Today is Trans Visibility Day and I’ve just come home from the American Copy Editors Society‘s 2015 conference in Pittsburgh, my hometown. It was a great weekend: I met some of my grammar-geek heroes, made lots of new friends, and learned a ton about everything from newsroom ethics to the hortatory subjunctive.
What struck me most, though, was that again and again we heard lexicographers, stylebook editors, and other “usage gatekeepers” tell us the same thing: copyeditors have enormous power over language change. Since style guides and dictionaries analyze edited prose to identify trends, our decisions as editors mean a great deal. Those who document the language are looking to us.
The other theme that emerged in nearly every session was this: The singular they is here to stay. Although the most common argument I hear against it is “My boss/editor/professor won’t allow it,” even the crustiest curmudgeons and peeviest prescriptionists at ACES– and, believe me, this conference is their Woodstock– appeared to be more or less uniformly on board.
There are plenty of reasons to love the singular they. Baltimore Sun veteran John McIntyre offers several on his blog; linguist Geoff Pullum offers his perspective over at Language Log; lexicographer Anne Cruzan also defends it in an interview with Visual Thesaurus. Merriam-Webster lexicographer Kory Stamper gave an excellent presentation on this history of English and showed very clearly that the singular they has been around for at least as long as the singular you and has yet to break the English language. In a recent Washington Post grammar chat, Bill Walsh (Post copyeditor and author of some excellent usage books, including the new Yes, I Could Care Less) says he’s for it but isn’t sure it’s quite ready for prime time just yet; he then offers a signed copy of one of his books to the first reader to catch him letting a singular they into the Post.
I spoke on two panels at ACES, including one on language issues and queer communities that included some brilliant people sharing their experience and learning as queer editors and writers. (Karen Yin of Conscious Style Guide, for example, has been leading the way in offering resources for learning about inclusive language.) The track of sessions on diversity and cultural-sensitivity issues was new this year, and most such sessions were scheduled for the smallest room.
It was, therefore, especially gratifying to see that every one of those sessions was packed to standing room only, with an overflow crowd of editors standing in the hallway, straining to hear more. Although the AP Stylebook is choosing to make conservative decisions (it hasn’t boarded the they train yet, and is somehow still okay with using a racial slur for the name of a football team), opinion among the editors at ACES was clearly in strong favor of moving the language forward toward inclusion.
Not long after returning home, I saw this deeply moving letter on AfterEllen in which my Facebook friend AJ comes out as trans. AJ describes how this transition meant moving, in the space of a year, from planning suicide to planning to change the world; in an extended version on Tumblr they answer a variety of questions, including one about pronouns:
I would rather you call me AJ than any other pronouns, but if you absolutely must gender me, I feel that ‘they’ would feel best (sorry, grammar friends…it’s a symbolic thing…suck it up).
AJ, I’m happy to tell you that your grammar friends do indeed need to “suck it up.” The singular they is the future, and you have the support of a community of editors, lexicographers, and others who shape the course of the English language and are working hard to be on the right side of history. I wish you the best of luck and a joyful Trans Visibility Day full of love and support.