This week the Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS) announced the changes that will be made to its upcoming new edition, which comes out in September. As an editor, a publisher, and a progressive idealist, I am applauding one of those changes in particular: approval of the use of the singular pronoun they.
The English language is one of the most shape-shifting languages in the world. Every year, English speakers add new words to the lexicon and repurpose old ones. Some of these innovations are widely adopted and become part of the language; others fall by the wayside. There are lots of grey areas along the way, between variant spellings, optional punctuation conventions, and good old slang.
This makes life tough for editors, guardians of language whose job is to make sure that writers follow the rules. But what happens when the rules are incomplete, contradictory or agnostic, as is so often the case in our rapidly evolving tongue? That’s where style guides like CMOS come in to provide consistent guidelines on word use, grammar and punctuation that almost every book editor follows, whether or not they agree with all of its points.
See what I did there? Until this week, the CMOS and most English teachers would insist the sentence I just wrote is wrong, and more properly should be: “…to provide consistent guidelines on word use, grammar and punctuation that almost every book editor follows, whether or not he agrees with all of its points.”
Remember when the world was male by default? The human race was known as man, married women called themselves Mrs. Joe Blow, and any person not specifically identified as female was always referred to as he, even if his gender was not known. Doesn’t that sound archaic now? Humankind has evolved since then. Most editors and writers now opt to use the cumbersome phrase he or she when referring to an unknown or hypothetical person, but the “generic he” is still a thing, at least in formal writing.
Speech is different. In conversation, people often use they or their as a generic pronoun. Think of the sentence: “Every attendee must have their own ticket,” or “If a stranger comes to the door, don’t let them in.” The practice is so common, some editors and language experts have argued for years that the singular they should be officially embraced in written English too. The debate has gained more energy and urgency with the rising numbers of individuals who are transgender or non-binary, many of whom prefer they as their personal pronoun of choice (a usage the new edition of the CMOS fully accepts).
I’m as much of a stickler for linguistic correctness as the next editor, but on this issue, I am firmly in the pro-they camp. I believe that one of the greatest strengths and delights of the English language is that it is constantly evolving to better reflect the lives and times of its speakers. Like gender, it is fluid.
Having said that, we have avoided using the singular they in most of the books we’ve published at LifeTree. Aside from breaking with CMOS convention, it can have an odd ring to it, so some readers would likely be put off or confused. But in our newest title, The Sacred Path of the Soulmate by Gerald Sze, we enthusiastically employed they, them and their throughout the book, and included an editors’ note explaining our decision.
“When your lover shows you unconditional kindness, they empower you to love and respect yourself.”
A treatise on the spiritual purpose of true romantic love, the book is filled with candid stories of the intimate side of life, as well as relationship advice for lovers of every stripe. The editorial team and the author agreed that using “he or she” every time we mentioned “your partner” would be intolerably unwieldy. We could have chosen to alternate between he and she from one anecdote to the next, a very common way to make a text more inclusive, but we felt strongly that this could introduce gender-bias into the subtext of the situational examples given, especially those to do with childrearing, money, sexual attraction, and housework. In other words, almost every aspect of romantic relationships!
In the end, the thing that pushed us to take the linguistically controversial plunge was a desire to be inclusive to all people, in all sorts of partnerships. Consider this passage from the book.
Love is when you lose your breast to cancer and your partner kisses the surgical scar and says you will always be the most beautiful person in the world to them.
Love is when the family is getting bigger and your partner suddenly loses their appetite for pricey Starbucks coffee and takes on a second, part-time job because they have too much free time.
Love is when your partner cuts your hair for you for 40 years because you’ve never found anyone who cuts it as well as they do.
This language might sound a little clunky to some people, but you can see how using he or she anywhere in the above examples would risk reinforcing gender stereotypes that don’t reflect the breadth of human diversity.
By contrast, the pronoun they makes no assumptions about who the reader is, who they love, or how either person in the relationship is expected to behave. We feel that this is an enlightened ideal worth pushing the boundaries of the English language for. This week, the editors of the Chicago Manual of Style agreed, and brought us one step closer to that ideal.