AP Stylebook adding singular ‘they’

Communicators are advised to use the new term sparingly. The guide’s entry for ‘gender’ was also updated, and a new entry for ‘homophobia’ and ‘homophobic’ was added.

AP Stylebook isn’t adopting the Oxford comma, but a new change is almost as controversial.

In December 2015, The Washington Post added the term to its in-house style guide. Now, that move is extending to the AP Stylebook.

AP Stylebook editor Paula Froke and AP Stylebook’s product manager, Colleen Newvine, announced the change at the recent American Copy Editors Society conference in St. Petersburg, Florida.

The term is included in AP Stylebook’s online version and will be added to its 2017 print edition, due out May 31. However, the guidance is to use the new term sparingly, “when alternative wording is overly awkward or clumsy.”

AP Stylebook highlighted specific passages from the new entry in a blog post:

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. We do not use other gender-neutral pronouns such as xe or ze…


Arguments for using they/them as a singular sometimes arise with an indefinite pronoun (anyone, everyone, someone) or unspecified/unknown gender (a person, the victim, the winner)…


In stories about people who identify as neither male nor female or ask not to be referred to as he/she/him/her: Use the person’s name in place of a pronoun, or otherwise reword the sentence, whenever possible. If they/them/their use is essential, explain in the text that the person prefers a gender-neutral pronoun. Be sure that the phrasing does not imply more than one person…

“AP noted they were starting to wrestle” with the term two years ago, Poynter reported. The issue has been brought up by journalists and editors who have struggled to write around the use of a gender-specific pronoun—along with those who think they shouldn’t have to.


The Washington Post reported:

“It’s about time,” Ben Zimmer, language columnist for the Wall Street Journal, told Poynter. “Style guides sometimes move in baby steps. This seems to be a step in a good direction, even if it’s not a full-throated endorsement of singular they.”

On the subject of gender, AP Stylebook also added “LGBTQ” alongside its “LGBT” entry:

Here’s the new AP Stylebook excerpt:

LGBT, LGBTQ — Acceptable in all references for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender, or lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning and/or queer . In quotations and the formal names of organizations and events, other forms such as LGBTQIA and other variations are also acceptable with the other letters in the acronym explained. I generally stands for intersex, and A can stand for allies (a person who is not LGBT but who actively supports the LGBT community), asexual (a person who doesn’t experience sexual attraction) or both. The word queer can be considered a slur in many contexts, so limit use of the word to quotes and names of organizations, following rules for obscenities, profanities, vulgarities as appropriate. Note that sex, gender and sexual orientation are not synonymous. See gay or gender.

It also updated its “gender” entry, and added “homophobia” and “homophobic” to its new edition.

The Washington Post reported:

The new stylebook also includes an updated section on gender, which reads, “Gender refers to a person’s social identity while sex refers to biological characteristics. Not all people fall under one of two categories for sex or gender, according to leading medical organizations, so avoid references to both, either or opposite sexes or genders as a way to encompass all people.”

Additionally, it added its first entry for “homophobia, homophobic,” which it stated are “acceptable in broad references or in quotations to the concept of fear or hatred of gays, lesbians and bisexuals.”

(Image by Beki Winchel, via)


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