The Art of Editing, or Should Writers Use the Singular “They”?

should writers use the singular theyI recently completed line editing a dystopian novel. After going through my edits, the author wrote to me with several questions, prefacing them with this statement:

“I made the mistake of not pestering my last editor on details like these. I’m not making that mistake again.”

He was absolutely correct to question something he didn’t understand, and I assured him that I would answer any queries he had. After all, how can writers improve their writing if they write in a vacuum?

One of his questions concerned pronouns and antecedents:

I’ve read about the use and acceptance of gender-neutral pronouns. I prefer gender-neutral pronouns when I talk. You seem to be correcting against the use of gender-neutral pronouns in my writing. May I ask why? Is the world about to go to war over this? I really wish it wasn’t an issue, but apparently it still is. Does using gender-neutral pronouns make my writing look that bad?

I want to be one of the trendsetters that makes gender neutral pronouns the norm, but I don’t want my work to suffer for it. How do I walk that line?”

Ahhh, the controversial use of “they” with a singular antecedent, or as one of my fellow editors calls it, the “informal singular ‘they.’”

(Please note: this post is not about gender equality, LGBT rights, or how to address a transgendered person; that is a social issue, not a question of grammar, and I am only discussing the practice of using a plural pronoun to refer to a singular antecedent.)

Editing is both an art and a science. The mechanics of writing—including grammar—is something we learn in school. But linguistics is another subject entirely. Our language is constantly changing and evolving, and those who “regard language and writing mechanics as things that are static and set by some deity of the written word”* often lack the artistic temperament that makes a good editor, the one who understands your vision and your voice and works with you to enhance both in your writing.

*quote from editor Katie Ramos in an email to members of the Editorial Freelancers Association.

But what about rules? Are they made to be followed, or are they made to be broken? Personally, I think those are the wrong questions; if understanding and following rules were the primary goals, we’d all write in a similar style, and anyone who’s taught grammar would be an excellent editor—but we know that’s not the case.

In an article on his blog An American Editor, Rich Adin writes:

Anyone who wants to learn to be an editor can be taught how to make sure a sentence is complete, how to determine head levels, how to make sure that there isn’t a mix of tenses, how to correctly choose between “there” and “their” and when to use “your” and “you’re”, and myriad other things that editors do. And they can earn a living doing those things (especially today when that seems to be much of what editors are hired to do). But an editor, I believe, cannot be taught how to make a sentence “sing”. How do you teach an editor to be the reincarnation of Maxwell Perkins?”

(Maxwell Perkins was Scribner’s legendary editor who “nurtured and inspired such notable authors as Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Marjorie Rawlings, Ring Lardner, and Thomas Wolfe.” [])

When I work with a writer, whether I’m helping with idea development, line editing a manuscript, or proofreading a final version for publication, my goal is to maintain the author’s unique voice while helping him or her create and polish every sentence to make it the best it can be.

That doesn’t mean I stand over a writer, ruler in hand, prepared to rap some knuckles if rules are not strictly followed (can you tell I did some time in Catholic school?).

It means I employ the art of editing to help you, the writer, create and polish your best work possible.ID-100215269

So, back to the author whose novel I line edited; he wanted to know if his work would suffer for using gender-neutral pronouns. Chicago Manual of Style, the style guide used by many publishers and editors, offers this:

A singular antecedent requires a singular referent pronoun. Because he is no longer accepted as a generic pronoun referring to a person of either sex, it has become common in speech and in informal writing to substitute the third-person plural pronouns they, them, their, and themselves, and the nonstandard singular themself. While this usage is accepted in casual contexts, it is still considered ungrammatical in formal writing. . . . so unless you are given guidelines to the contrary, do not use them in a singular sense.”

My dilemma while editing this author’s novel was in determining whether or not this was “formal writing.” After researching reference books, published articles, and online grammar forums, I decided the best solution was an artistic one; here’s how I responded to him:

Being a grammar trendsetter is a rough goal. I, too, have read a lot of differing opinions about the informal singular they, and because it is so common in everyday speech, I think we’ll see it move from pariah to acceptable as time goes on . . . but how long that will take is anyone’s guess. As a prescriptive grammarist, I am especially sensitive to both the “correct” and the “accepted” uses of words and phrases, so when I wear my editor’s hat, I can’t overlook things I can when someone is simply speaking.

That said, one way you could approach this is to differentiate your grammar choices between dialogue and prose—in other words, when someone is speaking, use the gender neutral pronouns, but when you have a descriptive sentence, choose the grammatically correct version.”

In the end, the decision is up to the author, and I may not know what he chooses until his book is published. However he decides to proceed, I respect his desire to walk that fine line between artistic expression and prescriptive grammar—being the trendsetter who uses “the informal singular they.” Whether I agree with him or not is immaterial; the important point is that we share a mutual goal to communicate his art in the best way possible.

Should writers push the envelope when it comes to the changing and morphing of language? #writing #editing #grammar Click To Tweet

Do you agree that writers should push the envelope when it comes to the changing and morphing of language? Should editors stand firm about grammar rules, or should writers be granted “poetic license”? How have you responded when an editor has “corrected” something you feel strongly about, even if it isn’t “correct”?

Happy Writing,


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Candace Johnson is a professional freelance editor, proofreader, writer, ghostwriter, and writing coach who has worked with traditional publishers, self-published authors, and independent book packagers on nonfiction subjects ranging from memoirs to alternative medical treatments to self-help, and on fiction ranging from romance to paranormal. As an editorial specialist, Candace is passionate about offering her clients the opportunity to take their work to the next level. She believes in maintaining an author’s unique voice while helping him or her create and polish every sentence to make it the best it can be. Learn more here.

