It’s official: I (& you!) can use ‘they’ as singular

Hi, my name is Jaclyn, and I’m addicted to proper grammar. It started in the third grade, when Mrs. Murphy first introduced me to sentence structure, to subject/verb agreement, to the importance of commas.

Click the pic for more.

Every lesson that went into my head found a permanent home. I have as shitty of a memory as you’re likely to find outside of an Alzheimer’s patient, but dammit, I can explain the reasoning for every punctuation mark in this god-forsaken sentence. And I’ve been able to do that since I was, like, 8. (Shut your hole. Beginning a sentence with a conjunction is fine. We don’t speak Latin anymore. Stop it.)

One of those rules that has set up shop in my brain, one that hasn’t wanted to move, one I haven’t wanted to evict, is assuring singular nouns take singular pronouns:

Bad: “Everyone raised their hands.”
Better: “Everyone raised his or her hand.”
Best: “They raised their hands.”

A year or two ago, I took my first Safe Zone training. (I work at a community college, and by receiving the training, my office is a designated Safe Zone. It tells students “Hey, I’ve taken some LGBTQ awareness workshops. I’m totally NOT a therapist, but if you’re feeling bullied or just need a place to go to feel safe, step right in, my friend.”) One of the topics discussed: people who identify as trans (they were born a female but identify as a male, or vice versa) or non-binary (they don’t identify as a man or a woman, or they ID as both, or something else). (Yes, it’s confusing. I’m comparatively knowledgeable about the topic, but I still had a friend review this and she fixed some things. So don’t feel badly if this sounds unfamiliar.)

The placards outside my office door. Safe Space and Safe Zone are similar workshops.

That makes referring to people in these groups as “he” or “she” tricky at best and incorrect at worst. One way to avoid this, says Safe Zone training, is to use the genderless pronoun “they,” even in the singular sense. For example: “Cory said they were hungry,” where “they” is referencing just Cory, not Cory and their friends.

This was SO DAMN HARD for me to get my mind around. Making sure you’re not being an ass definitely trumps grammar rules, forever and always, but this rule is VERY cemented in my head, and I’ll basically do anything I can to avoid it. Because not only do grade school grammar rules live in my brain, but the AP Style guide is something like my Bible.

I first learned AP Style in high school, when I worked on the high school newspaper. It’s the universally accepted style for professional journalists and covers things like “What U.S. and world cities require a state or country to accompany them?” versus “Which cities are so well-known, you can run with them solo?” (It’s like, I can say “I’m going to Los Angeles” because you know it’s in California, but I can’t say “I’m going to Springfield” because there are 38 spots in the United States I could mean. Five are in Wisconsin alone. WTF, Wisconsin?)

Thanks, Google.

But lo and behold … My Bible is rewriting itself. According to the American Copy Editors Society (yes, this exists; no, I’m not a member; yes, I’m kind of sad about that), AP updated its rules on the singular “they.”

Old entry for their, there, they’re:

Their is a plural possessive pronoun and must agree in number with the antecedent. Wrong: Everyone raised their hands. Right: They raised their hands. See every one, everyone for the pronoun that takes singular verbs and pronouns.

New entry:

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.

Why does this matter to you? Well, if you’re not a grammar freak and you are cisgendered*, it may very well not matter to you. But if you think the Oxford comma makes for interesting talk over drinks or if you are trans or non-binary, this is pretty huge.

And it makes my grammar-happy heart–which also wants to make sure it’s respectful of all people–light up like a Care Bear belly.

*”Cisgendered” was one of the new-to-me bits of vocab from Safe Zone training. It just means your sex matches with your gender: You’re a female who IDs as a woman or a male who IDs as a man. It’s the opposite of trans.



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