Singular “They” Now Endorsed by MLA

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It’s now completely official: the august Modern Language Association, for most of a century the maker of writing rules and guidelines, has posted an update on The MLA Style Center website and declared in “The Source,” their newsletter: “Using the singular they is a way to make your language more inclusive and to avoid making assumptions about gender.” MLA acknowledges that this violation of “grammatical agreement” was long frowned upon, but today they argue that it is not just acceptable but preferable. They cite Merriam-Webster, whose online dictionary now includes a new definition for “they” that says the term can be used to refer to persons whose gender identity is non-binary. MLA accepts this definition and adds that “they” should also be used to refer to a person whose gender identity is “unknown or irrelevant to the context,” as the new seventh edition of the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association puts it. MLA stresses that writers should “always follow the personal pronouns of individuals they write about,” and then goes on to give examples of how to use it both for a specific person whose pronoun is “they” and as a generic third-person singular pronoun.


I (and my textbooks) agree with MLA, which declares that singular “they” “has emerged as a tool for making language more inclusive… and the MLA encourages writers to accept its use to avoid making or enabling assumptions about gender.” Can’t get much more clear and direct than that!


To many writers, including me, this usage does not come trippingly off the tongue: it takes consistent practice and attention to take up this new and important convention. So I’m grateful to MLA for this latest update on The MLA Style Center site and for all the detailed examples they offer there. You may want to invite your students to check it out here.


I’m also grateful for our language, which keeps changing and adapting and evolving. It’s one of the reasons it’s so much fun to teach writing and speaking today!


Image Credit: Pixabay Image 2178566 by Pexels, used under the Pixabay License

About the Author
Andrea A. Lunsford is the former director of the Program in Writing and Rhetoric at Stanford University and teaches at the Bread Loaf School of English. A past chair of CCCC, she has won the major publication awards in both the CCCC and MLA. For Bedford/St. Martin's, she is the author of The St. Martin's Handbook, The Everyday Writer and EasyWriter; The Presence of Others and Everything's an Argument with John Ruszkiewicz; and Everything's an Argument with Readings with John Ruszkiewicz and Keith Walters. She has never met a student she didn’t like—and she is excited about the possibilities for writers in the “literacy revolution” brought about by today’s technology. In addition to Andrea’s regular blog posts inspired by her teaching, reading, and traveling, her “Multimodal Mondays” posts offer ideas for introducing low-stakes multimodal assignments to the composition classroom.