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.”

hands hovering over typewriter

Tips and Tricks for Writing Memoirs

A memoir weaves together stories from the author’s life, but including every detail and event is impossible. So how do you narrow someone’s entire life to fit into one book? Here are three tips and tricks for writing and editing memoirs.

Trim the Timeline

A lifetime of unique experiences and events can make for an exciting read. When sitting down to write a memoir, many feel that they need to go from their birth all the way through the present, detailing everything that has happened from start to finish. While some memoirs do encompass the entirety of the author’s life, most should focus on particular events and periods in the author’s life.

The reality is that a book can only hold so much, and in order to build a cohesive, engaging narrative, the memoirist should trim the timeline of their life, only keeping what is truly helpful in showing their story.

But how do you determine what is worth including?

Think Thematically

A theme is an idea that runs throughout a work, such as love, friendship, overcoming adversity, etc. It’s important to decide what themes are important in telling your story because these will serve as a guide for what people, places, and events to include. Within the book itself, these themes can guide the reader in making meaning of your life experiences.

For example, if one of your themes is overcoming adversity in a creative way, then include the story of how you started a business from scratch after suddenly losing your long-time job. If loving and helping animals is an essential part of your life story, then include the story of the time you saved a baby bird from a hungry neighborhood cat and nursed it back to health.

Selecting scenes to support the book’s themes involves combing through your memories and selecting the gems that will immerse readers in your life experiences.

Mine Memories

Dig through your memories for moments that truly embody the themes you chose. An important part of making a moment stick in a reader’s mind is the prose itself, but being selective about which memories you include is also key. You may have saved countless stray puppies and sickly kittens, but which of these rescues had the biggest impact on you and your life? You may have endured many moments of adversity over the course of your life, but which ones have contributed the most to making you who you are today?

There may be many gems in your mine of memories, but the ones that sparkle and shine the brightest are the ones that readers are most likely to remember long after closing the book.

Writing a memoir can be an incredibly fulfilling and empowering experience, and editing one can be just as rewarding. Trimming the timeline, thinking thematically, and mining through memories can help the writing and editing of the memoir manuscript run smoother while making a more memorable and engaging experience for readers.

Group discussion

Being Vulnerable: Sharing Your Manuscript in a Writing Workshop

For the last year or so, I have been working on a novel. Like many aspiring novelists, I have made progress in fits and starts, sometimes writing many pages in a sitting and other times not touching the manuscript for weeks at a time. Slowly and sometimes painfully, I have completed a little more than half the story.

Until a few weeks ago, I had not shared any chapters of my novel with anyone. Several people knew that I was working on a story, and I had shared the basic plot with them, but I didn’t want to share anything that I had written.

I am a big believer in the value of allowing other people to read and edit your work. Without question, every writer needs an editor. The more complex the writing, the more value a writer receives from allowing someone else to review and comment on their work. I give drafts of all my nonfiction work to my wife to read, and the final product is always better after hearing her feedback.

But there’s something about writing fiction that makes it so much harder to let others see the work in progress. I think it’s because we are much more vulnerable when writing fiction. Rejecting our story is not merely a rejection of our ideas, it’s a rejection of us as an author and as a person.

Despite my reluctance in sharing my writing, I knew that having others review my novel was a good thing, so I joined a fiction writing workshop. The workshop operates like most others in that you submit a portion of your work to the group, and the group provides feedback, both collectively and individually.

While I joined this workshop voluntarily, I still felt great trepidation about it. When the first few responses to my work were posted ahead of the group conversation, I opened the documents with nothing less than abject fear. What if they hated it? What if they laughed at me?

Much to my surprise, I was not voted out of the group. The feedback was incredibly valuable, and each person had taken the time and care to explain how they had reacted to the manuscript and what they noticed about the craft. I came away with encouragement that I was not an awful author, and I received some specific ideas for revision.

Equally valuable was the time I spent reviewing and providing feedback on the other authors’ stories. The process of carefully considering what I was reading and providing useful feedback gave me many ideas to help improve my own writing.

The author Brené Brown says, “No vulnerability, no creativity.” A writing workshop is the perfect place for writers to put this axiom into action. Giving up your writing to others—being vulnerable to their feedback—is the key to sparking the creativity that is essential to good writing.