For more great writing and publishing information, check out  Change It Up Editing and Writing Services on Facebook, where I share interesting articles and links about writing and publishing.

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14 thoughts on “The Art of Editing, or Should Writers Use the Singular “They”?”

  1. Wow, this is very timely and interesting. I wonder about these ideas as well. I have been personally struggling with first person present tense, which I enjoy reading and writing, but EVERYONE in my writer’s group HATES!

    I would like to be an author to “push the envelope,” but I would also like to be an author who is accepted by and agent and sells a lot of books. So the question is in goals. Do I want to be more ground-breaking, or do I want to appeal to more readers?

    That said I am conducting an experiment with different age beta readers. I have rewritten the first three chapters in different persons and different tense. It would appear younger people like the first person, present tense, older like third person past or even first person past.

    So the second question to ask is “Who are your readers?” If your client’s readers are younger, they may enjoy the informal use of language? Personally I like your solution with using it only in dialogue. That may satisfy the youngsters and the old guard.

    And then I wonder, do you have to wait until you’re an established writer to effectively “Break the rules?”

    Thank you for this wonderful thought-provoking post! I can’t wait to hear other comments as well 🙂

    1. Sorry to jump in and reply to a comment on someone else’s blog, but I’m going to anyway. First person present tense is pretty common these days and many successful authors write in that style. I seems like the people in your writer’s group are applying too much personal preference and not enough writing guidance. This is why I like beta readers better than groups. An experienced writer who is also your beta reader should be able to put aside personal taste and evaluate your story on its general merits as a piece of fiction.

      I see your experience as distinctly different from the application of grammar rules. That’s to be worked out between the writer and the editor.

      1. Thank you for jumping in with your take. I agree that people often apply too much personal preference, and I do both beta and writer’s group, but the general public are not grammarians or open-minded writer/readers, they like what they like and if my target audience is not comfortable with present tense then I need to look at it.

        Also, I agree with you that it might not seem like a grammar issue and my comment did not belong, but in my mind I equate it with “rules” and target audience. There WAS a rule to write in only past tense. There are grammar “rules” which have changed and may continue to change. Your grammar use MAY depend on target audience as well? I loved Candace’s solution. I do see your point that tense is NOT a grammar issue, but like I said, I was looking at it from a “rule perspective.” I hope that makes sense and seems more relevant to Candace’s topic 🙂

      2. Oops! Sorry if I implied that your comments were not appropriate for this topic (that would be a serious breach of blogging etiquette to do that on someone else’s blog!) I knew I was about to leave a pet peevey comment here when I wrote that, and I didn’t want to look like a hypocrite for telling you to “Screw what people say. Write the way you want to write,” and then turning around and telling Candace that I deplore the singular “they” and perpetrators of it need to be shipped off to an asteroid somewhere. Which is pretty much what I did.


  2. I think I know what all this refers to, but could you give me an example sentence that illustrates the misused pronoun? I tuck all these tips away for future reference, and I want to be sure I understand.

  3. Oooh, great topic! I wish we had an alternative, but as a reader I’m willing to accept “they” as a singular pronoun in this case. It’s far from perfect, but it sure beats “s/he,”and I hate the use of just “he,” even if it’s technically correct.

    One technique I’ve liked in non-fiction is switching between male and female pronouns, usually alternating by chapter/section/topic. Balanced, and not distracting. Not suited to fiction, though.

    As for pushing the envelope, that’s tricky. Push it too hard and you’ll lose readers like me, who will assume you couldn’t be bothered to hire an editor. But language is always evolving, so I’d let this one go.

  4. I completely agree with the advice given in your second paragraph. For now, that seems to be the best solution. Personally, I don’t have any issues with “they” but I’m not an editor. Great subject, Candace!

  5. Hi, Candace. Great post as usual. This is easily one of the best blogs on WordPress.

    I’m assuming your author granted permission to reproduce those comments and that he will be reading this, so I’ll preface my comment by stating I am an opinionated blowhard who is not to be taken seriously. With that noted: I find the singular “they” to be the most grating trend in modern speech and writing. A work of literature, no matter how experimental or in what voice, is indeed formal writing. If I were reading a novel and the writer used singular they outside of dialog or appropriate first-person vernacular, I would stop reading it based on the determination that the writer doesn’t understand the mechanics of the language. I’m far from a grammar Nazi. I’m all for breaking rules in favor of writing that pops off the page. But singular “they” usage simply sounds at beast like a hedge, or that the writer does not understand parallel construction. Poorly constructed sentences never pop.

    I don’t mean to imply that your client is not an excellent writer; I’m giving one person’s opinion that using singular “they” in third-person narrative would take me right out of the story.

  6. First-time authors should probably prove they know the rules and how to use them before they try and break them. As far as language modification, I agree with you that change takes time and trying to push the envelope too hard is not a great idea.

  7. I wish I had a stronger knowledge and opinion on this. I didn’t realize this was such a point of debate! Good to know!

  8. This is one area where writers definitely SHOULD NOT push the envelope. ‘They’ is plural, and that’s that! There are better ways to make language gender neutral when necessary. Better still, especially with fiction, there may not be much of a need to make the language gender neutral. If we know the gender of the subject there’s no need at all.

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