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Gender-Neutral and Inclusive Pronouns

Posted on Saturday, December 28, 2019 at 8:34 PM

Getting up to speed on gender-inclusive writing.

By Denise Gable

Language is fluid. Grammar shifts and changes over time. Merriam-Webster’s named “they” -- the singular pronoun to use for a “person whose gender identity is nonbinary” -- as their 2019 word of the year. Although most consider it good practice to write in gender-neutral terms, adopting gender-neutral pronouns can be awkard and confusing.

Many publications are deciding how best to incorporate gender-neutral language into their publications. Depending on your audience, you may have already addressed this in your style guide and with your staff. The Society for Editing (ACES), the Chicago Manual of Style, and the Associated Press have all updated their style guides to include the use of "they," "them," and "their" as acceptable in limited cases as a singular or gender-neutral pronoun when alternative wording is overly awkward or clumsy. We asked editors to weigh in on how they were handling the use of gender-neutral and inclusive pronouns.

Google Trends shows an overall increase in the use of the word "they" from 2004 to the present. It began around 2007. The exact cause is unclear.

--Cathy Brown, executive editor, Psychiatric News: "We still use 'he or she.' I know it's becoming more acceptable to use 'they' as singular, but to me such usage sounds uneducated and lazy. Just because styles change due to popular usage doesn't mean that we should abandon grammar rules that have served us quite well to reflect the language of refined communication and clarity."

--Dan Markham, senior editor, Metal Center News: "We don't use the single 'they.' We use he or she when applicable, which isn't often. Why? Our readers are pretty old. I'd be up for a new pronoun that covers gender ambiguity, but I'd rather not use a plural pronoun to do it."

--Deborah Lockridge, editor-in-chief, Heavy Duty Trucking: "Is this just a general grammar question, or are we getting into the issue of non-binary pronouns?"

--C.G. Masi, cgmasi.com: "Most of my current writing is for outlets that explicitly require APA style, so it makes sense to start with their recommendations, then include my preferences based on experience with both academic and more informal journalistic writing styles. The sixth edition of the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association devotes a substantial section to reducing gender bias in language. The clearest statement summarizing their position is that 'replacing "he" with "he or she" or "she or he" should be done sparingly because the repetition can become tiresome. Combination forms such as "he/she" or "(s)he" are awkward and distracting. Alternating between "he" and "she" may also be distracting.' The Manual editors recommend avoiding the whole problem by recasting the sentence to remove the need for the gender-specific pronoun entirely. They give an example of such a revision of the sentence 'A researcher must apply for "his" grant by September 1' to 'A researcher must apply for "the" grant by September 1.'

"Generally, I find the Manual's recommendations on this topic to be extremely useful. In short, informal pieces, such as discussion-group postings, I like to use the combination forms 'he/she' or '(s)he' depending on cadence of the paragraph. The other forms seem annoyingly contrived, more distracting, and harder to fit into the language flow. In longer, more formal pieces, where first and second person are to be avoided anyway, carefully crafting the entire paragraph to avoid the situation is best. In cases specifying a certain person, I always use the appropriate gender-specific pronoun, which opens a whole 'nother can of worms for transgender individuals!"

--Dave Zoia, editorial director, WardsAuto: "We've begun to allow it. It eliminates gender issues and avoids using cumbersome 'he and/or she'–type references. It's the way people talk, and we often had that usage in direct quotes anyway, so it's not that much of a stretch to apply it outside of direct quotes."

--Curtis Phillips, senior technical editor, Wine Business Monthly: "We tend to allow all forms with a slight preference for 'they' when referring to corporate entities and alternating between he and she when referring to individuals, but we realize that the singular 'they" has been a part of the English language for so long (since the 14th century, if I'm not mistaken) that it's futile to try to edit it out in all instances.

"Personally, I use 'one' when I can even though I realize that this comes across as stiff and formal. One would rather be formal than inadvertently imply that half the population doesn't exist. I would prefer it if English had a third-person singular pronoun with undefined gender, and without the non-person connotations of 'it,' but all attempts in that direction (s/he, ae, e, ey, per, ve, xe, fae) fail to enter common usage. Maybe the recognition of non-binary gender will change things. One doubts that it will.

"While we are at it, should we bring back the dual pronouns wit, uncer, unc, incer, incite, and inc?"

--Curt Harler, curtharler.com: "I'm a freelancer. In the only instance where this was an issue, we simply referred to the individual by last name throughout (e.g., 'Smith said,' 'Smith did such-and-such,' etc., per style). It eliminated any issues of grammar or of political correctness. My personal opinion is that 'they' is plural. If anyone wants to be referred to by a special pronoun, they should coin one and not co-opt one."

--Dave Fusaro, editor-in-chief, Food Processing: "We have not moved to the 'they' just to be gender-neutral. Most of the time, we're quoting people, and we know their gender, at least by name and/or visual appearance. If a gender-neutral person ever were to ask us to use 'they' for him/her, we certainly would. It just hasn't come up. If we use it as second reference, we usually alternate between he's and she's: 'When a consumer looks for x she probably wants x. If he doesn't find his brand, he'll buy another.' One area that I am beginning to cave in on is using 'they' in second reference to a company. Although technically correct, 'it' has always seemed awkward, and it's not the way people talk, is it? E.g., 'Superior Farms Lamb is a leading processor of lamb in this country and they have developed...'"

--Heidi Richards Mooney, publisher, We Magazine for Women: "We alternate depending on the context. We use 'he or she' when the topic lends itself to more specific gender and 'they' if the topic is more gender-neutral or when speaking about a group rather than an individual."

--Angela Hartley, senior managing editor, JOGNN: "In the updated 7th edition of Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association, the APA endorsed the singular 'they,' 'consistent with inclusive language.' The JOGNN editors discussed this change at length and agreed that an individual's preferred pronouns should and would be respected and used as appropriate for the given context in JOGNN articles. This includes the use of the singular they. We were already doing this when the APA change was announced. However, we do not interpret this guidance to mean that all instances of singular pronouns should be replaced with they, them, or their universally in every article. Such a change would result in sentences that are grammatically incorrect, illogical, and difficult to read. Unless context indicates otherwise, we use 'she' or 'he' and will continue to do so. We encourage authors to use inclusive language that is free from bias and to apply common sense and rules of grammar.

"Although I feel it is a good suggestion, I believe that this guidance from the APA will be misinterpreted and then misused. I've already gotten questions such as, 'Why did you use her or him in the newsletter if APA says to use they?' This was in reference to reviewers: 'Do you have a colleague with publication experience who would like to review for JOGNN? Please have her or him send us a CV.' My response was, 'The singular they was not needed or appropriate in this context.' For the sake of good writing, I hope that common sense prevails and that other editors take this approach as well."

--Leslie Block, managing editor, Nursing Education Perspectives: "I never use 'they' as singular. That would be wrong. Also, I try very hard through editing to avoid he-she. Most often I try to use plurals so they would be correct. The singular 'they' is a lazy construction."

Dear Amy advice columnist Amy Dickinson, commenting on the new "they" usage, says, "It’s time to get used to it." Maybe or maybe not, depending upon your audience.

Denise Gable is managing editor of Editors Only.

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