Eugene Fedorenko is Writing, Reading, and Traveling

English has a traditional solution to gender-neutral pronouns

Copy editors are opinionated. Whether titles of books should be in italics or in inverted commas can divide them more decidedly than the Sharks and the Jets. So at a recent meeting of the American Copy Editors Society, the “Chicago Manual of Style” and the Associated Press (AP) stylebook, both widely followed, announced a change that sent waves through the audience. In AP’s wording, “They/them/their is acceptable in limited cases as a singular and-or gender-neutral pronoun, when alternative wording is overly awkward or clumsy.”

It's great to see Chicago Manual of Style, Associated Press, and The Economist all agreeing on this one. I started using they/them/their as a singular in my writing not too long ago and it still feels a little awkward, but we really need a gender-neutral pronoun.

One alternative would be to make the referent plural: “Presidents choose their own cabinets.” This is usually the best thing to do. But there are times when a writer wants to conjure an individual, albeit a generic one. In such cases, the truly newfangled options have failed to gain widespread acceptance among editors and writers of quality. Singular, epicene they has not just modern gender equality but seven centuries of the finest literary tradition on its side. As usage disputes go, this should be an easy one.