Scrabble blocks arranged to read "Choose your words."

Keeping it in Style: Considering Cultural Style Guides

What do you think of when you hear the words “style guide”? Perhaps APA for the social sciences, AP for journalists, and Chicago for historians. For communications-based jobs, in-house style guides might come to mind—amalgamations of an established style and corporate requirements in order to appeal to a certain audience. It seems obvious that style guides are meant to establish how a corporation presents itself to the world—so how do we address the rapidly changing ways that marginalized people talk about themselves and the world around them in order to present content that audiences find sensitive, accurate, and accessible? The answer is cultural style guides.

Elements of Indigenous Style was written by Gregory Younging of the Opaskwayak Cree Nation (Manitoba, Canada) after he saw concerning portrayals of Indigeneity in the books he edited at an Indigenous publishing house. The resulting book was revolutionary and is lauded as the first published guide to editing and curating work by Indigenous folks. With a title similar to the familiar cornerstone of modern editing, Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style, Younging’s comprehensive guide addresses ways that publishing can elevate Indigenous voices. Key to publishing’s failure to do this sooner, in Younging’s own words, “comes from a colonial practice of transmitting ‘information’ about Indigenous Peoples rather than transmitting Indigenous Peoples’ perspectives about themselves.” This style guide fills a void—a way to dictate how Indigenous people refer to themselves rather than defaulting to the paternalistic ways that they have often been referred to.

Why are style guides like this so important to consider? While style guides can be considered living documents, edited over time to more accurately reflect the current zeitgeist, there is something relieving about having guidelines written by and specifically for one’s group of origin rather than originally for an exclusive audience. Cultural style guides, while not perfect, consider the culture first and foremost, eliminating the need to have to view one’s own culture (and subsequently, one’s own self) through the lens of neutrality, and emphasizing an Own Voices approach to publishing as a whole.

To see cultural style guides at work in the real world, I had the opportunity to talk to Elliot Bailey, the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Publisher’s Assistant at Ooligan Press, about how Ooligan’s style guide considers cultural elements.

How does Ooligan Press’s style guide currently work with people from different backgrounds—are there any unique considerations taken when working with these books, especially with the press’s commitment to publishing BIPOC and marginalized authors?

E: The Ooligan Press style guide has a condensed version of the Conscious Style Guide to be used when needed. The inclusive style guide within the Ooligan style guide takes into account disabilities, BIPOC identities, queer identities, age, appearance, and illness. In addition to our use of the inclusive style guide, one of the resources DEI has is a collection of other style guides and resources that can be found online, such as the National Association of Black Journalists Style Guide and the Transgender Language Style Guide that can be used when needed.

Does the press ever use other style guides besides our house style guide and Chicago Style? Would they consider using styles in development (such as from Elements of Indigenous Style)?

E: Yes, we do! When working with a manuscript that has content that needs special consideration, we add that to the individual manuscript’s style sheet. In general, any of these additional style guides are available for use within Ooligan for anything they are needed for, and I add to the style guide resources whenever I find new ones that would be useful for the press.

Cultural style guides offer an interesting glance at a future where people of all backgrounds can take the lead in how they are written into history. This collaborative future is one where we will probably not get things right at first—but that’s okay. According to Younging, “. . . plan on not getting it right. Make your best effort to make informed, mindful decisions about terminology.”

teacher and students in classroom

Are Singular “They/Them” Pronouns Grammatically Correct?

At the end of last year, I was catching up with an aunt who is an English teacher. Politics came up, as is inevitable around the holidays, and I asked her how she felt about the use of they/them pronouns to refer to a single person.

“It doesn’t matter how I feel about them,” she responded. “It’s just not correct grammar.”

I wondered if she was right. Certainly, I was taught growing up that they and them are plural pronouns used to refer to more than one person or thing. However, language is created by humans, and therefore, humans have the power to change language as they wish. Of course, a single person cannot suddenly decide upon a new definition for a word. The point of language is interpersonal communication, which is only successful when parties who speak the same language know the same definitions of words and how they are used.

The documentation of that widespread agreement can be found in style guides and dictionaries. Ooligan bases our style guide off of The Chicago Manual of Style, so I looked up what it says about singular they/them. In CMOS 5.48 it says:

…because he is no longer universally accepted as a generic pronoun referring to a person of unspecified gender, people commonly (in speech and in informal writing) substitute the third-person-plural pronouns they, them, their, and themselves (or the nonstandard singular themself). While this usage is accepted in those spheres, it is only lately showing signs of gaining acceptance in formal writing, where Chicago recommends avoiding its use. When referring specifically to a person who does not identify with a gender-specific pronoun, however, they and its forms are often preferred.

This explanation validates the singular they/them as grammatically correct. While Chicago is growing to embrace they/them, there is still some hesitation in using plural they/them, “As of the 17th edition, CMOS recognizes that such usage is gaining acceptance in formal writing but still advises avoiding it if possible—for example, by rewriting to use the plural (see CMOS 5.255).”

Knowing that different style guides have different recommendations based on the disciplines they cater to, I checked the American Psychological Association‘s (APA) guide. It turns out that they endorse the use of singular they with no holds barred “because it is inclusive of all people and helps writers avoid making assumptions about gender.”

The APA cited Merriam-Webster’s acceptance of the word, and sure enough, the definition of they in this dictionary includes usage “with a singular antecedent to refer to an unknown or unspecified person; to refer to a single person whose gender is intentionally not revealed; [and] to refer to a single person whose gender identity is nonbinary.” In other words, according to Merriam-Webster, singular they/them is grammatically correct. In addition, they was Merriam-Webster’s Word of the Year in 2019, as “the nonbinary pronoun sense of ‘they’ was added in September 2019.”

To me, the growing acceptance of singular they/them is a relief. I always found it tedious when I was growing up to write he/she or (s)he when referring to a hypothetical person whose gender was irrelevant to the topic. These phrases were clunky and interrupted the flow of my writing, but as a person using she/her pronouns, I never felt that generic he was an appropriate alternative. Not only do they/them give gender-nonconforming people a way to refer to themselves in a way that makes them feel comfortable, but they also give writers an innately gender-neutral way to prevent disjointed writing.

The pronouns are in the awkward growing stage as their new usage continues to gain acceptance and faces pushback. It will take time for some folks, like my aunt, to accept the change when they have been using they/them a different way for their whole lives. Even Google Docs is trying to autocorrect the sample sentence at the end of this blog post. Still, I daresay that in twenty years no one will bat an eye at the sentence, “They are a really good teacher.”