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The Washington Post Style Guide Now Accepts Singular They

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What do you do when you run into your friend on their birthday? You wish them a happy birthday, of course!

Or wait—you wish … him or her a happy birthday? When you run into your friend on … his or her birthday? That's how you’re supposed to say it if you want to avoid using they to refer to one person, but it’s a bit wordy and awkward. You could use just him or her alone, but what if you don’t want to be specific about the sex of the referent? You could make it plural—“what do you do when you run into friends on their birthdays”—but that sounds a bit strange, like there’s a whole group of friends having their birthdays at once. Anyone who writes for a living runs into this situation all the time, and must go through all kinds of contortions to avoid the easiest solution: singular they.

In everyday speech, singular they, the use of they/them to refer to one person, feels completely natural. But in more formal contexts, and in writing, that usage has long been frowned upon. And not just frowned upon, but banned as ungrammatical. However, it is not ungrammatical in the same way as “I didn’t knowed that” or “what are you cook for dinner tonight?” Those sentences don’t sound natural in any context.

Proponents of singular they have long argued that the prohibition makes no sense. Not only is it natural, it has been used in English for centuries. It’s in the King James Bible. Authors like Chaucer, Shakespeare, Swift, Austen, Thackeray, and Shaw used it. Before the production of school textbooks for grammar in the 19th century, no one complained about it or even noticed it. Avoiding it is awkward or necessitates sexist language.

Now, in the most recent update to The Washington Post style guide, singular they has been given official approval. Post copy editor Bill Walsh explains that he personally accepted singular they many years ago, but had stopped short of allowing it in the paper. He finally decided to endorse it in house style after coming to the conclusion that it is “the only sensible solution to English’s lack of a gender-neutral third-person singular personal pronoun.”

Other institutions are sure to follow suit. Professional associations of copy editors have been chafing at the restriction against it for years, and now that a major publication has approved it, it won’t be long before more do the same. The news of the acceptance of singular they may cause a little stir, but nobody will notice the change in action, as Walsh says, “I suspect that the singular they will go largely unnoticed even by those who oppose it on principle. We’ve used it before, if inadvertently, and I’ve never heard a complaint.”

A grammar “mistake”? In a newspaper? That no one complained about? Unthinkable! That’s the final and perhaps most convincing sign that singular they really isn’t a mistake at all.

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Why You Shouldn't Trust the New Study That Supports Putting Two Spaces After a Period
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Writers, style guides, and people who spend a lot of time reading generally agree that one space after a period is highly preferable to two, but there remains a small group of people who refuse to let go of this convention left over from the typewriter era. Now, two-space devotees have a scientific study on their side. As The Verge reports, a new paper from Skidmore College psychologists suggests that adding two spaces after each period makes text easier to read.

For the study, researchers gathered 60 college students and had them write out a paragraph to determine if they were one-spacers or two-spacers. Next, they asked them to read a sample text while wearing eye-tracking devices. They found that subjects who read the paragraphs styled with two spaces spent less time focusing on the punctuation at the end of each sentence (likely because the extra space made it clearer where the sentence stopped). Students who used two spaces in their own writing read faster when given the two-spaced text.

But don't expect the new findings to shake up style standards any time soon. The study authors admit that while reading text with just one space after each sentence leads to more time spent scanning for periods, the effects are minimal. People in the one-space camp read the paragraphs just as fast regardless of how the text was styled, and the difference in spacing didn't impact reading comprehension in either group. The researchers also used a monospaced font for the study, which may be good for an experiment that requires consistency, but isn't exactly representative of the fonts readers encounter in everyday life.

The question of spacing is as old as typesetting itself. The first printers had two space sizes: a regular one for separating words and a slightly larger one—the emspace—for separating sentences. When typewriters hit the scene, the emspace was replaced with two spaces, and this style of writing was standard for decades. A divide emerged with the advent of more advanced typesetting technology around the mid-1900s. It got easier for printing companies to achieve uniform spacing, and adding two spaces after periods, which many people agree looks sloppy and jarring, started to fall out of fashion. But while the typewriter has disappeared from desks, the two-space method has stuck around. This new study suggests it will likely be with us for a bit longer.

[h/t The Verge]

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Big Questions
Where Should You Place the Apostrophe in President's Day?
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Happy Presidents’ Day! Or is it President’s Day? Or Presidents Day? What you call the national holiday depends on where you are, who you’re honoring, and how you think we’re celebrating.

Saying "President’s Day" infers that the day belongs to a singular president, such as George Washington or Abraham Lincoln, whose birthdays are the basis for the holiday. On the other hand, referring to it as "Presidents’ Day" means that the day belongs to all of the presidents—that it’s their day collectively. Finally, calling the day "Presidents Day"—plural with no apostrophe—would indicate that we’re honoring all POTUSes past and present (yes, even Andrew Johnson), but that no one president actually owns the day.

You would think that in the nearly 140 years since "Washington’s Birthday" was declared a holiday in 1879, someone would have officially declared a way to spell the day. But in fact, even the White House itself hasn’t chosen a single variation for its style guide. They spelled it “President’s Day” here and “Presidents’ Day” here.


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Maybe that indecision comes from the fact that Presidents Day isn’t even a federal holiday. The federal holiday is technically still called “Washington’s Birthday,” and states can choose to call it whatever they want. Some states, like Iowa, don’t officially acknowledge the day at all. And the location of the punctuation mark is a moot point when individual states choose to call it something else entirely, like “George Washington’s Birthday and Daisy Gatson Bates Day” in Arkansas, or “Birthdays of George Washington/Thomas Jefferson” in Alabama. (Alabama loves to split birthday celebrations, by the way; the third Monday in January celebrates both Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert E. Lee.)

You can look to official grammar sources to declare the right way, but even they don’t agree. The AP Stylebook prefers “Presidents Day,” while Chicago Style uses “Presidents’ Day.”

The bottom line: There’s no rhyme or reason to any of it. Go with what feels right. And even then, if you’re in one of those states that has chosen to spell it “President’s Day”—Washington, for example—and you use one of the grammar book stylings instead, you’re still technically wrong.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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