How Do We Love ‘They’, Let Us Count The Ways

singular pronoun they
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We are past Inclusion Awareness Month, but the story continues in the last of this series.

As communicators, we are responsible for using inclusive language in our content, publications, and forms. Inclusive language respects and promotes all people as valued members of society. It uses vocabulary that avoids exclusion and stereotyping, and is free from descriptors that portray individuals or groups of people as dependent, powerless, or less valued than others.

In business, the words we use with our customers and colleagues can be the difference between success and failure. When people we need to communicate with feel alienated, marginalized, or disempowered, nobody wins—not your customers, not your colleagues, and not you. – Genevieve Conti

Language is always changing, evolving, and adapting to the needs of its users, and so to must the content businesses produce.


In Defense of ‘They’

As soon as you refer to a person with a pronoun, you’re implying thousands of unsaid things (whether you mean to or not).  “They” changes the assumed default from being “he” (the old standard) to being truly neutral.

Writing with non-gender-neutral pronouns can be, well, a pain. Some prefer “s/he”, while others may stick to a particular pronoun in one paragraph, and switch to another to alternate.

“They” doesn’t assume anything, it’s inclusive of people of all different gender, race, religion. It covers everyone.[1]


Things You Can Do

You can join the Wall Street Journal and B2B News Network in using the inclusive singular “they” in your company’s style and vocabulary guides. Are yours inclusive?

A few other guiding principles[2]:

  • Be respectful of a person or group’s preference regarding vocabulary and be guided in your writing by that preference.
  • Remember there is a difference between respectful and appropriate language for those belonging to a group (in-group) and those who don’t belong (out-group). Some terms may be found offensive when used by someone from outside a special community.
  • Anticipate a diverse audience and make conscious efforts to reflect that diversity in written work and images.
  • Avoid using descriptors that refer to a person’s race, gender, sexual orientation, disability, or age, unless those descriptors are relevant to the story.
  • If you are writing about one particular individual, and you’re not sure…ask.


If interested, here are Part 1 and Part 2 of the series.



[1] Hues, “I Heart Singular They”,

[2] Queen’s University, “Style Guide”, Kingston, 2016.

Genevieve Conti, “The Conscious Style Guide: How to Talk About People with Inclusive and Tactful Language”, Conscious Style Guide, 2016.

Dawn Ennis, “10 Words Transgender People Want You to Know (But Not Say)”, Advocate, 2016.

Amanda Hess, “Who’s ‘They?’”, New York Times, 2016.

Rebecca Prinster, “Words Matter: Affirming Gender Identity Through Language”, Insight Into Diversity.

Bill Walsh, “The Post Drops the ‘mike’ –and the hyphen in ‘e-mail’”, The Washington Post, 2015.–and-the-hyphen-in-e-mail/2015/12/04

A.Zingler, B.Liz MacKinnon, Oliver Robison, Rhys Harper, “Transgender Language Primer”, Outshine NW, 2016

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