One of the more common mistakes I come across while editing is improper use of the singular they. People use it all the time informally, so it often creeps up in more formal writing and authors don’t even know it’s incorrect. Sometimes it’s easy to rewrite the sentence as plural, but other times it’s a real struggle. That’s why I was excited about the recent trend toward allowing it in certain cases. Both the AP Stylebook and the Chicago Manual of Style updated their policies earlier this year to include a few exceptions when rewriting the sentence as plural would be awkward or unclear.
The AP Stylebook now includes 3 examples of when singular they can be used:
- A singular they might be used when an anonymous source’s gender must be shielded and other wording is overly awkward.
- When an indefinite pronoun (anyone, everyone, someone) or unspecified/unknown gender (a person, the victim, the winner) is used.
- In stories about people who identify as neither male nor female or ask not to be referred to as he/she/him/her.
The 17th edition of the Chicago Manual of Style now includes 2 ways in which they can have a singular meaning.
- When referring to someone whose gender is unknown or unspecified. This use of the singular is acceptable in speech and informal writing, but for formal writing, Chicago still recommends avoiding it, offering various other ways to achieve bias-free language.
- When a specific, known person does not identify with a gender-specific pronoun such as he or she. This usage is still not widespread either in speech or in writing, but Chicago accepts it even in formal writing.
The AMA Manual of Style will follow suit with the next edition, allowing the use of plural pronouns with singular indefinite antecedents (eg, Everyone allocates their time) in an effort to avoid sex-specific pronouns and awkward sentence structure.
Even though there’s more flexibility with the singular they than before, in most cases rewording usually is possible and still always preferable, especially in formal writing.—Tracy Frey