DEAR READER: When is 'they' the right pronoun for one person?

Friday, October 18, 2013 | 5:27 p.m. CDT; updated 12:40 p.m. CST, Friday, November 15, 2013

This week, the Missourian published a story about Josie Herrera, a finalist for MU Homecoming king. Herrera is a journalism student from Miami, active in campus groups — and a member of a sorority. Herrera identifies as gender queer, neither as man nor woman but encompassing parts of both. That’s not your usual king candidate, which is why the Missourian did the story.

While we were editing, reporter Molly Duffy told me Herrera prefers the pronoun they, rather than he or she. I shook my head. "No. Reader clarity," I said, invoking newsroom shorthand for journalists’ obligation to be as clear as possible in communicating information.


When Josie Herrera decided to apply for Homecoming royalty, getting involved was complicated. As a student who identifies as gender queer — as neither man nor woman but encompassing parts of both — Herrera was stuck with choosing between running for king or queen. Herrera chose the men's category and has become a Top 10 candidate for Homecoming king.

Also, learn definitions of some key LGBT terms, and read excerpts from a Missourian interview with Herrera.

(These stories require a Missourian digital membership.)

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But Duffy pushed back. "Wait. Hold on," she said. After my knee stopped jerking, Duffy explained Herrera’s simple perspective: that "they" is gender-neutral.

The question of how best to represent people who identify as part of the transgender community is not new. Some groups call for the use of invented pronouns such as "ze" and "zir." In this case, my initial concern was that using the pronoun "they" to describe Herrera would, at worst, confuse readers or, at best, look like a dumb grammar mistake.

On the other hand, though, we are obligated to represent Herrera as accurately and as respectfully as possible. Biologically speaking, Herrera is female. But sex and gender aren’t the same thing. Herrera’s truth — the accurate take on Herrera’s life — is more complicated.

This view held sway among the journalism students I consulted this week. We talked about "they versus he/she" in our newsroom-wide budget meeting on Monday, in my beginning reporting lab on Tuesday, and in an advanced reporting class and a graduate seminar on mass media theory on Wednesday.

Why ask the students rather than rely solely on longstanding editing practices? I have found in my 10 years here that students often are far ahead of me in how they think about the world. That is one of the great privileges of working with college students — to have my take on things constantly challenged. I end up either more reasoned in my convictions or changed by theirs.

An important moment came for me during my beginning reporting, or J2100, lab (that’s J105 for you old-time alums). Back and forth we went, me and 18 sophomores in an upper room of Neff Hall. At one point, I threw up my hands and asked, "What about how I tell you all the time to be super-specific in your writing?"

Their collective response: It is specific — for Josie.

In the end, the Missourian used a pronoun for Herrera just once online, and it’s "they." The story also explained Herrera's preference. In print, "they" also is used, but a "she" was added to the first paragraph of the story; the late-night change resulted from not communicating the decision all the way through the production pipeline.

One of the most interesting things to me during this week of hand-wringing came from Missourian reporter and master’s student Caleb O’Brien, who wrote his weekly paper for the mass media theory course on the "they/he/she" discussion happening in the newsroom:

Do we even need Homecoming kings and queens anymore? What about just Homecoming royalty?

City editor Elizabeth Brixey oversees the Missourian's coverage of education.

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Jeff Muscato October 18, 2013 | 6:01 p.m.

How about "one"?

(Report Comment)
Michael Williams October 18, 2013 | 8:56 p.m.

This reminds me of a long-ago Calvin and Hobbs comic strip.

Calvin decided he wished to henceforth be called "Calvin the Bold." He was quite unhappy when his parents, teacher, and principal refused to do so. I suspect they were insensitive. Perhaps Calvin had better luck in college. He would be near that age by now. I wonder if anyone thought to do a silly story on the issue?

(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith October 18, 2013 | 9:33 p.m.

"It" is also gender neutral. (Wash your mouth out with soap, Smith.)

Fortunately, since we are dealing in English, and not French or Spanish, we are spared having to deal with "gendered" cases: masculine or feminine.

German, on the other hand, has three cases: masculine, feminine and neuter. Oddly, it's der (masculine) mann and das (feminine) frau, but for girls and young women [apparently presumed to still be "virginal"] it's die (neuter) fraulein. Go figure.

Surely Sigmund Freud, an Austrian and therefore having German as his native tongue, could have made something out of THAT!

English is fairly syntactical: subject-verb-object. In German, verbs have a habit (to one not a native German speaker) of seeming to "wander around" in sentences. :)

(Report Comment)

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