Gender challenge: is ‘they’ the new s/he?

Sometimes sources choose not to self-identify as 'he' or 'she'. Journalists must try to be sensitive to their wishes. The use of 'they' as a gender-neutral singular pronoun is one possibility. Katie Toth talks to journalists, editors and activists to explore this as an ethical option.

By Katie Toth


“It wouldn’t be correct.”

“It’s confusing for the reader.”

Sometimes sources choose not to self-identify as 'he' or 'she'. Journalists must try to be sensitive to their wishes. The use of 'they' as a gender-neutral singular pronoun is one possibility. Katie Toth talks to journalists, editors and activists to explore this as an ethical option.

By Katie Toth


“It wouldn’t be correct.”

“It’s confusing for the reader.”

“Is (it) the right word? No more than "three" is the right word for ‘one.’”

These are the first responses I get from journalists about using the word ‘they’ as a singular pronoun. They’re commonplace sentiments—if a bit surprising, because the reporters and editors I talked to for this story have also been part of some of the most queer-positive content in the country.

The use of ‘they’ as a singular pronoun dates back to at least 1526, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. At that time, ‘they’ was used as an indefinite antecedent—for example, when the gender of the subject was unknown.

Today, the word is developing a different usage. Some transgender people are beginning to question the binary form of gender. As the trans rights movement has gained steam, a small but growing number of people identify not as one or the other, but as ‘genderqueer’—something in between, or outside of, these two sexes. A source may not want to be called ‘he’ or ‘she.’ That person may prefer a made-up pronoun, like ‘ze’ or ‘hir.’ Or—perhaps more familiar to speakers of the English language—the source may prefer to be referred to as ‘they.’

Patti Tasko is a former editor of the Canadian Press Stylebook. “[I] haven’t actually dealt with that issue,” she said. “I would say 90 per cent of the time you can avoid being gender specific in a sentence when you’re writing about a theoretical person and not an actual person.”

Tasko confirms that ‘they’ is an acceptable last resort, when changing the sentence structure is not a viable option. “I see this as increasingly acceptable,” she said. “I find myself using it a lot more, and I see it written everywhere.”

But when referencing a specific individual, Tasko said, the debate becomes a bit more nuanced. “Our general policy at CP would be to refer to people in a way that they find acceptable,” she said.  “In this case, I would hazard a slight worry that that might be confusing to the reader…I’m not sure the general public is ready to understand that.” Tasko worries the reader might begin to wonder if the reporter is referring to more than one person.

Reporters thus have two ideal options, depending on the nature of the story. If the story is one where the source’s gender and sexuality is not a relevant aspect of the story, Tasko suggests following the ‘avoidance’ method in the style guide, by using the person’s name or title throughout.

In a longer story where name repetition may become repetitive, such as a profile, or where the person’s gender is an important element of the narrative, Tasko acknowledges that use of ‘they’ may need to be introduced. In such a case, she suggests explaining briefly that the source does not identify with male or female concepts of gender, but prefers the 3rd-person plural pronoun. “You can put that in the top of the story.”

 Lee Airton is the founder of gender-neutral pronoun blog, They Is My Pronoun, and a doctoral student at York University. Airton prefers to use the singular pronoun ‘they’. “My gender identity is very much queer, like it’s a very much in-between kind of thing,” they explained. “It would be very easy for people if people like me…said, ‘Yes, you can go ahead and call me ‘he.’ It’s a very different choice to say, ‘No, that also doesn’t feel good, I’m going to ask for you to work at it in the way that I work at being in this society.”

Airton is skeptical of writers’ insistence that ‘they’ poses a challenge for their readership: “I think it’s really interesting when writers presume a deficit in their audience.” At the same time, they said, using last names or descriptions of a person is a vastly better process than using a gendered pronoun that does not correspond with the source’s identity. “It’s a bit of a cop out…because [they] has to come into common usage.”

Robin Perelle is the Vancouver editor of Xtra! Canada. She has yet to have the publish a story in which someone uses the singular form of ‘they’, although she says she’s ‘looking forward to [it.]”

“For me, it’s always been a question of accuracy,” she says. “Sometimes accurately reflecting one’s expression and reality means pushing the language past its limit.”

Perelle draws parallels between inaccuracies that media professionals once made out of their own discomfort when referring to gays and lesbians. “There was a time when mainstream media didn’t know how to refer to our partners,” she said. “They were reluctant to push the language past existing boundaries…they would resort to saying things like ‘our Friend.’”

