Ignore Noun/Pronoun Agreement For Gender Neutrality? Count Me Out!

www.RuthlessEditor.comThe Associated Press Stylebook, my first choice among style guides and grammar reference manuals, rocked the writing world when it announced it was giving the green light to using the plural pronoun “they” with a singular noun.

AP explains:

They, them, their … In stories about people who identify as neither male nor female or ask not to be referred to as he/she/him/her: Use the person’s name in place of a pronoun, or otherwise reword the sentence, whenever possible. If they/them/their use is essential, explain in the text that the person prefers a gender-neutral pronoun. Be sure that the phrasing does not imply more than one person …


After hearing from a number of aghast blog subscribers and other grammar enthusiasts, I decided to see how the news was being received on a broader scale. When I found 12-plus pages of links on Google about the AP singular noun/plural pronoun brouhaha, I just had to weigh in.

Gender neither determines nor affects my regard or respect for a person. If someone I’m writing about prefers that I not use the gender-specific she/her or he/him, I am happy to comply.

But I don’t believe I ever need to explain to readers that the subject of an article prefers not to be identified by or associated with gender-specific terms. Nor do I have to break with conventional grammar guidelines to comply with that request.

The AP is saying that when there is sensitivity to identifying gender following a singular antecedent (a singular noun that precedes a pronoun), the plural pronoun they or the possessive their can be substituted for him/his or her/hers.

I consider that remedy for gender neutrality not only ungrammatical; it’s also inelegant and unnecessary.

In fact, I’ve been wracking my brain, and I cannot think of a single example where they or their would be necessary — or appropriate — to neutralize gender.

The following examples provide the kind of gender neutrality that I believe AP wants writers to achieve. All avoid the awkward, incompatible they/their.

Dr. Smith has a stethoscope draped around her neck all day.
AP apparently suggests: Dr. Smith has a stethoscope draped around their neck all day. 

Consider these rewrites:

Dr. Smith’s neck is adorned by a stethoscope all day.
As is the case with most physicians, Doctor Smith sports a stethoscope all day.
From opening the office in the morning until the last patient notes are recorded for the day, Dr. Smith has a constant companion: a stethoscope.

Professor Jones teaches his freshman students proper English grammar.
AP apparently suggests: Professor Jones teaches their freshman students proper English grammar.

Again, rewrites adequately avoid the issue of gender:

Professor Jones teaches freshmen students proper English grammar.
Professor Jones instructs freshmen in proper English grammar.
Professor Jones delights in teaching proper grammar to students enrolled in freshman English.
As has been the case for the last 30 years, Professor Jones continues to teach English grammar classes to hundreds of freshmen.

Easy peasy, right? Her and his have been eliminated, and the ungrammatical their has been avoided.

AP has made clear that this change should not be interpreted as an across-the-board reversal of attempting to match a noun that appear first in a sentence with the pronoun that follows. I’m grateful for that clarification.

Consider these examples of noun/pronoun disagreement and easy ways to fix them:

Unmatched noun/pronoun:
We’re waiting for the Senate to do their job.
Easy fixes:
We’re waiting for the Senate to do its job.
We’re waiting for Senators to do their jobs.

Unmatched noun/pronoun:
That way, your reader doesn’t get lost wandering through the YouTube maze and forget where they found you.
Easy fix:
That way, your readers don’t get lost wandering through the YouTube maze and forget where they found you.

To some, this new AP guideline might appear to be a step forward. That’s not how I view it.

I say let’s not be lazy. Let’s not take shortcuts. Let’s not draw undue attention to gender.

Instead, let’s be creative.

If a subject of a story wants to avoid gender identification, the writer can comply with that request without flouting longstanding grammar conventions.

I hope you’ll join me in seeking grammatical solutions that respect a person’s privacy regarding gender, yet avoid making the writer appear either uninformed or simply careless.

Remember: I welcome your comments.

Kathy Watson
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Kathy Watson

Kathy has a love/hate relationship with grammar; she loves words and the punctuation that helps them make sense, yet she hates those pesky rules. A self-proclaimed ruthless editor, she prefers standard usage guidelines of The Associated Press Stylebook. Her easy-to-use Grammar for People Who Hate Rules helps people write and speak with authority and confidence. She encourages and welcomes questions and comments. (Email)

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