AP Stumbles on Gender-Neutral Pronouns and Possessives

AP Stumbles on Gender-Neutral Pronouns and Possessives

by Kathleen Watson

I had barely written my last post, in part about pronoun agreement, when the Associated Press announced it was changing its guidelines for noun/pronoun agreement when gender is an issue.

My longtime and preferred source, The Associated Press Stylebook (revised version due out May 31, 2017) will give the green light to using the plural pronoun “they” with a singular noun. To say this has rocked the writing world puts it mildly.

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 related to the AP singular noun/plural pronoun brouhaha, I decided 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 around 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 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 demonstrate AP’s new guidelines in action, and they include ways to avoid the awkward, incompatible they/their.

Take for example:

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.

Or: Dr. Smith has a stethoscope draped around Dr. Smith’s neck all day. 

Consider these rewrites:

A stethoscope is draped around Dr. Smith’s neck 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’s stethoscope is a constant companion.

Professor Miller teaches his freshman students proper English grammar.

AP apparently suggests:

Professor Miller teaches their freshman students proper English grammar.

Or: Professor Miller teaches Professor Miller’s freshman students proper English grammar.

Again, rewrites adequately avoid the issue of gender:

Professor Miller teaches freshmen proper English grammar.

Professor Miller instructs freshmen in proper English grammar.

Professor Miller delights in teaching proper grammar to students enrolled in freshman English.

As has been the case for the last 30 years, Professor Miller 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 nouns that appear first in a sentence with the pronouns that follow. 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 fixes:

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.

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 identifiers, 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.

kathleen-watsonKathleen Watson has nearly three decades of experience as an independent business writer, serving clients in both corporate and academic settings. Her weekly blog, Killer Tips from The Ruthless Editor, offers practical word and punctuation tips, as does her recently published book Grammar For People Who Hate Rules: Killer Tips From The Ruthless Editor. Contact her at: Kathy@RuthlessEditor.com.

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1 Response to AP Stumbles on Gender-Neutral Pronouns and Possessives

  1. Brilliant! Thank you! I cringe when I see non-agreement of noun and pronoun. By the way, are there really people who have NO gender identity? If a “he” would rather be a “she,” so be “it.”


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