What’s in a pronoun? For those who have to fight for recognition of their gender identity, there’s a lot at stake—and as public awareness of transgender and non-binary gender issues grows, pronouns have become a point of contention among copy editors and reporters. Journalistic guidelines have long instructed reporters to use pronouns that correspond with a person’s preferred gender identity or, if not specified, one that is "consistent with the way individuals live publicly," according to the 2016 AP stylebook.
But what about people who don’t identify as either a "he" or a "she"? Now, reports Kristin Hare for Poynter, the granddaddy of all style guides has weighed in with guidance that the pronoun “they” is acceptable to refer to people who don’t identify as male or female or who ask not to go by he, she, him or her. As Hare reports, it puts to rest the longstanding argument about whether the collective pronoun “they” could be used by journalists for individuals. The decision is being called a victory for the public recognition of non-binary people.
It’s not the first time the pronoun “they” has been sanctioned by mainstream journalism outlets. In 2015, The Washington Post announced that it will accept the pronoun due to what copy editor Bill Walsh calls “the increasing visibility of gender-neutral people.”
Neither organization, however, uses "they" as a catch-all. In the AP guideline, the organization instructs reporters to use the word only in limited cases to describe people who don’t identify with the gender binary—not as a general term or a description of people whose external gender identification is not obvious. Amanda Hess writes in The New York Times Magazine that using "they" as a catch-all term for people who don’t prefer the pronoun can feel "like an erasure of [a person’s] own identity in favor of society’s new standardized label."
That erasure is a serious issue for those who fight for transgender rights. Advocates argue that misgendering a person puts transgender people at risk of violence; In 2016 alone, the Human Rights Campaign tracked the deaths of at least 25 transgender people—the majority of them by violent means. Moreover, as Vice’s Simon Davis notes, the practice can have consequences in death as well as life when medical examiners or coroners incorrectly identify a person’s sex on a death certificate or in media reports.
Journalists aren’t the only people who have to mind their pronouns. Recently, the Supreme Court reprimanded groups that misgendered Gavin Grimm, the plaintiff in a case about transgender access, in amicus briefs arguing that he has no right to use men’s bathrooms. (The case was later sent back to a lower court.)
“They” isn’t the only issue tackled by the new version of the AP stylebook. As the AP’s Lauren Easton reports on the stylebook's blog, the new edition will also include guidance on the term LGBT and LGBTQ, clear up the use of the words “flier” and “flyer,” and help reporters talk about autonomous vehicles. Each is sure to be hotly debated by grammar nerds—and each update is a reminder that language, like culture, never stays in one place for long.