A Suggested Update to Your College’s Style: Let “They” Be Singular Whenever

by Jaclyn Y. Garver
NCMPR Administrative Services Coordinator
Fort Wayne, IN


Marketing staffs and colleges want to know who attends their schools. How diverse is their student body? Is there an overlooked population of students who need support? How do you even gather diversity stats? The answers to those questions can inform decisions across the college, ranging from which photos to use on your website to what type of student programming to offer.


One of the tougher bits of information to gather is sexual orientation. How does a college research information when a portion of that population isn’t out to family members, let alone a school?


There is, unfortunately, no simple answer to that question, but the best way to start is to ensure your college has a foundation of support. Institutions can take steps to ensure students feel comfortable – and are seen, respected and understood. Yes, celebrating Pride Month and hosting events year-round is vital, but I’m going to promote a step that’s a little more subtle. This quiet change won’t make a huge splash, but it’ll mean a lot to your LGBTQ+ students: Let “they” go ahead and be singular.


Many colleges adhere to the AP Stylebook for the bulk of their communications, supplementing that style with college-specific guidelines. Many colleges also have “that one person” who lives and dies by grammar, spelling and punctuation. That person not only noticed that I didn’t use an Oxford comma there, but they also have an opinion about it. (CoughAPiswrongOxfordcommasforevercough) That person also noticed how I used “they” in the previous sentence, a reference back to “person,” a singular noun.


In 2017, AP Style added guidance for the plural pronoun “they” to be used as a singular word in limited instances. This may have made grammar sticklers break out in a rash—but I’ll go a step further and suggest your institution create a style exception here: Don’t use “they” as a singular form in limited instances. Use it as a singular form whenever the heck you want.


The use of this good four-letter word speaks loudly to your audience, especially those who don’t identify as men or women. It says “I see you” and “I respect you.” (If you’re unfamiliar with “they” as a singular word, I’ll point to this 2019 New York Times article, which explains it well. Basically, using “they” as a singular word is a way for gender-nonconforming people to be accurately referenced. For example, “The committee chair said they wanted to move the meetings to Thursday.” The article reports, “Over a third of Americans in their teens and early 20s know someone who uses gender-neutral pronouns, according to a Pew Research survey conducted last fall. That is double the number of those in their 40s, and triple those in their 50s and 60s.”)


While using “they” as a singular word is certainly not new (the Oxford English Dictionary blog dates its singular usage back to 1375), it entered the zeitgeist in … maybe the late 2000s/early 2010s? At least, that’s when this Midwestern-born, bred and educated gal first noticed it. Admittedly, it was a tough switch to get used to, especially with Dr. Harper’s voice in my head from all those college copyediting classes. What I had to teach my brain, though, was that grammar rules won’t ever be as important, as vital, to this discussion as the acknowledgment of another person’s humanity and sense of self.


One of the best things about the English language is its adaptability. Even stuffy old institutions like the Merriam-Webster adapt. (Words added in January 2021 include a small glossary of coronavirus-related terms: “hard pass,” “flex,” “BIPOC” and “silver fox.” I admit to being surprised “gig worker” was just added, but I can’t be the only one here who’d never heard of “sapiosexual” can I?)


It might take a few beats for “they” as a singular word to become a gut reaction, but the outcomes of making the change will be good ones.


Jaclyn Y. Garver is the administrative services coordinator at NCMPR and the former communications coordinator at Ivy Tech Community College in Fort Wayne, Indiana.



1 Comment

  • Sally Cameron says:

    Awesome. I did research on this concept in the late ‘80s RE: the singular they in grad school. You hit some very good points here, especially for students who are non-binary. I discovered research that identified use of ‘he’ as a generic makes girls believe they are not included, and the use of the singular they dates back to the 14th century. The move to eliminate it came when prescriptive grammarians set rules for grammar that would set the ‘educated’ apart from the ‘uneducated’ — a class distinction. And the grammarians insisted that the generic he was correct because male is greater than female. Well, since it was for exclusion and political reasons that got rid of the very useful singular they, there are very good reasons to embrace our language’s roots and go back there. Using he/she, or my favorite, s/he, is awkward and how do you say it? Thanks for this, and letting me geek out on one of my favorite topics.

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