The American Psychological Association (APA) announced that they are endorsing the use of “they” as a singular third-person pronoun in the seventh edition of the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association.
If your eyes glazed over ever-so-slightly after reading that and you were teleported back to high school english class, don’t panic. What this means is that APA Style — which is most commonly known as the style and format for academic work (journals, books, papers, especially in behavioral and social science) — is acknowledging that “they” can be used as a pronoun (just like “he,” “she,” or the less commonly used “ze”) in scholarly writing.
The change, as APA’s Content Development Manager Chelsea Lee wrote in a blog post in late October, will mostly work on two levels: First, it allows a more clear way to talk about “generic” people in science without causing readers to make assumptions about gender.
“When readers see a gendered pronoun, they make assumptions about the gender of the person being described,” Lee writes. “APA advocates for the singular ‘they’ because it is inclusive of all people and helps writers avoid making assumptions about gender.”
The other level, of course, is making sure that people who use “they” or “them” as their own pronouns aren’t erased: “If you are writing about a person who uses “they” as their pronoun, then yes, you have to use it. Respectful and inclusive language is important. And it’s part of APA Style.”
As the grammar argument is a common one against individuals using pronouns that match up with their identities, the APA unpacking it is a clear endorsement of supporting people who don’t fit within the gender binary. Plus, it encourages a smoother and significantly less clunky reader experience — win/win.
“Before the seventh edition, people might have written the aforementioned sentence like this in a scholarly paper: ‘A person should enjoy his or her vacation,’” Lee writes. “However, this second sentence presumes that a person uses either the pronoun “he” or the pronoun “she,” which is not necessarily the case. For example, some people use other pronouns, including ‘they,’ ‘zir,’ ‘ze,’ ‘xe,’ ‘hir,’ ‘per,’ ‘ve,’ ‘ey,’ and ‘hen.’”
This isn’t the APA’s first time clarifying the basics of gender, identity and language for the academic and general public. Previously, they’ve written in their guidelines for treating trans and gender-nonconforming people that “Gender identity is defined as a person’s deeply felt, inherent sense of being a girl, woman, or female; a boy, a man, or male; a blend of male or female; or an alternative gender. Gender identity differs from sex assigned at birth to varying degrees, and may be experienced and expressed outside of the gender binary.” More recently, and part of what’s brought on the more recent changes, they’ve developed a guide for bias-free language — noting that “Just as you have learned to check what you write for spelling, grammar, and wordiness, practice reading your work for bias” — covering a range of different biases including age, disability, gender, racial and ethnic identity, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status and all the ways they intersect.
There’s plenty of research to show that there are real benefits to acknowledging diversity of gender (especially for LGBT youth who are disproportionately more likely to struggle with their mental health) — and taking the steps to get our academic communities all onboard with people’s lived realities is an excellent flex for making a more inclusive world.