The Curious Case of Singular They

Blog Post | 108 KY. L. J. ONLINE | July 30, 2019

The Curious Case of Singular They

Sarah Laytham

Many lawyers consider precision a key aspect of legal writing; wording drastically changes the interpretation of a statute. A contract using the word “shall” rather than “may” could change the reading of said contract, impacting a client’s case. As such, classes throughout the legal curriculum impart the importance of exact words, conciseness, and proper drafting. One instance where this arises is in the use of pronouns and what pronouns are proper to use in legal writing.

Stylebooks are split over the proper usage of the “singular they” pronoun, which is used to reference an indeterminate singular person or entity. For example, the Associated Press Stylebook (AP) recommends limited use of the singular they/them/their pronoun.[1]It recommends singular they only be used in cases where alternative wording is clumsy or awkward—stressing the need to reword a sentence to avoid this usage, if possible.[2]AP style is used largely in newspapers, magazines, and public relations throughout the United States, and therefore is likely one of the styles most familiar to the average person.[3]

The styles used most frequently by the legal community are the Bluebook and Chicago styles, for citation and style guidelines, respectively.[4]Chicago style differentiates between two different usages of the singular they pronoun: used in reference to (1) a known person or (2) an unknown or unspecified person.[5]Chicago style directs writers to respect a person’s pronouns in the case of the first usage, and to use gender-neutral they/them pronouns if those are their preferred pronouns.[6]The second type, used to refer to a generic, unknown person, is accepted for speech and informal writing.[7]Furthermore, Chicago style does not prohibit usage of singular they/them pronouns in formal writing, but recommends avoiding it when possible.[8]Chicago Manual of Style § 5.48, which sets out the guidelines for the usage of the singular they, also suggests looking at § 5.255, which sets out a list of techniques for achieving gender neutrality in writing.[9]This list gives suggestions on how to write around the usage of the singular they in such a way as to keep the writing gender-neutral.[10]

This list is a good start for gender-neutral writing, but some of the suggestions are not feasible, or even go against the aims of good legal writing. The usage of “he or she” in a sentence is not clearer than the use of the term “they,” and if a writer is not careful, can end up creating a rather clunky, awkward sentence. If conciseness is a goal of legal writing, why use three words when one can do just as well? “He or she” does not impart any better understanding of who is being referred to than does “they.”

The Chicago Manual of Style further refers the reader to consider the issue of writer credibility and the usage of biased language.[11]Readers may read into the usage of certain pronouns in such a way as to impact the credibility of the writer.[12]But the truth is that the average person uses the singular they in informal speech as a default; in 2016, the journal American Speech published a study by Darren K. LaScotte that found that about 63% of the respondents consistently used “they” to refer back to an unidentified singular person.[13]

This is important because legal writing emphasizes the importance of clarity, precision, and conciseness, and the avoidance of the “singular they” does not further any of these goals. Rewriting sentences around the use of “they” can end in clunky rephrasing of what could have been stated much more simply. When speaking of an indeterminate third party, “they” is no less precise than “he or she” or the equivalent rewrites. Referring to “them,” rather than “he or she,” certainly increases the conciseness of a statement. But beyond all of this, there’s the issue of inclusivity. The legal profession continues to decry its lack of diversity and its failure to adequately reflect the populace.[14]And yet the profession continues to cling to traditional practices that exclude that same populace, indicating that their presence is not welcome in a legal profession where the use of the singular they is something to be talked around, avoided, rewritten, and excised. For society to change, people must change in order to facilitate it. The use of the “singular they” is one small step in the march of progress and inclusivity in the legal field.

[1]Lauren Easton, Making a Case for a Singular ‘They’, AP Blog(Mar. 24, 2017), https://blog.ap.org/products-and-services/making-a-case-for-a-singular-they.

[2]Id.

[3]Associated Press Style, Purdue OWL, https://owl.purdue.edu/owl/subject_specific_writing/journalism_and_journalistic_writing/ap_style.html (last visited July 5, 2019).

[4]Style Guidelines, Am. Bar Ass’n(Apr. 11, 2013), https://www.americanbar.org/groups/construction_industry/about_us/rules_procedures/style_guidelines/.

[5]Chicago Manual, Chicago Style for the Singular They, Chi. Manual of Style(Apr. 3, 2017), https://cmosshoptalk.com/2017/04/03/chicago-style-for-the-singular-they/.

[6]Id.

[7]Id.

[8]Id.

[9]Chicago Manual of Style, § 5.48, 5.255 (17th ed. 2017).

[10]The list consists of nine suggestions. These suggestions are (1) omit the pronoun; (2) repeat the noun; (3) use a plural antecedent; (4) use an article instead of a pronoun; (5) use the neutral singular pronoun one; (6) use the relative pronoun who; (7) use the imperative mood; (8) use “he or she;” or (9) revise the sentence. Id.at § 5.255.

[11]Id.at § 5.252.

[12]Id.

[13]Darren K. LaScotte, Singular They: An Empirical Study of Generic Pronoun Use, 91 Am. Speech62, 68 (2016).

[14]Allison E. Laffey & Allison Ng, Diversity and Inclusion in the Law: Challenges and Initiatives, Am. Bar Ass’n(May 8, 2018), https://www.americanbar.org/groups/litigation/committees/jiop/articles/2018/diversity-and-inclusion-in-the-law-challenges-and-initiatives/.

**This image is licensed in the public domain: by torbakhopper is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0