People of a certain age learned funny rules about writing in English. Like don’t use like. And never start a sentence with because, and, or but. Because grammar.
But linguists insist English doesn’t need us to be stiff on the language’s behalf. It’s flexible and can accommodate a transforming society and new technologies, according to University of Michigan English professor Anne Curzan, an expert on gender and language.
Speaking at the annual American Copy Editors Society (ACES) conference in March, Curzan reassured word nerds. “People have been worried this language will fall apart for a long time. It’s not going to fall apart.”
Language changes. Resisting, or insisting that traditional rules still apply, is futile and foolish. Even many of the English-language standard bearers agree: for example, in May, the Associated Press will update its style guide. One of the major changes that signals a shift in societal thinking is that ”they” is now officially singular (as well as plural) and an appropriate gender neutral choice.
Mignon Fogarty—who covers English as the “Grammar Girl” on the guidance site Quick and Dirty Tips—explains what this means, practically speaking, for your writing:
The AP Stylebook now allows writers to use they as a singular pronoun when rewriting the sentence as plural would be overly awkward or clumsy. Example: The Obama administration told public schools to grant bathroom access even if a student’s gender identity isn’t what’s in their record.
The style also allows writers to pair they with everyone in similar situations.
In stories about people who identify as neither male nor female or ask not to be referred to as he/she/him/her: Use the person’s name in place of a pronoun, or otherwise reword the sentence, whenever possible. If they/them/their use is essential, explain in the text that the person prefers a gender-neutral pronoun. Be sure that the phrasing does not imply more than one person.
his, her. AP style used to be to use he when gender is not known. This entry now refers to the entry on they, them, their.
To those of us born into a world where man was the standard and woman stood in his shadow, linguistically, and in life, that last change is notable indeed. He is no longer the go-to when gender is unknown, nor an appropriate gender neutral. The seemingly tiny linguistic shift is socially seismic. By transforming our writing, we also change our minds and rewire thought— and who can say what influence this linguistic fluidity will have on the thinking of future children?
But the singular use of “they” also hearkens back to the past, according to Curzan. The English professor says the new usage is actually classic, dating back to the 1300s, and has been used by great English writers over the centuries to reflect the singular indistinct gender in literature.
Fogarty says ACES is where all the big linguistic news breaks. “It’s where we first heard in 2011 that the Associated Press would no longer use a hyphen in email and in 2016 that the Associate Press would lowercase internet…and now today, the AP is leading the charge again.”
And everyone needs to get with the program, or at least learn linguistic flexibility. Attachment to formulations of the past reveal not only our obsolescence but a failure to understand language. John McIntyre at The Baltimore Sun, who writes about writing, points out that what’s right depends on context. He notes, ”The range of standard English is a continuum, and working effectively in it requires judgments rather than the mechanical application of rules, some of them bogus.”