At Technically Media, we use 'they' as a singular pronoun. Here's why - Generocity Philly

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May 26, 2016 12:38 pm

At Technically Media, we use ‘they’ as a singular pronoun. Here’s why

We recently updated our editorial style guide to be more gender-inclusive. It means something more than just a quirk of grammar.

The Technically Media team at the Philly Tech Week closing party.

(Photo by a friend of the team)

When it comes to questions of grammar, we at Technically Media refer to the AP Stylebook, aka “the journalist’s bible” — except when we don’t.

The team behind Generocity and Technical.ly uses a house style that takes a few liberties with that classic set of style, grammar and usage rules for newsrooms and academic journals. For instance, cofounder has no hyphen, and for years we’ve lowercased “internet” (though that’s finally becoming standard with the newest edition of the AP Stylebook on June 1).

Traditionally, when a sentence is referring to an unspecified singular person, “he” is used to identify that person. In the 2009 entry for “his, her,” the AP rulebook states, “Do not presume maleness in constructing a sentence, but use the pronoun his when an indefinite antecedent may be male or female: A reporter attempts to protect his sources.” It goes on to allow, “Frequently, however, the best choice is a slight revision of the sentence: Reporters attempt to protect their sources.” More recent versions of the stylebook found online indicate the same.

But language is ever-evolving — and we care a lot about what words mean. When we were revamping our own internal editorial style guide last month, we paused at this point. The previous version of the Technically Media style guide instructed us to use “she” and “her” in place of “he” and “him,” a la “When interviewing a scientist, ask her these questions.” The idea was to upend the traditional use of “he” and to subtly counter the often-implicit bias that certain careers are meant for men. (This was a point of pride for our colleagues over at Technical.ly in their reporting on a notoriously male-dominated IT field.)

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However, we recognize that not everyone identifies with the gender binary — not everyone considers themselves male or female. (Nearly five percent of respondents to our on-going Generocity survey so far identify as neither male nor female.)

Here’s what we decided to do instead: Use “they” in place of “he or she,” i.e. “Your company is looking to hire a new program manager and requires that they have these certain skills” or “When a nonprofit director goes on vacation, they might bring these books to read.” 

For those of you who aren’t grammar nerds, it’s a subtle distinction, we know. But it’s important to us to be as inclusive as possible and that’s worth stretching traditional grammar norms. “They” is also becoming more commonly used in other circles. The Washington Post officially adopted the singular “they” into its stylebook last year, and it was named the 2015 Word of the Year by the American Dialect Society.

It’s worth acknowledging that this is a usage still in flux. Others prefer “ze” as a non-binary pronoun over “they.” So understand: It’s our policy to use whatever pronoun an individual source prefers. Our use of “they” here is only for hypotheticals, in which there isn’t an individual to have a preference.

Here’s what Oxford Dictionaries has to say about the subject:

“Some people object to the use of plural pronouns in this type of situation on the grounds that it’s ungrammatical. In fact, the use of plural pronouns to refer back to a singular subject isn’t new: it represents a revival of a practice dating from the 16th century. It’s increasingly common in current English and is now widely accepted both in speech and in writing.”

The GLAAD Media Reference Guide doesn’t cover this topic specifically, but it does offer guidance on many other LGBTQ-related topics.

Our use of “they” as a singular pronoun is just another way we feel we as community reporters can be agents of change working toward cities we all want to live in.

Do you agree with our style choice? Disagree? How does your workplace strive to be inclusive? Tell us.

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Julie Zeglen

Julie Zeglen is the editor of Generocity. Previous to joining the Technically Media team, she served as managing editor of Star Community Newsweekly, a hyperlocal newspaper focused on Philadelphia’s River Wards. The Temple alumna lives in West Philly.

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