“They” Said It Was Okay: New Use of Gender-Neutral Pronouns

© Can Stock Photo / scanrail

A Wendy’s Wednesday Whimsy

March 24, 2017 may have seemed like an ordinary day to you. But for U.S. journalists and the rest of us word-nerds who mostly use the Associated Press (AP) Stylebook as our guide, it was the day the organization finally threw in the towel on a long-standing gender identification debate.

The AP has stopped insisting we match singular subjects with singular pronouns, even when the gender could be either/or (or these days, “neither,” or “all of the above”).

At least with respect to the grammar of things, I was singularly delighted to hear the news. On the one hand, perpetuating stereotypes by defaulting to male or female pronouns has long left me cold. Who’s to determine whether that indeterminate doctor, nurse, advisor or architect is a “he” or a “she” on second reference?

On the other hand, there may be no more awkward, if correct construction than the architecture that was usually of next-best choice:

“A fiduciary adviser should tell you what’s in your best interest, regardless of his or her incentives and whether or not he or she stands to profit from the advice …”

Yuck. Thankfully, the AP has ruled:

“They/them/their is acceptable in limited cases as a singular and-or gender-neutral pronoun, when alternative wording is overly awkward or clumsy. However, rewording usually is possible and always is preferable.”

In other words, if – and only if – it’s the best choice for improving clarity, it is now kosher to write:

“A fiduciary adviser should tell you what’s in your best interest, regardless of their incentives and whether or not they stand to profit from the advice.”

I know, this isn’t exactly trail-blazing stuff. It’s more like increasing the speed limit from 55 to 60 mph when everyone’s already doing 65.

Still, it’s a welcome change. My clients can expect to see me swiftly embracing the new guide, and writing and editing accordingly on their behalf.