AP Style Guide now allows for Singular They
The Associated Press Stylebook says it is “opening the door” to use of the singular they.
A new stylebook entry, which was announced Thursday as part of the AP’s session at the 21st national conference of ACES: The Society for Editing in St. Petersburg, Fla., for the first time allows use of they as a singular pronoun or gender-neutral pronoun.
“We stress that it’s usually possible to write around that,” said Paula Froke, lead editor for the AP Stylebook. “But we offer new advice for two reasons: recognition that the spoken language uses they as singular and we also recognize the need for a pronoun for people who don’t identify as a he or a she.”
Language evolution is not a new thing. English as we know it today once looked very different. Current native speakers would likely have a very hard time understanding it. There are many reasons for a language to change: Language contact, such as travel for war, trade, leisure, and necessity. Social differentiation, such as when social groups clarify their distinctions from one another (This can happen for many reasons, to reinforce status, in reaction or response to prejudice, and so on). Natural process usages, such as assimilation, dissimilation, syncope and apocope. For example, in Oregon, people say "fer" instead of "for". Additionally, new technology invites opportunity for new words and blends (formerly called portmanteau). For example, email is a blend of electronic and mail.
Changes in pronouns aren't new either. One example is the pronoun "You". To view a discussion about that, see You: A short history of the pronoun.
In fact, whole letters have been dropped from the English alphabet! Check out English used to have 6 more letters.
This isn't to say that Singular They is a new phenomenon. People have been using it for a few hundred years. However, at one point the issue became politicized and grammarians demonized it. They wanted people to use "he" as both a neutral and a gendered pronoun. It was an uphill battle, but, eventually people caved and "they" was declared strictly plural and "he" was declared both gendered and gender neutral. Just another page in the history of language usage. Now, however, Singular They has gained enough momentum to push back again to take it's place as the true neutral, and it appears to be winning in the US. To learn more about historical uses of Singular They, click here for a short run down.
The AP Style Guides endorsement however, should not be underestimated. This is a huge day in history for Singular They.
There is a conversation I am trying to locate that involves people trying to locate the owner of a cell phone or wallet or something and they use Singular They. It's a great example of how people are already using it without a second thought. I haven't found that one yet. But, along they way, I did find this one that I had completely forgotten about.
Languages are a reflection of the societies where they are spoken, and must evolve as that society evolves. Not many languages have an acceptable gender-neutral singular pronoun. (The existing English gender-neutral pronoun, 'it', is considered demeaning.)
'They' is in relatively common usage already, though as AP noted, it can generally be avoided and should always be avoided in very formal language, like contracts and laws, where it might lead to significant misunderstandings.
A handful of languages have only one third person pronoun; Turkish: o, Hungarian: ő, Finnish: hän, Swahili: Yeye, Armenian: նա (na), Bengali: তিনি (Tini). Mandarin doesn't distinct gender in spoken form (Tā) despite it's commonly used distinction in the written form (他/她). Spoken, all of these pronouns mean both "he" and "she", and there isn't a real need to have another pronoun for people. Maybe not all mainstream languages have dictionary-accepted gender-neutral third person pronouns, but there are a lot already that have only one pronoun applicable to all genders, whether that is accepted or not in the culture.
Languages like Swedish have incorporated a new pronoun over the years (the example being "hen", which is between "han" and "hon"), or like Spanish have ways of not mentioning them (omitting the "él" or "ella"). English is a unique case since a new made-up pronoun ("xyr/xim/xay" are popular on the Internet) will be at a disadvantage being deemed "unnatural" or "silly", while "they" exists in the language already and can be better understood in general, and in addition the pronoun must be present in a complete English sentence if there is no nominative noun. Many linguistic phenomena surrounding the issue doesn't have all those advantages or disadvantages, whatever you deem them to be.
I actually think it's quite interesting, and I'm not saying that you're absolutely wrong about your statements, but there are a lot more languages than one might think that already uses one all-purpose or three distinct pronouns, probably more than "not many", and so misunderstandings or a need to clarify could happen in that respect. Luckily, there are other words that can clarify if there is need to. English in this situation is both unique and not alone.
but more importantly, the reason it is being accepted is that it is being used anyway. Remember that language is spoken first, and writing is a different beast that comes later. Like the article points out, singular "they" has been in use for hundreds of years, it was only demonized by grammar snobs who didn't like it, but that doesn't mean that people stopped using it. the AP is merely finally accepting the fact that it is being used. Hoorah for descriptivism.
