Publishing Style Guides Catch Up with the Singular “They”

Every five years or so, a new edition of the Chicago Manual of Style hits editors’ desks. This style bible is used by editors at most American book publishers and some magazines and websites (including Twin Cities Geek) to make sure everything they publish is clear, correct, and consistent. The 1,146-page 17th edition dropped this September, and one of the most talked-about updates was the expanded guidelines on using they as a singular pronoun.

The Chicago Manual of Style, 17th edition.

University of Chicago Press

Before diving in to those updates, it’s worth taking a quick detour to talk abut what exactly a style guide is (and isn’t). As an editor, I get asked a lot about what’s right and wrong when it comes to language, and though some things do have a definite answer, a lot of other things depend completely on what style a writer is following. Under Chicago, if you set off a clause with em dashes—like this—you should not insert any spaces between those dashes and the words, but if you’re following AP Style, like most newspapers do, you should. That’s a bit of a nitty-gritty example, but style guides affect everything from punctuation to number formatting to word usage. Do you write “the tenth Doctor” or “the 10th Doctor”? “SHIELD” or “S.H.I.E.L.D.”? How do you capitalize the titles of books, movies, or games? Beyond that, most publishers have their own homebrewed exceptions and guidelines on top of whatever manual they’re following.

So, although style guides are generally a lot more prescriptivist than dictionaries (which are mostly descriptivist), they’re not the final word on everything. The main point of a style guide is to give writers and editors rules to follow for consistency, not so much to lay out “right” and “wrong.”

They're more what you'd call guidelines

Style guides: not the rule of law.

So, back to the Chicago Manual. As the editors had announced earlier in the year, the 17th edition includes updates and new recommendations on using they as a singular pronoun in two senses: both to refer to a single person who uses it as their personal pronoun and to refer generically to an unknown person of unknown gender.

The second usage is something a lot of people have been familiar with for a long time, possibly without even realizing it: “If you see an employee, can you ask them how much this book costs?” “Someone left their phone at my apartment.” Most people don’t use “he or she” in everyday speech because it’s clunky and unnecessary—using they instead is shorter, perfectly understandable, and usually more natural. The 16th edition of Chicago had this to say (CMS 5.46):

Because ‘he’ is no longer accepted as a generic pronoun referring to a person of either sex, it has become common in speech and in informal writing to substitute the third-person plural pronouns ‘they,’ ‘them,’ ‘their,’ and ‘themselves,’ and the nonstandard singular ‘themself.’ While this usage is accepted in casual contexts, it is still considered ungrammatical in formal writing.

Instead, the guide recommended using “he or she,” although the writers admitted that it’s “usually awkward or even stilted.” They also offered a whole list of strategies for avoiding that awkwardness, but as Geoff Nunberg wrote on NPR last year, “if I could have back all the time I’ve wasted writing my way around a perfectly grammatical singular ‘they,’ I could have added another book or two to my name.”

The new edition loosens things up a little but still stops short of embracing this use: “They and their have become common in informal usage, but neither is considered fully acceptable in formal writing, though they are steadily gaining ground. For now, unless you are given guidelines to the contrary, be wary of using these forms in a singular sense.” I guess we’ll have to wait for the 18th edition for it to be completely accepted, but publishers can feel a little more in line with Chicago if their style guides say this type of they is okay.

The part more people have been interested in when in comes to the 17th, though, is the use of they for gender-nonbinary, agender, and other people who use it as their personal pronoun. The 16th edition, which was published in 2010, didn’t touch on this at all, but given the rise in visibility of this type of usage over the last seven years, it would have been a pretty big oversight not to talk about it this time around. (The Associated Press made a similar change this year as well.)

The new guidelines state, “When referring specifically to a person who does not identify with a gender-specific pronoun . . . they and its forms are often preferred. (They used in this sense was the American Dialect Society’s 2015 Word of the Year.)” The Chicago arbiters also give their official blessing to themself for people who use it instead of themselves and include a mention of other pronouns: “A number of other gender-neutral singular pronouns are in use, invented for that purpose; forms of these are usually singular and take singular verbs. In general, a person’s stated preference for a specific pronoun should be respected.” Although the use of “preference” here is likely to be problematic for some people, the spirit of the rule is a good one—whatever pronouns someone uses themselves (or themself), follow that when writing about them, whether it’s he, she, they, xe, gher, or anything else.

The reaction seems to have been mostly positive, but of course there are always grumblers. One common complaint that often gets lobbed into debates over they is that it’s a plural pronoun, so it’s just wrong to use it in a singular context. But aside from the fact that this ignores decades of recent mainstream usage in the “unknown person of unknown gender” sense, its history actually goes back much further than that. As the good people at the venerable Oxford Dictionaries note, “the use of plural pronouns to refer back to a singular subject isn’t new: it represents a revival of a practice dating from the 16th century. It’s increasingly common in current English and is now widely accepted both in speech and in writing.”

If you’re a Chicago geek like me, you should know that Carol Fisher Saller, the editor of the Chicago Manual of Style and the writer behind The Subversive Copyeditor, is giving a talk about the new edition for the Minnesota Book Publishers Roundtable on November 15, 2017. Tickets for the general public are $15 for students and $25 for nonstudents; they go on sale October 23 and are sure to sell out quickly. And if you’re interested in other language and style points as they relate to gender identity, check out  “The Radical Copyeditor’s Style Guide for Writing about Transgender People,” a great set of guidelines for writers and editors.

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