A Truly Idiotic Discussion About Whether to Use Gender-Neutral Pronouns Is Unfolding at the New York Times

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A good game to play for a certain brand of media nerd is “will New York Times public editor Liz Spayd ever write a worthwhile column?” Well, Spayd’s latest masterpiece just dropped, and after reading it, I can safely report that the answer is: “definitely not yet.”

Her new piece tackles what should be an easily resolved issue—the Times’ antiquated approach to gender-neutral pronouns—and, true to form, botches it.

To her credit, Spayd lays out the problem very clearly. Some people prefer using gender-neutral pronouns like “they” and “them,” and the Times is dragging its feet on letting them do it in the paper (emphasis mine):

Phil Corbett, associate masthead editor for standards, said that as a first choice such pronouns are to be avoided, noting that many readers are still unfamiliar with them and their usage can cause confusion.

But he also adds an important second point: “If it seems appropriate and there’s no good way around it, we wouldn’t propose a pronoun that the person (in the story) rejects or is offended by.”

In those instances where a writer or editor considers alternative pronouns necessary, they are to seek Corbett’s approval.


Corbett approaches the dilemma this way: “The Times is not looking to lead the way, set the rules or break new ground. Our hope is to reflect accepted, standard usage among educated readers.”


So America’s newspaper of record—which, on the front page of its corporate website, features a slideshow calling itself “a leader in identifying and explicating vital social issues”—is explicitly saying that it considers gender-neutral pronouns weird enough to try to avoid using if possible, and that it doesn’t want to “break new ground” on the issue. Pretty fucked up!

The simple, obvious thing to do here is to tell Phil Corbett to go to hell and demand that the Times give nonbinary people the respect they deserve.

Nope. Here’s Spayd:

At least while the ground is shifting, the Times policy seems about right — allow nongender pronouns but first try reworking sentences to avoid them.


At least it’s now clear to any trans or nonbinary readers of the Times that both the paper’s top editors and the woman who is supposedly their representative think avoiding them is the best way to deal with them. Another win for Liz!

Deputy Editor, Splinter

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