The Gong Blog

A step in the right direction: AP Stylebook greenlights singular ‘they’

AP Style Pronouns

A majority, if not all, of the communications we produce on behalf of clients is dictated by the Associated Press Stylebook. Especially any media relations outreach.

Here’s some background from the AP that helps explains why: “The AP Stylebook is the definitive resource for journalists and a must-have reference for writers, editors, students and professionals. It provides fundamental guidelines for spelling, language, punctuation, usage and journalistic style.”

In other words, journalists use it, and it’s important for PR pros to as well.

The AP announced earlier this year a new update that would include guidance on utilizing “they” as a singular pronoun. The guidelines became official with when the 2017 Stylebook was published on May 31.

As someone who works with LGBTQ+ organizations and individuals, I applaud this change and believe it’s a step in the right direction towards a more inclusive and respectful news media.

Why? Because pronouns matter. Especially in something as public as a news story. Interviews are one of the most public-facing statements a person can make, and because of the Internet will last forever. It’s essential that the interviewee is identified with their preferred pronoun.

For additional perspective on why pronouns are important and the significance of the AP Stylebook update, I reached out to two experts for their thoughts on the change:

  • Ted Lewis, executive director at Richmond-based LGBTQ youth nonprofit Side by Side: “The singular ‘they’ pronoun is nothing new to the LGBTQ+ community, and this recognition of the existence of non-binary people by the AP is a tremendous step towards a more inclusive media. The AP adding the singular ‘they’ to their style guide goes far beyond affirming the gender identity of non-binary people, it provides for a larger discussion on gender within our news and media. And, if for no other reason, the use of this singular pronoun accurately identifies non-binary people within media.”
  • Dr. Tiffany Jana, CEO & President of TMI Consulting Inc. and author of “Overcoming Bias:” “The use of non-gendered pronouns is important in daily life as it helps create an atmosphere of inclusivity. If Dale Carnegie’s assertion that the sound of someone’s own name is the sweetest sound they can hear, then I would posit that the correct use of pronouns is just as sweet to those for whom it matters. People who don’t struggle to get others to understand and respect their gender identity are privileged to have a non-experience in this area. Just imagine being constantly called the wrong pronoun, and by extension the wrong gender, every single day. It’s an incessant reminder of one’s otherness and is not a very welcoming experience at all. The inclusive use of ‘they’ finally removes assumption, judgment, and exclusion from our foundational lexicon.”

Language – and AP Style for that matter – should evolve with society. I’m glad the Stylebook editors are championing a more inclusive and respectful media.

Questions or feedback? Leave a comment or shoot me an email at cmcpherson@hodgespart.com.

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POSTED IN: Public Relations

Cameron McPherson

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2 Comments

  1. Jacob Geiger

    Cameron,
    While I agree wholeheartedly with the use of pronouns consistent with a person’s self-identified gender, my problem with “they” has always been that it’s a plural pronoun and is therefore misapplied if used to refer to just one person. If use of he/she is too binary, wouldn’t we be better off trying to settle as communicators on a gender-neutral, singular pronoun? I see from the new AP entry that they’ve elected not to go down that road, at least for now.

    It seems this has evolved in recent years, particularly given the large volume of stories written about Chelsea Manning and Caitlin Jenner.

    Ultimately I think I like the AP’s suggestion that if a person prefers not to be identified by a gendered pronoun, it’s best to just use the person’s name or try to write around the issue.

    I also find the GLAAD media reference guide to be very helpful on this and related topics: https://www.glaad.org/reference

    Thanks for the illuminating post!
    Jacob Geiger

  2. Cameron McPherson

    Hi Jacob, thanks for reading and the GLAAD resource!

    A friend shared another Poynter piece utilizing the they pronoun, which I thought was helpful:
    https://www.poynter.org/2017/feeling-discouraged-this-journalist-is-searching-for-quality-journalism-city-by-city/445615/.

    This WSJ piece from 2015 is also informative and discusses Sweden’s adoption of a gender-neutral pronoun and how a singular “they” was used by writers like Shakespeare and Jane Austen:
    https://www.wsj.com/articles/can-they-be-accepted-as-a-singular-pronoun-1428686651?mg=prod/accounts-wsj.

    Appreciate you taking the time to comment.

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