From Ms to Ze: The Associated Press and gender-neutral pronouns
As society evolves, grammar changes. Back in 1971, with the first issue of the feminist magazine founded by Gloria Steinem, the title Ms. came into popular usage because it did not define women by their marital status. The term had been used as early as the 17th century, and was resurrected in the early 20th century as a title for women whose marital status was not known. Today, on forms and documents, women indicate their marital status with the title of Mrs. or Miss, or if they prefer not to say, they can use Ms. as the preferred title.
Fast forward to 2017. The Associated Press, long an authority on language usage in journalism, has announced limited acceptance of the use of “they” as a singular pronoun, specifically in stories about “people who identify as neither male nor female or ask not to be referred to as he/she/him/her.”
Two reasons for the AP Stylebook change were noted by lead AP Stylebook editor Paula Froke on the American Copy Editors Society website: “...recognition that the spoken language uses they as singular and we also recognize the need for a pronoun for people who don’t identify as a he or a she.”
Using “they,” a plural pronoun, to describe one person is not only bad grammar, but it can be confusing unless the context is very clear. Are we talking about one person or more than one? Adding to the confusion, the AP notes that "they" takes a plural verb, as well.
What's more, it's a poor substitute for what should be a concerted effort to define and promote a singular gender-neutral pronoun.
There doesn’t seem to be a consensus, although several websites, such as the Gender Neutral Pronoun Blog, have carefully outlined the possibilities and are making progress. Invented pronouns have been proposed over the years, including “Ne,” “Ve,” “Ze,” and “Ey.” Students at some universities can select from several gender-neutral options on registration forms.
Just as some women do not want to be defined by their marital status, so, too, some people do not want to be defined by gender. The more popular gender-neutral singular pronouns currently proposed don’t necessarily roll off the tongue, but it's a start. Until there's one gender-neutral pronoun that comes to the fore, The Associated Press should stand firm in preserving clear, proper language usage.