The American Psychological Association has endorsed the use of the singular “they.”’
Writing on the blog APA Style, Content Development Manager Chelsea Lee writes that the seventh edition of the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association deems that it is “officially good practice in scholarly writing to use the singular ‘they.’” The blog post says old-fashioned sentence constructions like “a person should enjoy his or her vacation” aren’t inclusive in a 2019 context, noting that some people use pronouns like “they,” “zir,” “ze,” “xe,” “hir,” “per,” “ve,” “ey,” and “hen.”
The use of gendered pronouns is significant, the APA guidelines go on, because they provide a signal to other people about the gender of the person being described. Using “they” includes all people without forcing assumptions about anyone’s gender.
An endorsement from the APA is a big deal for the singular “they.” The APA is the largest scientific and professional organization of psychologists in the United States, with over 118,000 members. The Publican Manual is used by all writers, researchers, editors, students, and educators in a wide variety of disciplines, so this clarification has the potential to significantly expand the use of inclusive language.
The American Psychiatric Association has issues similar guidance, writing, “the pronouns they, them, and theirs are frequently used and even encouraged for use as a singular pronoun.”
The APA advises that “they” be used in two cases: “when referring to a generic person whose gender is unknown or irrelevant to the context” and “when referring to a specific, known person who uses ‘they’ as their pronoun.” “They” is also acceptable to use when describing hypothetical individuals, such as in the case of: “Each student submitted their art portfolio to the committee.”
Ultimately, the new guidelines say the important thing is to use the pronouns supplied by the person in question, whether it’s “they,” “he,” “she,” or something else.
The APA anticipated some questions about its grammar guidelines, and the manual includes information about verb usage. “They” always gets a plural verb, whether referring to one or more people. “They are” is correct, rather than “they is,” similar to how “you” always gets a plural verb.
Both “themselves” and “themself” are acceptable to use, the APA adds.
These new guidelines take a firm stance not just on the appropriateness of “they” as a pronoun, but on the mandate for scholarly writers to use it.
“If you are writing about a person who uses ‘they’ as their pronoun, then yes, you have to use it,” Lee’s blog post makes clear. “Respectful and inclusive language is important. And it’s part of APA Style.”
The APA has also released additional guidelines on bias-free language, which includes gender as well as age, disability, participation in research, racial and ethnic identity, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, and intersectionality. The organization claims that writers “must strive to use language that is free of bias and avoid perpetuating prejudicial beliefs or demeaning attitudes in their writing.”
“Just as you have learned to check what you write for spelling, grammar, and wordiness, practice reading your work for bias,” the APA says.
The decision follows on the heels of the Merriam-Webster dictionary, which announced in September that it would be revising the definition of the pronoun “they” to include someone who is nonbinary or whose gender is unknown.