With the 2017 Stylebook print edition to be published May 31, AP has OK’d “they” as a singular pronoun. Editor Paula Froke announced the change at the recent American Copy Editors Society meeting in St. Petersburg, Fla. She said the new rule recognizes that “spoken language uses they as singular” and that the term can be applied when citing people who identify as gender neutral.
The new entry reads, “They, them, their: In most cases, a plural pronoun should agree in number with the antecedent: The children love the books their uncle gave them. 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. Clarity is a top priority; gender-neutral use of a singular they is unfamiliar to many readers.”
The previous entry said, “Their is a plural possessive pronoun and must agree in number with the antecedent. Wrong: Everyone raised their hands. Right: They raised their hands. See ‘every one, everyone’ for the pronoun that takes singular verbs and pronouns.”
Froke said writers need to clarify that “they” refers to only one person. Colleen Newvine, product manager, said the singular “they” isn’t required, but is allowed.
Other 2017 Stylebook updates include:
- LGBTQ for people who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer, but the term queer can be a slur in many contexts, according to the editors, “so limit its use … to quotes and names of organizations.”
- Gender denotes a person’s social identity, while sex is defined as a person’s biological characteristics.
Rewritten Stylebook entries are:
- courtesy titles
- fact check/fake news
Under “fake news,” the Stylebook says: “The term fake news may be used in quotes or as shorthand for the modern phenomenon of deliberate falsehoods or fiction masked as news circulating on the internet,” the AP explains. However, do not label as fake news specific or individual news items that are disputed. If fake news is used in a quote, push for specifics about what is meant. Alternative wording includes false reports, erroneous reports, unverified reports, questionable reports, disputed reports or false reporting, depending on the context.
You can buy the print edition at the AP store (store.apstylebook.com) or via Amazon. The AP Online edition already reflects the new changes.
Don Bates, APR, Fellow PRSA teaches graduate PR writing and management courses at New York University.
Don, thanks for the summary of the AP style changes. It’s good news that they’ve accepted a plural pronoun’s use with a singular noun. (See – I’ve already put it into use here.) One of the most awkward singular nouns in this respect is “company.” I would think the AP change would now allow this sentence: “When General Motors’ new XXX model exploded, they went back to the drawing board.” Would you agree?
I’m so glad to see these changes made to the new edition of the AP Stylebook and that the difference between gender and sex have been clearly identified. If anyone is writing about the LGBTQ community, I really hope they refer to the stylebook to avoid using any kind of incorrect terminology.
I checked with the AP style editor regarding what Lucy appropriately suggests. Here is my question followed by the editor’s response:
“With the new rule on pronouns, what say you about referring to a corporation as a “they,” as the Brits do, rather than as an “it”? E.g., In their annual report, they say… or in its annual report, they say…”
Reply from AP:
“As a collective noun, company should take a singular verb and pronoun in formal writing. But if the singular they is used in spoken conversation about a company, AP would use that form unchanged in a direct quote. Regarding your examples, rephrasing is recommended in the Stylebook’s new entry on they, them, their. In their annual report, company officials say … In the annual report, the company says …”
Thus spake AP.
Thank you for the summary of these updates on the most recent AP Style guide! It’s interesting to consider how our language standards reflect shifting cultural values and can lead to framing social issues.
Another important consideration in discussing the LBTQ community is favoring the use of “freedom to marry” or “equal marriage rights” instead of “gay marriage” to avoid perpetuating otherness. The organization GLAAD (glaad.org) provides a helpful guide on these terms. Perhaps the AP Style guide will also address this concern moving forward.