With the rise of anti-transgender legislation across the country—in sports, schools, even prisons—it comes as no surprise that the same anti-transgender rhetoric exists within journalism, especially in regards to the proper use of pronouns.
In 2017, The Associated Press (AP) Stylebook, a reference point for journalists on the proper use of grammar, updated its policies to add the use of "they/them" pronouns for non-binary individuals under "limited" circumstances. While some felt the decision was a monumental move, others felt the AP did not do enough, especially when encompassing the use of neopronouns such as ze/zir, which was added to the Oxford dictionary in 2018. While I believe the AP's decision to allow they as a singular pronoun was a step in the right direction toward encompassing the spectrum of pronouns, five years later, more needs to be done.
As the Stylebook wrote in their update: "They, them, their In most cases, a plural pronoun should agree in number with the antecedent: The children love the books their uncle gave them. They/them/their is acceptable in limited cases as a singular and-or gender-neutral pronoun, when alternative wording is overly awkward or clumsy. However, rewording usually is possible and always is preferable. Clarity is a top priority; gender-neutral use of a singular they is unfamiliar to many readers. We do not use other gender-neutral pronouns such as xe or ze."
It's hard to fathom that the Stylebook's decision was at one point viewed as an "embrace" when followed by a reminder of caution and the blatant dismissal of neopronouns. But the war against using they as a singular pronoun has existed long before the recent conversations about non-binary and transgender individuals and goes back to the 1800s. Up until then, they as a singular pronoun was used throughout literature including in the works of William Shakespeare and Emily Dickinson. Dickinson even wrote in a letter: "Almost anyone under the circumstances would have doubted if [the letter] were theirs, or indeed if they were themself."
But English grammarians argued against the pronoun use and created the fallacy that exists today that they has always been plural even though there is evidence to prove otherwise. While other cultures such as Bengali or Chinese have a genderless language, others like English, French and Spanish use gendered language. In light of the more attention on those whose pronouns exist outside the binary, France, for example, opted in to use genderless terms, though backlash followed even after their dictionary added non-binary pronouns.
The addition of more pronouns comes down to a conversation about language—the expansion of the way we connect with others and ourselves. Limiting gender to the basis of man and woman—through a religious lens via Adam and Eve—poses the question: Why does language often stem from religion?
"We don't, among our own staff, want to open a floodgate," said Paula Froke of The Associated Press during the initial 2017 conference about the AP Stylebook's update on pronouns. She added, "Many don't understand that they can be used for a singular person."
While Froke was correct that the use of pronouns was not yet established in American culture in 2017, years later, the conversation has evolved. Across social media, usernames are followed by one's pronouns, and emails are signed with one's name and pronouns. Nowadays, on the first day of class, students share their names, hobbies and pronouns; films and television shows for young children up to adults showcase the diversity of pronouns and gender identities. Even my 80-year-old grandparents from Greece are aware of the myriad of pronouns designated to encompass a person's identity.
The concept of pronoun acceptability no longer comes down to one's ability to be unaware of the use of pronouns beyond he/him and she/her, but ultimately, one's ability to show respect and validation toward another's identity. Rather than cater to the AP Stylebook's insipid, frankly, offensive note of preferring the use of one's name in replacement for their pronouns to make others comfortable with an article, journalists need to take a stand on the matter to protect the institution of journalism.
The issue of properly using one's correct pronouns is a direct attack against not only one's identity, but the mission of journalism—ethical journalism—to share the palpable voices of people across various backgrounds and experiences. If we as journalists want to be a part of a system that shares the stories of others, then we must not only actively fight to guarantee the protection of one's story, but also one's pronouns. The AP Stylebook should be a genuine guide of information for journalists that reflects the facets of our world—a world that exists beyond he/him, she/her and the "limited" use of they/them.
Since the AP is unable to respect the pronouns of others, maybe they should take a page from the American Psychological Association (APA) Style guide, used for scholarly writing, who allow the use of pronouns outside the binary. Or, the AP Stylebook should adapt and recognize the work of historical writers and realize the clear history and evolution of language.
Costa B. Pappas is a New York City-based writer and editor with a focus on arts and culture. His work has been featured in The Observer, Teen Vogue, Fiction Writers Review, Business Insider and Newsweek. He is a graduate of American University and is a member of the National Book Critics Circle. You will find him writing around Manhattan hotel lobbies over an iced coffee or on Twitter @CostaBPappas.
The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.
Update (5/17/22, 10:15 AM EST): The article referenced outdate AP guidance on pronouns. The following is AP's current guidance:
Growing numbers of people, including some transgender, nonbinary, agender or gender-fluid people, use they/them/their as a gender-neutral singular personal pronoun.
As much as possible, AP also uses they/them/their as a way of accurately describing and representing a person who uses those pronouns for themself.
Here are some guidelines and perspectives.
They as a singular pronoun may be confusing to some readers and amount to a roadblock that stops them from reading further. At the same time, though, efforts to write without pronouns to avoid confusion may make people feel censored or invisible.
How to balance those priorities? Try to honor both your readers and your story subjects. As in all news writing, clarity is paramount.
Often a sentence can be sensitively and smoothly written with no pronoun. For example: Hendricks said the new job is a thrill (instead of Hendricks said Hendricks is thrilled about the new job or Hendricks said they are thrilled about the new job).
When using they/them/their as a singular pronoun, explain if it isn't clear in context: Morales, who uses the pronoun they, said they will retire in June.
Be sure that the phrasing does not imply more than one person. Rephrase if needed to avoid confusion about the antecedent.
Don't refer to preferred or chosen pronouns. Instead, the pronouns they use, whose pronouns are, who uses the pronouns, etc.
Don't make assumptions about a person's gender identity based on their pronouns, or vice versa. Don't assume a person's pronouns based on their first name.
In general, do not use neopronouns such as xe or zim; they are rarely used and are unrecognizable as words to general audiences.
They/them/their take plural verbs even when used as a singular pronoun, and the singular reflexive themself is also acceptable when referring to people who use they/them/their.
Do not presume maleness in constructing a sentence by defaulting to he/his/him.
When necessary, use they rather than he/she or he or she for an unspecified or unknown gender (a person, the victim, the winner) or indefinite pronoun (anyone, everyone, someone). But rewording to avoid a pronoun is preferable. For example: The foundation gave grants to anyone who lost a job this year (instead of anyone who lost their job).
A singular they may also be used when an anonymous source's gender must be shielded: The person feared for their own safety and spoke on condition of anonymity.