The first time I heard someone use the word “they” as a singular pronoun, I was confused—for about five seconds.
“Avery was here last weekend and they wanted to go to the beach,” a friend said. “Wait, I thought just Avery was visiting?” I replied, momentarily baffled. “Oh, Avery is non-binary and uses the pronouns ‘they,’ ‘them,’ and ‘their,’” my friend quickly explained.
That was all it took. The usage was still disorienting the very next time I heard it but the human brain is a stupendously powerful machine that craves new information like a sponge craves water.
Think about how many Kardashians and Jenners you know by first name, even if you don’t watch the show. It didn’t take long for me to adjust. In fact, by the end of the conversation, I was using singular “they” as naturally as if I had been using it my whole life.
“How did they like the beach?” I asked.
So why do editors still not trust readers to understand that “they” can refer to a single person? All it takes is one tiny disclaimer—a reminder, really—that some people identify as neither male nor female and accordingly prefer gender-neutral pronouns.
That should be easy enough to do; it’s not as if editors have to teach entire gender studies classes mid-article to bring readers up to speed.
And yet, on Thursday, New York Times public editor Liz Spayd published a column about the “confusion in the newsroom” that led to non-binary actor Asia Kate Dillon (from Showtime’s Billions) being called “she” in an op-ed, despite the fact that Dillon has been vocal about using the gender-neutral pronoun “they.”
“Opinion editors, who generally follow the style and usage guidelines of the newsroom, were under the impression that ‘they’ could not be used as a singular pronoun,” Spayd explained. “That’s how they ended up calling Dillon ‘she.’”
But there’s a missing step in that process that Spayd did not explore: How exactly did the Times opinion editors decide on “she” rather than “he” for Dillon? Did the editors scrutinize photographs of Dillon and try to deduce the actor’s birth gender? Did the editors watch Dillon’s interview with Ellen DeGeneres in which the actor shares that they were “assigned female at birth”?
In order to make the leap from “they” to “she,” the Times opinion editors had to make their own decision about Dillon’s gender.
Essentially, the editors took someone else’s identity in their hands and reshaped it to fit the demands of a style guide. That act of erasure is just as disrespectful as deliberately using “she” for a male story subject or “he” for a female story subject; the style guide doesn’t make it any more excusable.
Indeed, even in Spayd’s more measured words, such a gesture “could leave The Times seeming out of touch,” especially if such “embarrassing mistakes” keep happening.
But ultimately, after Spayd interviewed the paper’s associate masthead editor for standards—who boldly declared that the New York Times “is not looking to lead the way, set the rules, or break new ground”—she landed firmly on the side of the status quo, too.
Spayd wrote: “At least while the ground is shifting, the Times policy seems about right—allow nongender pronouns but first try reworking sentences to avoid them.”
As of this year, the Associated Press recommends more or less the same thing.
Singular “they” is no longer absolutely verboten in their official stylebook but the AP still believes that it is only “acceptable in limited cases as a singular and-or gender-neutral pronoun, when alternative wording is overly awkward or clumsy.”
Such rewording, the AP argues, “usually is possible and always is preferable.”
Is it, though? When a writer does backflips to avoid using gender pronouns, the resulting prose is far clunkier than any explanation of non-binary gender will ever be.
For example, try to make it through this paragraph without grimacing: “When Avery came to visit me, Avery’s top priority was getting to the beach as quickly as possible. After Avery went to the beach, Avery got a drink with Avery’s old high school friends. Then Avery came back home and told me all about Avery’s day.”
Compare that paragraph to having a note at the top of the article that informs the reader: “Avery has a non-binary gender and uses the pronoun ‘they.’"
Then in the piece itself: "When Avery came to visit me, their top priority was getting to the beach as quickly as possible. After Avery went to the beach, they got a drink with their old high school friends. Then Avery came back home and told me all about their day.”
It only took me ten extra words to inform readers of Avery’s identity—and to produce a few lines of text that are arguably clearer precisely because I didn’t fastidiously avoid pronouns as if they were landmines. Gender pronouns are part of the natural rhythm of English; readers notice when they go missing—and they often want an explanation.
So it’s odd that the Associated Press would advocate for rewording whenever possible because “[c]larity is a top priority” and “gender-neutral use of a singular they is unfamiliar to many readers.” The AP stylebook only recommends “explain[ing] in the text that the person prefers a gender-neutral pronoun” if it is “essential” to do so.
Spayd displayed a similar lack of faith in readers when she presented the issue of singular “they” as a push-and-pull between maintaining grammatical clarity and keeping up with the genderless Joneses.
“Understandably, this isn’t a simple issue for news organizations,” Spayd wrote. “Either confuse many of your readers with sentences like ‘They is going to the theater’ or risk falling behind shifting cultural norms.”
But readers shouldn’t be shielded from a rapidly-changing world in the name of good grammar.
According to one widely-reported survey of American teens conducted by a forecasting agency, over half of today’s 13-to-20 year-olds know someone who uses a gender-neutral pronoun. We can’t avoid “they” forever. In fact, writers and editors should probably be among the first to embrace its usage.
The entire enterprise of journalism is ostensibly about introducing readers to new information, making the unfamiliar familiar and the unclear clear. And besides, the appeal to grammar is a prescriptivist Hail Mary pass that leads nowhere. Spayd worried in her column that “[s]ociety’s fast-evolving views of gender identity seem at the moment to be outpacing the rules of grammarians.”
Surely, then, dictionary editors must be up in arms about singular “they” and all those kids these days with their fancy new pronouns. Not so. Any linguist can tell you that language is a living, breathing thing that we can only ever hope to describe, not control.
According to Oxford: “The word they (with its counterparts them, their, and themselves) as a singular pronoun to refer to a person of unspecified gender has been used since at least the 16th century” and “the singular they is [now] preferred by some individuals who identify as neither male nor female.”
Merriam-Webster is even more gung-ho about singular “they,” noting in a “Words We’re Watching” column that there is “evidence in our files of the nonbinary they dating back to 1950”—and that “they” is “vastly preferable” to more “dehumanizing” options that have been used in the past, like “it.”
“There have always been people who didn’t conform to an expected gender expression, or who seemed to be neither male nor female,” the Merriam-Webster editors note. “But we’ve struggled to find the right language to describe these people—and in particular, the right pronouns.”
Non-binary people aren’t going anywhere, nor is singular “they” for the time being. Anyone who writes, edits, or reads will have to reconcile themselves to that fact at some point soon. “Grammar” is never a good excuse for trying to freeze language in place. Language is a tool we use to describe ourselves, not a dictate from on high that we must unflinchingly abide.
It’s time to quit being wary of “they” and embrace it already.
It only takes about five seconds.