Grammar Gurus: Pronoun Rules Can Bend With Gender

Mar 31, 2017

The Associated Press made news right here in Tampa Bay recently, when leaders announced at the American Society of Copy Editors convention a change to a longtime piece of language.

The news: It’s now okay to use the singular term ‘they’ in limited cases for people who don’t use gendered pronouns.

This is a big deal for people who see themselves as neither all-male nor all-female, but some of both. They call themselves "non-binary."

One speaker at a recent LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender) youth leadership summit in St. Petersburg explained that it is annoying to continually be referred to by a pronoun that feels wrong. 

“It’s not like you are verbally harassing me, right? It’s not like you’re trying to hurt my feelings or belittle me for who I am,” said Dan Merewether. “But it’s just like a mosquito bite. One’s fine. Two or three even is fine. But if you’re getting stung by 1,000 mosquitos all the time, you’re going to go mad.”

And those references in the media have been increasing in the past few years, as coverage of non-binary people and transgender issues become more common, said Kelly McBride of the Poynter Institute for Media Studies.

She said that until now, the AP has followed long-held grammar rules that ‘they,’  ‘them’ and ‘their’ are considered plural pronouns.

“But many people in the transgender community use those pronouns intentionally when referring to an individual because they don’t have a gender assignment, like ‘he’ and ‘she,’ ” McBride said. “Since these stories are becoming so common, a lot of writers have been doing this in their copy, but the AP until now has not allowed it.”

The AP gets to make the decision because, in addition to being a global news gathering organizations, hundreds of newsrooms are members, paying to publish AP articles, McBride said. In order to make that system work, the AP's style manual has become a universal standard that governs everything from how and when to abbreviate the names of states to use of a hyphen.

“AP’s style rules aren’t just about being politically correct or labeling people. They’re really meant to make the language useful and helpful. It’s all about communicating clearly and that’s the AP’s first goal,” McBride said. “But they also want to do it in a way that is sensitive to the people who are the subjects of our news stories.”

Many organizations have been making changes on a case-by-case basis, and the AP style gurus already had conceded in 2013 that it was appropriate to use the gendered pronoun preferred by the individual. For example, when Bruce Jenner transitioned to Caitlyn Jenner, media stories starting referring to Jenner as ‘she,’ as she requested.