I find "they" so much easier to say and write than using "he(slash, or)she" when I can't tell the person's gender. Like if the person in question isn't present and someone uses (at least historically) a gender-neutral name, full name or nickname, like "Alex", "Sam" or "Max". I can just ask something using "they" or the name I heard and the speaker can clarify. (An example: "Who else is coming?" "Sam will be here soon." "I don't know Sam. Did they say they'll be late?" "She's usually on time. I wonder what's holding her up." Only one person knew Sam's gender and by using the gender-neutral pronoun the situation wasn't as awkward as some people make it when a misgendering happens) Singular they is also less biased than using the male-female pronouns, since it's more inclusive for a number of reasons.
I wasn't aware people would think of this as a singular achievement. Singular They on it's own doesn't make much of an impact. Alone, it doesn't solve sexism, racism, ablism, classism, homophobia, transphobia, cissexism, and so forth. As one piece among many of a larger puzzle, maybe it gets us one step closer. Backing up though, you're right to point out that it would look rather insignificant coming from a small perspective. Stepping back to see the full picture makes all the difference. :)
There will be resistance for a while. People are so uncomfortable with anything that changes their habits but if they think about it the only other viable solution used to be the cumbersome not to mention delusory "he/she" which so often, too too often got shortened to just "he"; they will come on board with "they". Thumbs up to usagi for this initiative and the historical references given.
A while ago there were attempts to have a plural form of "you" such as "y'all" used on Duo in English with some users asking: "How can we know when it is plural.?" Well, for so many years so many millions of English speakers have gotten along just fine with one "you" for singular and plural and even in those regions where "y'all" is used it's often just an expression not an indication of plural.
Just picture a vine slowly hitching itself higher and higher by turns and twists of its tiny tendrils until it has engulfed the whole building. One day with the same persistence "they" will be at the top.
Oh interesting! This is the first I've read of y'all being used as singular. though, I've encountered "all y'all". I always took it as an expression with a built in redundancy. I'll have to keep my eyes and ears out to see if I can catch any live examples of "y'all" being used as a singular.
If people are happy for this I'm glad for them but pushing to go from generic he to singular they is like finding a midnight blue coloured room and repainting it navy blue. Just doesn't make a difference.
Maybe singular they will catch on with me or maybe I'll just keep using generic he for individuals until the odd occasion where someone will ask for me to use they or she. When that happens I'll most likely comply with their request because I usually have no reason to disrespect people.
"It's a shrug from me." -Misquoted Simon Cowell
The only problem (and it's pretty insignificant, really) is that when you use "they" to refer to a single person, then it's grammatically incorrect, at least for English... Although, I think I may be wrong because since this is being allowed, then it would be made correct. I guess? Anyways, this is very interesting. I'm glad to see language evolve like this. For me, it will take getting used to, since I don't use "they" as singular on a daily basis.
it depends on what you mean by "grammar". There are two schools of thought here: descriptivism and prescriptivism. Generally, something like the Associated Press represents the very essence of prescriptivism (or: this is how this language -should- be spoken). They make rules about how they think language should be used that don't have any objective truth to them (because there's not a lot of objectivity to be had). On the other hand, descriptivist grammar is a set of rules that is based precisely on how a language is -actually- spoken and, thus, those rules can change and are different depending on where you are. Thus, in one part of the US, according to a descriptivist approach, saying "youns" is a perfectly grammatically correct way of saying "you(plural)", whereas in another part it may not be considered correct for that region's variety of English.
So, there's nothing objectively grammatically incorrect about using "they" to refer to a single person. Plenty of words can/do serve multiple purposes, and just because one pronoun is thought of as plural does not mean it can't also be used singularly without any grammatical contradiction. Any notion you have of singular "they" being grammatically incorrect is based on societal forces, and not on grammar. You are taught to believe that it is grammatically incorrect, but that's not how grammar works.
Again, though, as part of the original post points out, singular "they" has been around for hundreds of years, it is not something "new" to be gotten used to. And you can continue to never use it without being any more hindered than you already are (or aren't, depending on your perspective) by not using it.
Of course, I suppose it's pretty easy to tell from this that I am a pretty hard-core descriptivist.
Hm, I can understand that. It will be something new for me particularly to get used to because I hardly ever use "they" singular. Whether it's correct or not, it will always seem obscure to me because I wasn't raised to see that as grammatically correct. But, thank you for the explanation!
Just imagine if singular "they" didn't exist, we would be having problems with people who get easily offended because you tried to assume their gender by accident (by calling them dude, gal, boy, girl, etc); and not to mention the fact that we would be having to write "he/she" all the time.