Wisconsin Broadcasters Association

The English language is not an easy communications device to master. Learning it can be confusing and frustrating. I remember my college German language professor telling us how his English speaking German colleagues complained how they found many of the rules to be contradictory and silly. So it’s not surprising that the rules of English grammar often take a beating in day-to-day colloquial communication.

Now, I work in journalism not English grammar. So an expert I am not. But, when a profession predicated on the correct use of language and one of its established, premier institutions decides it is acceptable to use incorrect grammar, one wonders how close the fall of Western Civilization can be. This is the situation created when the Associated Press proclaimed this year that in its latest Stylebook published in May, it would allow that-

 “They/them/their is acceptable in limited cases as a singular and-or gender-neutral pronoun, when alternative wording is overly awkward or clumsy.”  (From AP).

The Stylebook does stress that “However, rewording usually is possible and always is preferable” but emphasizes that “Clarity is a top priority….”

One recognizes that, in journalism, clarity is a goal but there is an even higher priority. Accuracy. I contend that this capitulation actually diminishes the achievement of that goal and will argue the point using a relatively simple tool: math.

The English-Oxford Dictionary precedes the definitions of “he” and “she” with the phrase “third person singular” meaning one. It precedes the definition of “they” with the phrase “third person plural” meaning more than one. (From Oxford Dictionary ). Now, not only am I not a grammarian, I’m not a mathematician (and I suspect many of we journalists entered the profession because of the promise that there would be no math). However, it should follow that “one” cannot be “more than one.” There is either one or the other. Consequently, the two cannot be equivalent. Therefore, using “he/she” and “they” in a sentence or paragraph as equivalents is inaccurate and contrary to journalism’s highest objective.

It is acknowledged that the English-Oxford Dictionary also states that “they (with its counterparts them, their, and themselves) as a singular pronoun to refer to a person of unspecified gender has been used since at least the 16th century.” (It also describes the use of “they” as “third person plural singular.” Explain that one to me.) The key phrase in that statement is to refer to a person of unspecified gender. And, herein, lies my primary irritant. 

Too often you can find the use of “they” even though the gender of the person has been established or is commonly understand. Only men play in the NFL. Only women are mothers.  Even the transgendered person has made the change from one established gender to the other established gender. Still one finds the use of “they” in sentences with these references.

Why? Some of it could be due to fear of what might be considered clumsy construction. Perhaps using the phrase “he or she” will make the reader work harder. But he or she may actually understand it more clearly and accuracy is served.

I would also submit too much of it is laziness. The writer, for whatever reason, doesn’t find it important to be consistent, to take care in his or her writing. The reporter doesn’t have time to go all the way back to the previous sentence or pronoun to remember which gender was established. Unfortunately, now the Associated Press has provided absolution for that indolence.

The reader might wonder, considering the turbulence which engulfs our world today, why something as mundane as the use of “they” in language is a valid subject for a column. I would argue the devil is in the details, particularly in journalism. And that ignorance of and ambivalence toward the mundane leads to larger issues that can culminate in world turmoil. It reminds me of lines from the movie Broadcast News when Aaron Altman explains to his friend Jane what the Devil will look like and how he will “…just bit by little bit lower standards where they are important. Just coax along flash over substance…just a tiny bit.”

Well, given the world today, I would be happy to relegate the fake grammar to the fake news.

Jack A. Kapfer
Associate Professor, UW-Eau Claire

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