It is they: Word of the Year is a longtime copy-editing conundrum

This was the year of they.

2015 was the year copy editors and other observers of language saw broader acceptance of the pronoun’s utility in referring to a single person — usually an unidentified person, but not necessarily.

In the past year, we also saw the word they more commonly used for a person who does not care for binary gender identity — some people don’t see themselves as a he or a she.

they2Friday night in Washington, D.C., they was declared the American Dialect Society Word of the Year for 2015, voted on by linguists and lexicographers crowded into a room for the highlight of that organization’s annual conference.

They certainly wasn’t new in 2015. It has been used as a singular pronoun for hundreds of years.

We use it in speech casually without even thinking about it, but we continue to edit it out of printed text, sometimes performing copy-editing backflips to avoid it.

At the 2012 ACES conference in New Orleans, Sandra Schaefer, then a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh, presented “Reviving Singular They, Contemporary Usage of Gender Neutral Pronouns.”

By ACES 2015 in Pittsburgh, the singular they seemed to be the enduring topic in many sessions and evening bar discussions. Merrill Perlman, president of the ACES Education Fund, wrote about it in a column for Columbia Journalism Review just before the conference. After the Word of the Year vote, she said she was thrilled.

“It continues the validation that sometimes the fix is worse than the flaw,” she wrote in a message. “Avoiding they can create stilted language. The ADS adds momentum to the movement.”

In December, the Washington Post changed its style guide to allow they as an all-purpose pronoun as a last resort. Post copy editor Bill Walsh said he has been rooting for singular they while avoiding using it because of it was perceived as incorrect.

“I think it was the obvious choice,” he said of the WOTY designation, “though my embrace of the idea couldn’t have been much more cautious.”

Walsh wrote for the Post that what finally pushed him over the edge was the increasing visibility of people for whom he or she did not fit.

“Simply allowing they for a gender-nonconforming person is a no-brainer,” Walsh wrote. “And once we’ve done that, why not allow it for the most awkward of those he or she situations that have troubled us for so many years?”

ACES executive board member Brady Jones, who organized a panel on inclusive language at the Pittsburgh conference, said language evolves as part of social and cultural change.

“Words have a lot of power,” he wrote. “The singular they makes our communications more accurate and, perhaps more importantly, more respectful toward people about whom we’re talking or writing.”

Jones is a visiting assistant professor at the University of Missouri School of Journalism.

They won in a single round in the final vote of the night, earning 187 votes out of 334 cast. It beat out nominees Thanks, Obama (a phrase used seriously or sarcastically for whenever anything goes wrong), ammosexual (a lover of firearms), on fleek (something like just right, often referring to eyebrows), and ghost (to end a relationship by vanishing from online connections).

They also was the runaway favorite in the Most Useful subcategory in the Word of the Year voting. The vote tallies for all categories can be found at the American Dialect Society website.

Mark Allen, a freelance copy editor in Columbus, Ohio, and a member of the ACES executive board, blogged about the singular they for Copyediting in April.

5 Responses to “It is they: Word of the Year is a longtime copy-editing conundrum”

  1. Ruth Butler

    I’ve edited this out of stories, taught students the re-wording gymnastics needed to avoid it (doable!) but now must accept that language is fluid and rules change. I feel so grown-up!
    Next up: approving people = that instead of who? This goes deeper than grammar!

    • Shawn

      ‘That’ is depersonalizing. The point of using singular ‘they’ is to acknowledge the living being without making a fuss over gender, and ‘who’ serves the purpose admirably.
      All of those re-writing gymnastics– do make a fuss when none is necessary.

    • Jonathon Owen

      There’s nothing wrong with that for people. The idea that there is is a superstition that was cooked up by American journalists in the 1900s. Merriam-Webster says that that is perfectly standard, and Garner says that “it’s a silly fetish to insist that who is the only relative pronoun that can refer to humans.”

  2. E.M. Bram

    There is precedent in the English language for using plural forms to replace singular pronouns. Otherwise, we’d still be using thou/thee/thy/thine/thyself.