I am by no means an expert in the vast world of grammar rules.
While I’ll never ask if you “seen the Pirates game last night,” or to “pass me them chips,” I do have my struggles. I fight a daily battle with “affect” and “effect” and semicolons, quite frankly, throw me for a loop.
But this week editors here at City Paper were confronted with an issue that comes up from time to time. In our music section, you’ll find a feature on Bean Kaloni Tupou’s band Try the Pie. Tupou is gender-fluid and prefers to use the pronoun “they.” Covering gender-identity issues is nothing new for this publication. We have a designated reporter who covers issues facing the LGBT community, and we assign such material an extremely high level of importance.
Take the recent Caitlyn Jenner situation. Even though some journalists were appalled by her desire to be referred to by her chosen gender, it was a no-brainer for us. And we gladly took to task those who had a problem with it. In fact, we’ve been calling out this kind of gender insensitivity for years.
But Toupou’s is a different situation. “They” is a plural pronoun and using it to refer to one person is, technically, grammatically incorrect. The Associated Press style — to which we subscribe (although we do have specific CP-only style rules) — doesn’t allow for this practice. Under its rules, editors are to use the person’s preferred pronoun, but the only acceptable choices are “he” or “she.” If no preference is given, AP says to “use the pronoun consistent with the way the individuals live publicly.”
This brings us to the dilemma at hand. Toupou’s preferred pronoun flies in the face of that rule. When this has come up before, our solution had always been to write around it when possible, often by eliminating any pronoun use. But that is difficult to do and ignores the greater issue at hand: Who am I to write around someone’s identity just because it’s tough to write in a news story?
That’s why I made the decision last week that going forward City Paper will use the pronoun they as a gender-neutral singular pronoun. We’re not the first paper to do this, and we’re not the only ones having this discussion. The Baltimore Sun, for example, has been doing it for the past year.
And according to an April Wall Street Journal column by Ben Zimmer, the issue was a hot topic of conversation at the annual convention of the American Copy Editors Society (which was, coincidentally, held in Pittsburgh). Zimmer writes, “I found growing acceptance of a usage that has long been disparaged as downright ungrammatical: treating ‘they’ as a singular pronoun.” Zimmer also writes that “they” was used as a singular pronoun up until the 19th century and that current gender issues were reigniting the conversation.
So what’s holding the word back from wider use? Zimmer relates this reasoning from Emily Brewster, an associate editor at Merriam-Webster: “Copy editors who take it upon themselves to edit out the usage.”
Translation: The ball is in our court. The change won’t happen until we actually step up and decide to make it. And the decision becomes easier when you stop and realize it isn’t about words, it’s about people.
Earlier this year, New York Times writer Julie Scelfo told the story of Rocko Gieselman, a gender-neutral university student. The paper decided to eliminate all pronouns for the story. Scelfo shared this response from Gieselman: “Writing about genderqueer-identified people can seem grammatically challenging; it is much more challenging to live as a genderqueer-identified person and try to fit into a world that does not seem to make room for you.”
In this business, pronouns aren’t just words; they represent an individual who has the right to represent their gender as they see fit. Is it grammatically incorrect? Yes. Is it a bit awkward to read initially? Absolutely. But there is something more important at stake here.
As a professional journalist for nearly 25 years, I have a deep respect for words. But I have a deeper, greater respect for people. For people who struggle with gender identity and for people who have finally figured out who they are and are comfortable with it, forcing them into a he-or-she-only box robs them of their identity and strips them of their dignity.
For me, if it comes down to that or breaking a rule of grammar, there really isn’t a choice at all.