Q. I’m curious as to what proper Chicago-style formatting would be for referring to a person’s pronouns. In informal communication I have found it standard to give them in roman and separated by slashes: she/her/hers.
But should the pronouns be italicized because they are being referred to as words? I also wonder whether the slashes are proper Chicago style. Any guidance would be greatly appreciated.
A. You are right about the italics. Strictly speaking, Chicago style would be she/her/hers. As for the slashes, their main use is to separate alternatives (as described in CMOS 6.106), so they’re the perfect choice here. She, her, and hers are alternative forms of the same word—different grammatical case forms that depend on context.
If you want to go to the next level, apply italics to the pronouns but not to the slashes (as in our example above). Almost no one will notice, but you’ll have the satisfaction of having applied your italics with precision and care.
Q. Good day, fellow editors! The conventional rule about companies is to refer to them in the singular: “The company released its quarterly earnings statement.” Fine. But consider this: “The company’s recommendations are X, Y, and Z. I suggest you follow up by asking it these questions.” Or: “Company C shows it cares about its customers. We worked with it to demonstrate its commitment.” Those sentences just sound wrong. Surely you would follow up by asking them questions and work with them to demonstrate their commitment. So what to do? Refer to companies as “they” consistently? (Noneditors have a natural tendency to do this anyway.) Use “it” and switch to “they” where it makes sense to, but then end up with inconsistent pronouns? Your insight is appreciated!
A. As your examples show, “they” can be the better choice whenever a company is considered not as a faceless entity but as an organization made up of real people. But you do need to maintain consistency. So rather than allow a mix of “it” and “they,” settle on one or the other. In a relatively informal or purely promotional context, there’s nothing wrong with “BMW released their quarterly earnings statement.” Conversely, in an article for an academic journal, “Company C claimed to demonstrate its commitment to its customers” is fine also. But as corporations seek to become more accessible to the public, the promotional usage (which, as you suggest, often seems like the natural choice) may be creeping into formal prose. And who knows? Singular “they” was voted word of the decade. Corporate “they” may not be far behind.
Q. Now that Merriam-Webster has legitimized the singular “they,” where does CMOS stand on the subject?
A. First, please note that there are two uses for the singular “they,” generic and specific. In 2019 Merriam-Webster added a specific sense of singular “they” to refer to a person who does not identify with a gender-specific (or binary) pronoun (“A Note on the Nonbinary ‘They’: It’s Now in the Dictionary,” Merriam-Webster, September 19, 2019). This use of “they” was recognized in the 17th edition of CMOS, published in 2017 (see paragraph 5.48). So Chicago and Merriam-Webster are in sync on that.
Singular “they” is also used as a generic pronoun referring to a person of unspecified gender, an established usage that nonetheless has long been considered informal. As of the 17th edition, CMOS recognizes that such usage is gaining acceptance in formal writing but still advises avoiding it if possible—for example, by rewriting to use the plural (see CMOS 5.255). Generic singular “they” has been around for a long time, however, and most editors here at Chicago have no problem with such constructions as everyone should bring their favorite book to the event—where “their” refers back to the indefinite (and usually singular) pronoun “everyone.” And many of us have come to accept less firmly established usages such as each programmer worked in their preferred language. Like it or not, “they” has been displacing “he or she” and similar attempts to write around the English language’s lack of a dedicated gender-neutral singular pronoun for some time now. Stay tuned for further developments.
Q. I’ve been told not to refer to the object of a preposition with a pronoun, as in “In the article by Frank Bruni, he claims . . .” Should this instead be “In the article by Frank Bruni, Bruni claims . . .”?
A. The first version is open to ambiguity: “he” might refer to someone other than Bruni who is quoted by Bruni in the article. To avoid the awkward repetition (“Bruni, Bruni”) in the corrected version, you could reword: “In his opinion piece for the New York Times, Frank Bruni claims . . .” You will want to more fully identify the article by date and title elsewhere, either in the text or in a note. However, there is no general rule that the object of a preposition can’t subsequently be referred to with a pronoun. For example, “When I spoke to Frank Bruni, he confirmed . . .” Just make sure the meaning is clear.
Q. I’m confused about the word neither. Is it plural or singular? How should the following sentence be written? Neither of them (likes/like) to travel.
A. Neither is properly singular (neither A nor B is attending), but when used with a prepositional phrase that has a plural object (like “of them”), it is often made plural (neither of them like to travel). Strict grammarians would call the plural usage an error. You can read more in a dictionary, under the word neither.
Q. A colleague and I are pondering the correct usage of reflexive pronouns (CMOS 5.51). Can they be used as objects of the preposition if they still refer back to the subject of the verb? Here’s our example: “I see benefits for both my class and myself in using that approach.” We could rewrite the sentence and may do that, but we’re more interested now in the “legality” of the usage. Would switching class and myself sound less awkward? That way, myself would be closer to its subject.
A. If the object of the preposition refers to the subject of the sentence, it can indeed be reflexive. There’s no need to move it closer to its referent if the meaning is clear—and in any case, it’s polite in English to put oneself last.
I see benefits for myself.
I see benefits for both my class and myself.
In both sentences, myself is an object of the preposition for and refers reflexively to the subject of the sentence, I.
She sees benefits for me.
She sees benefits for both my class and me.
In these sentences, me is an object of the preposition for, but it does not refer to the subject of the sentence, she, and is therefore not reflexive.
Q. I’m editing an article in which the author interviews a transgender person who prefers the pronouns they/them. For example, the author writes, “During Harry’s senior year, they were one of five contestants.” Do I change the sentence to “he was” or leave it as the author wrote it to respect the politics of sexual transitioning? The article is published in a newsmagazine (not a scientific journal) for a professional association of psychological therapists.
A. Since the author makes a point of explaining the use of they/them, it would confuse things to disallow the usage. It seems to be one of the points of the article; to edit it out would be overstepping. If there’s some reason you think the usage—in spite of the explanation—doesn’t work, make a note to the author or assigning editor explaining the problem so it can be addressed.
Q. In a sentence like “the authors thank Natalie and Isabel for her editorial assistance,” is it grammatically correct to use the pronoun her and not their?
A. If the authors intend to thank both Natalie and Isabel for assistance, then their is the right choice. However, if the sentence means “The authors thank Natalie [for something other than assistance, but we aren’t saying what] and [we also thank] Isabel for her assistance,” then even if it is technically grammatical (debatable), it is nonetheless confusing. (Correct grammar does not mean everything’s OK. “Striped sentences wish green habits” is grammatical.) In short, your sentence is a disaster and must be rewritten for clarity.
Q. Is it equally acceptable to say “My friends and I went to the concert” and “I and my friends went to the concert”?
A. No; the second construction is popular but not yet considered proper.
Q. I’ll often hear people say “me and Kathy,” not “Kathy and me.” Shouldn’t me come after the person’s name? “Kathy and me,” not “me and Kathy”?
A. Yes. When me is used in a compound object, it normally comes after the name(s): The message was sent to Kathy and me. There are times when it might be fine to put me first, however, such as when I am the primary object and other people are not equally emphasized: The threat was directed at me and everyone I’d been in contact with since that day. If you’re talking about a compound subject (as opposed to object), the correct phrase is “Kathy and I”: Kathy and I told them. If me is used as a subject, it doesn’t really matter which way you decide to be wrong.