To edit well is not to follow a handbook dictating grammar and style, but to have an awareness of the way words function and develop in society. One only needs to aimlessly scroll through social media to discover a host of emerging neologisms and new acronyms, seeping their way into our everyday language. Not only do entirely new words emerge over time, the way words are categorized—whether a noun, verb, adjective or adverb—has been shifting since language was first recorded. Today, an increasing sensitivity to and awareness of gender nuances is one of the areas an editor has to consider.
‘They’ singular—an editor’s conundrum
Among emerging discussions of gender fluidity, ‘they’ as a singular pronoun has quickly become a contentious topic between publishers, authors and editors alike. In 2015, ‘they’ as a singular pronoun was voted the word of the year by the American Dialect Society. Since then, as once-niche beliefs about gender identity are becoming increasingly mainstream, use of the singular ‘they’ is evolving quickly. And, as with all politically inflected language choices, the singular ‘they’ is conflicting territory for copy-editors who rigorously follow outdated style guides.
Feminism and gender nonconformity
Broadly speaking, preference for the singular ‘they’ falls into two categories. For feminists, ‘they’ challenges the assumption that the default human subject is male. ‘He or she’ is a grammatical, non-sexist alternative until recently encouraged by most style guides (such as New Harts Rules, 2014). But it insists on binary gender. For those who have a fluid gender, ‘they’ goes beyond normative gender—opening a space in language where a spectrum of identities is accommodated.
Many are now encouraged to label their preferred pronouns in their email signature or on LinkedIn. This culture of sensitivity around pronoun choices, and the gender identities they represent, necessarily translates into academic writing. And, while editing academic texts, it is increasingly important for the copy-editor to be aware of the considered opinions behind a writer’s choice of pronouns (it is also imperative to follow any stated personal choice of pronoun). Beyond that, it is also an editor’s job to suggest more inclusive language, should an author fail to consider it.
Clarity above all?
However, uses of the plural pronoun still undeniably confuse some readers. Linguists have found that, while people widely accept ‘they’ singular in principle, certain antecedents followed by plural pronouns prompt pauses while readers re-parse a sentence to check agreement. ‘Someone dressed themselves’, for example, is read more quickly than ‘Chloe dressed themself’. This is more marked among those with no experience of non-binary identities, and is an issue editors must confront on case-by-case basis.
Many style guides now allow use of the singular ‘they’, while noting it is possible to write pronouns out of most sentences—to avoid phrases such as ‘They is coming’. Changing this rule in 2017, the Associated Press Stylebook noted that ‘[c]larity is a top priority; gender-neutral use of a singular they is unfamiliar to many readers’. And the guide still encourages writers to explain their reasons for using any individually preferred pronoun.
Tweets expressing passionate opinions on either side of the debate suggest a strength of feeling among readers.
The long view
Changes in the use of ‘they’ have long been coming for editors. The singular ‘he’ rule can be traced to a small group of grammarians at the end of the eighteenth century. Meanwhile ‘they’ singular has precedents from the fourteenth century onwards (1375 in the OED, in the poem William and the Werewolf)—including illustrious proponents such as Chaucer, Austen and Eliot. The need for an alternative existed, even in a markedly more heteronormative society. In 1996, Fowler editor R. W. Burchfield was already noting that ‘they’ was in a process of irresistible change.
English is clearly caught with an unhelpful set of rules around pronoun use that do not reflect current social norms—and will be increasingly cumbersome as gender norms inevitably undergo further change. Copy-editors should continue to impose clarity and never apply personal politics to a text. But for how long will the, still grammatically acceptable, ‘he’ and ‘he or she’ continue to be socially acceptable, and, indeed, easy to read?