CMOS and the Singular They
The Chicago Manual of Style, one of the major academic style guides in the US, is inching their way toward acceptance of the singular they, that is the use of they to refer to a singular antecedent when the gender of the antecedent is unknown, generic, or non-binary. The University of Chicago Press is publishing the seventeenth edition of their widely used manual in September, and they’ve begun announcing what some of the changes will be, among them a shift toward using they for singular antecedents, but it is less han a full-throated acceptance.
CMOS 17 lays out two uses of the singular they. The first is using they to replace the generic he, that is the use of the masculine pronouns when the gender is unknown or generic. Use of he in this context is considered sexist by many and has fallen out of favor by most publishers and style guides, but agreement on what to replace it with has not been achieved until quite recently, when they started to gain rapid acceptance. CMOS 17 “accepts” the singular they in informal writing and “does not prohibit” its use in formal writing, although it recommends other strategies to avoid using it if possible.
This is a change from CMOS 16 (2010), which reads in section 5.222:
On the one hand, it is unacceptable to a great many reasonable readers to use the generic masculine pronoun (he in reference to no one in particular). On the other hand, it is unacceptable to a great many readers (often different readers) either to resort to nontraditional gimmicks to avoid the generic masculine (by using he/she or s/he, for example) or to use they as a kind of singular pronoun. Either way, credibility is lost with some readers.
CMOS 17 also advises editors to be flexible and take the book’s or article’s context into account when deciding what pronoun to use. It also says that the author’s wishes should be “always receive consideration.” In other words, unless there is a very good reason not to use it, editors using CMOS 17 shouldn’t dictate to their authors on whether or not to use the singular they in generic contexts.
The second use is a topic that went unaddressed in earlier editions of the manual, the use of they to refer to a specific person who does not identify as either male or female, someone who does not conform to the the traditional gender binary. For all contexts, formal and informal, CMOS 17 says that “a person’s stated preference for a specific pronoun should be respected.”
CMOS 17 says the singular they should take a plural verb, much like you does. (You was also originally a plural form, which took over from the singular thou.)
While its wording may not indicate it, this move toward accepting the singular they is a big shift. In practice, it means that most publishers who use CMOS will accept the singular they. By the time CMOS 18 hits the streets in another seven or so years, I predict that it will be a non-issue.
Copyright 1997-2017, by David Wilton