the bigger problem of English lacking a broadly accepted gender-neutral singular pronoun. But we do seem to be on the path. Even if the gender-nonbinary they is limited in usage, it may open the door for other senses of gender-neutral they.
The six senses of they
It’s useful to think of the singular they in its various senses. Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary lists four senses, the Oxford English Dictionary has three, the American Heritage Dictionary has two (along with a 482-word usage note), and these various senses don’t quite align. We can consider:
They for a person who identifies as gender nonbinary and prefers they as a personal pronoun.
They used with a singular antecedent like “everyone” though in a plural sense.
They to describe a hypothetical or real but unknown individual.
They with a specific person whose gender is deliberately concealed.
They with a known person whose gender is unknown or only assumed.
They as a universal pronoun substituting for he or she.
Preferred personal pronoun
We’ve already taken a look at this first sense, but it’s worth adding that to use he or she based on a person’s biological sex at birth is inaccurate if that person no longer identifies with that pronoun. If we desire accuracy, we can no longer assume binary pronouns do the job.
Singular antecedent with a plural sense
The second sense is common in writing and it seems particularly persnickety for an editor to change it. This is the “Everyone should take out their pencils” example: Everyone refers to individuals, but it’s clearly used in a plural sense. (The plural pencils emphasizes the plural sense.)
Hypothetical or unknown individual
The third sense, describing a hypothetical person, is less common and it’s generally changed by editors of formal writing. But it’s unlikely to raise an eyebrow in conversation or in informal writing. The OED offers nine examples since the middle of the fifteenth century, including this 2019 tweet from Shristi Uprety (@_ShristiUprety): “My personal rule is to never trust anyone who says that they had a good time in high school.” And from 1968: “When somebody becomes prime minister they’re immediately put on a pedestal.” For a person who is real but unknown, editor Patricia E. Boyd offered me this example: “Someone broke into my apartment. They stole my TV set.”
The fourth sense is accepted usage in the AP Stylebook, which says: “A singular they might be used when an anonymous source’s gender must be shielded and other wording is overly awkward.” A recent example of this is the frequent use of they when referring to the Ukraine whistleblower, including this sentence from The Guardian online: “Their alleged name and photograph have been circulating in conservative media for months. Despite whistleblower protection laws, they have to be driven to work by security detail to protect their safety.” The pending AMA Manual of Style also speaks to this sense, saying “this construction can be useful in medical articles in which patient identifiability is a concern (eg, removal of gender-specific pronouns).”
The final sense — a specific person with an unknown or assumed gender — is somewhat common in conversation, but it hasn’t been considered acceptable in anything but the most informal written usage. That is changing.
“Henry called me yesterday, and they said I should come in today.”
This example avoids assuming a gender for Henry, and we may see greater acceptance in the coming years among writers who don’t want to make assumptions. APA Style already speaks to this: “If you do not know the pronouns of the people being described, use ‘they’ instead or rewrite the sentence.” In my made-up example, the issue is easily resolved by a rewrite.
While APA Style endorses this use, it goes well beyond what AP Stylebook or CMOS advise.
The universal pronoun
The final sense of they is as a fully accepted universal pronoun. Take our previous example and assume Henry has stated his sexual preference for women in no uncertain terms, but the speaker uses they where he would be fine. They is already substituted for a specific, known he or she in many casual conversations. Gives this usage a bit of time, and discussion about epicene they may one day seem so 2021.
They has the potential to be the Word of the Decade for the 2020s as well.