The Associated Press (AP) announced Friday that journalists are now permitted to use “they” as a singular pronoun in gender-neutral cases. The announcement was made at the annual national conference of the American Copy Editors Society in St. Petersburg, Florida.
The new entry into the AP stylebook concerning “they” states “They/them/their is acceptable in limited cases as a singular and-or gender-neutral pronoun, when alternative wording is overly awkward or clumsy.” Clarity is a priority with the new guidelines, however, and rewording is “always preferable.”
In stories about people who identify as neither male nor female and thus do not use he/him or she/her pronouns, The Associated Press advises using the person’s name in place of a pronoun. If usage of they/them/their is necessary, journalists are to “explain in the text that the person prefers a gender-neutral pronoun” as well as “be sure that the phrasing does not imply more than one person.”
Changes have also been made to the gender entry of the AP Stylebook, explaining that the term “gender” can no longer be used in place of “sex.” The change goes further to explain that “not all people fall under one of two for sex or gender, according to leading medical organizations, so avoid references to both, either or opposite sexes or genders as a way to encompass all people.”
— Emmy Jo Favilla (@em_dash3) March 24, 2017
Reactions to the change have been generally positive. Non-binary Roanoke Times reporter Tiffany Stevens described it as “super exciting,” given that “non-binary people as an identity aren’t recognized in general in America.” Wall Street Journalist columnist Ben Zimmer was equally enthusiastic, claiming “It’s about time.”
However, the change is still a small step in the eyes of LGBT+ journalists. According to Stevens, mentioning rewording still provides a way to “un-pronoun” for writers who feel as though singular “they” is grammatically incorrect.
AP Stylebook lead editor Paula Froke explains the reasons behind the new advice: “recognition that the spoken language uses they as singular and…the need for a pronoun for people who don’t identify as a he or a she.”
The changes are effective online and will be included in the 2017 version of the AP Stylebook, to be released in May along with 200 other changes.