Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Everybody does it… don’t they?

In proof that language evolves as people do, the Associated Press – the first and last word for newspaper, magazine, and other non-fiction editors on questions such as “when should numbers be spelled out” and “Do question marks go inside or outside the quotation mark?” – has thrown a wrench into the “they/their/they’re” wars. While purists will insist that “they” can only refer to plural nouns, AP has voted to make “they” and its siblings correct for singular usage as well.

To wit: (article quoting Gerri Berendzen)

The Associated Press Stylebook says it is “opening the door” to use of the singular they.

The new entry in the stylebook starts: 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.

That’s compared to the AP Stylebook’s previous “their, there, they’re” entry, which read: “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.”

(Note that in the above example, AP pretty much admits this usage is faulty, as “everyone” is much more specific than “they.”)

Interestingly enough, AP seems to justify the change by citing the need for a genderless pronoun, rather than the need to be able say “Everyone loves their mother” without being arrested by the grammar police.

Grammar geeks like myself have used construction such as “his or hers” “he or she” “s/he” etc. to make sure we never use a singular noun with a plural pronoun. Even though we know, in our hearts, that “Nobody takes their time anymore” sounds so much better than “Nobody takes his or her time.”

While the time has definitely come for a genderless pronoun, is it right to ask “they” to do that work? Does its usage imply that a person who identifies as neither male nor female is actually more than one person?

Gerri Berendzen wrote that Froke said clarity is key when using they as a genderless pronoun. “We specify that you need to make clear in the context that the ‘they’ in question is just one person,” Froke said. “We don’t, among our own staff, want to open a floodgate. But we recognize a need for it, so we want to open it a bit. The whole issue is difficult. We worked very hard to come up with a solution that makes sense.”

Personally, I am thrilled that I now have the AP’s permission to use “they” when writing “Everyone and their mother agrees Trump is a Russian spy.” But I’m perturbed they weren’t open enough to see that true, singular, genderless pronouns like xe and ze are the true wave of the future, and solve an actual problem deeper than: “Everyone and their mother” just sounds better. When quoting a gender-fluid individual, give xe the respect of using the pronoun xe prefers.

As a novelist who edits fiction, though, this development doesn’t affect me as much as I’d like. The Chicago Manual Style dictates which numbers get spelled out, and unless it adopts this change, I will continue to write, “Everyone raised his/her hand” and “Xing, who was born male but does not identify as either gender, says his parents have been supportive of his transition.”

Come on, Chicago. Everyone and their mother wants this change!

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