Perelle recommends using a footnote to explain why a source is being referred to as ‘they,’ and keep readers informed.

Perelle is less enthused by the idea of avoiding the pronoun entirely. “I wouldn’t lightly make the decision to write confusing copy,” she says. “If they’re forging the space, then we shouldn’t let the language stop us from reflecting that.”

Lezlie Lowe is a freelance columnist with The Chronicle Herald who finds the use of ‘they’ as a singular pronoun challenging. Lowe wrote an opinion piece in support of gender-neutral pronouns like they. “What I really wanted was somebody to convince me that I shouldn’t feel this way,” she says.

But the journalist, who writes for a paper distributed throughout rural regions of the Atlantic provinces, said the online comments from Herald readers about her piece leave her hesitant to use the pronoun in written language. “Many of them are like ‘I have no idea what this means,’” she said. “When you try to introduce these ideas, it’s really hard for people to understand it.”

Lowe notes that while ‘they’ could be accompanied with an explanatory footnote or parenthesized explanation for the reader, that can also form challenges for print reporters with strict word counts. Journalistic writing “should be so tight, and so rich,” she said. “Depending on the piece, that can get in the way.”

While journalists worry about pleasing their readership, they may be surprised at the reader backlash when they don’t take these pronouns on. Tumblr, Twitter and Facebook have allowed activists to spread their ideologies at a rapid-fire pace.

“Social media is really enabling social justice communities to band together and mount these massive critical and educational campaigns,” said Amanda Phillips, a doctoral student at UCSB specializing in new media. “And mainstream media is turning way more social, so in a way they have become responsible to responding to comments.”


Dos and don’ts:

Do: know your readership. If necessary, quickly inform your reader that the subject of your article prefers the gender-neutral singular pronoun.

Don’t: Undermine your sources’ authority. If you’re writing a piece about environmental science, explanations about a source’s sexual identity are sensationalist and off topic.

Similarly, a review that describes an artist’s chosen pronoun as ‘awkward’ may be funny to you, but it’s alienating for many readers. “I’d feel that the writer was invalidating their gender identity,” says trans woman Lucy Wallace. Wallace says she would be uncomfortable speaking to reporters or reading from outlets that had dealt insensitively with someone’s chosen pronoun in the past. “I’d feel that they don’t know enough about [trans and gender issues] to …write about it for a wider audience,” she says. 

Do: Value accuracy. If someone identifies as ‘they,’ then ‘he’ and ‘she’ are the wrong pronouns. If you use them, you are not doing your job.

Don’t: Try to commiserate with your sources or bond over the challenges of pronoun use. It’s unprofessional and people who use ‘they’ as a singular pronoun have heard it all before. “If I tell you I use ‘they,’ practice not reacting as though that’s awful,” Airton said. “Stop complaining to me about how you have trouble with ‘they,’ please.”

Do: Come to your sources with some available options. Instead of gaping in wonder at this linguistic quagmire, Airton would prefer to see reporters suggesting some options that work for their paper. “The interaction styled as ‘this is a problem, let’s accommodate this problem,’ is always off the table,” Airton said. “Why not say, ‘Okay, would you be comfortable with me also referring to me by your position? By your name or last name? May I also do those things?”

Don’t: Neglect an extra copy-edit when using this pronoun. You may have to further simplify your language and shorten your sentences. Lesley Fraser, copy editor at Xtra! Canada, recommends using the plural form of the verb conjugation for ‘they:’ ‘They say,” for example, or “they note.” James McCarten of the Canadian Press has an alternate suggestion: keep use of the pronoun to a minimum, and write attributions for the story in the past tense: “they explained,” rather than “they explain.” Whatever you choose, be consistent.

Do: Bring up discussion around the use of the pronoun ‘they’ with your outlet’s style committee now, rather than later. Have some guidelines that allow reporters to better relay to their sources how they can expect to be portrayed.

Do: Ask your sources what pronoun they prefer, if you’re unsure. “Keep it open ended,” said Airton. “Not, ‘Do you prefer they’ or ‘Do you prefer he or she’, [but] ‘What is your preferred pronoun?’”


Katie Toth is an assistant editor at Religion Dispatches, and a freelance contributor for outlets including Xtra! Canada and This Magazine. You can follow her on twitter at @kat_toth.