Visual by Karen Longwell.

On Tuesday December 10, Merriam-Webster announced that “they” is its 2019 word of the year. 

Using they as a singular pronoun to refer to someone whose gender is unknown or not revealed has actually been used for centuries. The Oxford English Dictionary reported that it can trace the usage back to 1375, from a medieval romance called William and the Werewolf. It wasn’t until the eighteenth century that grammar experts started rejecting its use.

In September, the Merriam-Webster dictionary expanded its definition of “they” to reflect that the singular pronoun can be used by a person whose gender identity is nonbinary. Historically, though, media style guides have not included “they” as a singular pronoun.

Style guide changes generally come after a cultural shift in language. That’s how it works at The Canadian Press (CP). 

The Canadian Press is a wire service for Canadian media— meaning its stories can be printed in publications across Canada. They also distribute stories from The Associated Press, which is based in the United States. In Canada, it’s common for magazines and newspapers to base their style guides off of the CP Stylebook, or to follow it completely. 

James McCarten is the stylebook editor at The Canadian Press. He says that he makes minor changes on his own, but a committee is assigned to respond to more contentious decisions as the use of the English language evolves.

“We try to reflect as much as possible what is happening with the language, what is happening with journalism,” McCarten says. “So it’s really more about reflecting the use of the language and what society accepts as acceptable… rather than trying to dictate the way it should be done.”

Including the singular pronoun “they” is one way they accomplish this.

At the end of November, 35 newsroom jobs at The Hamilton Spectator, owned by Torstar, were cut. These cuts included the entire copy-editing team— people who could offer editorial guidance when potential style guide changes come up.

Dwindling newsrooms is one reason that Saima Desai, editor of Regina-based Briarpatch magazine, says that it’s difficult for people to be thoughtful about their style guides. Other reasons include the rise of corporate media consolidation and foreign ownership. 

At Briarpatch, a magazine that covers grassroots social movements, Desai says the conversation about changing their style guide starts before a major cultural shift in language, because they listen to affected communities.

“For us, a style guide is a way to assert our politics,” Desai says. She says she doesn’t think enough style guides are proactive and that she’s frustrated with how slowly they evolve. “We think about style guides in the opposite way where language often prefigures the world that we’re trying to build.”

She emphasizes the importance of being critical of normative style guides, meaning style guides that have been created by people with the most power who are able to dictate the language we use.

“Right now, the people who have accumulated that power have done that accumulation of power off the backs of Indigenous and Black people. Off the backs of poor people. Off the backs of trans and queer people.”

So, she says, it’s important to take that power back through language.

“I think in bigger and more bureaucratic organizations and organizations that haven’t really caught up with the idea that objectivity is dead, there’s not a lot of room for younger and more political journalists to affect that kind of change within their organizations.” 

In April, Desai was a panelist at the Magazines Canada Arts & Literary Summit. The panel was called “Rethinking Style Guides.” Meaningful changes to better reflect underrepresented communities in publishing was a key discussion point, says Hannah McGregor, who was also on the panel.

McGregor, an assistant professor in the publishing department at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, B.C., says that seemingly small changes can actually hold a lot of cultural and political weight. 

“I still see publications say trans women as one word. The use of trans women as one word implies that trans women are not women,” says McGregor. When written as two words, trans is an adjective to describe a woman. But when written as one word, it implies that there are two categories: trans women and women.

“It looks so small, but there is so much at stake in that space.”

Another way to be proactive, she says, is by reading the Elements of Indigenous Style by Gregory Younging.

“There shouldn’t be a single person who works in publishing in Canada who hasn’t read that book,” she says.

She says the book offers ways to address some of the problems she sees in the industry, like not capitalizing words like Indigenous and Black. She explains that these capitalizations are style guide changes that have been driven by the communities that are affected.

“But lots of magazines and newspapers have been extremely slow in responding to those changes because they’re like ‘well, it’s not in our style guide.’”

The Canadian Press, however, does not capitalize the word Black when referring to race. McCarten says this continues to be debated at the organization. 

“We capitalize ethnicities, but we’ve never treated Black as an ethnicity, because it’s not. It’s a colour.” He explains that the corresponding ethnicity, like African-American or African-Canadian, would be capitalized.

“At some point, society may come around, society may start to insist,” he said. “They may start really pushing hard for this to happen, in which case, yeah, we absolutely have to tune in and make a decision.”

But Desai says she would like to see more organizations creating this type of change, as opposed to reacting to it. She would also like to see more transparency about how organizations are creating their style guides, like which communities are consulted and how decisions are made. 

“[Style guides are] made by a bunch of humans with their own politics and their own histories and their own beliefs,” Desai said. “Like anything, it’s an institution that we should be questioning.”

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About the author

Grace Wells-Smith is a senior print editor at the Ryerson Review of Journalism. She is the assistant editor at The Dance Current magazine and is achieving her masters in journalism. Her features have been published by CBC and Intermission magazine. She is a former CBC investigative intern.

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