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Manning’s Pronouns

The journalistic quandary over referring to Bradley-now-Chelsea Manning.

Manning’s Pronouns

The journalistic quandary over referring to Bradley-now-Chelsea Manning.


This post originally appeared on Language Log.

Bradley Manning, just recently sentenced for leaking classified documents to Wikileaks, has released a statement announcing, “I am Chelsea Manning. I am a female.” Manning also gave instructions on his-now-her preferred personal pronouns:

I hope that you will support me in this transition. I also request that, starting today, you refer to me by my new name and use the feminine pronoun (except in official mail to the confinement facility).

News organizations are struggling today with the pronominal quandary in reporting on Manning’s new transgender identity. On Slate’s XX Factor blog, Amanda Marcotte writes:

The transition is already awkward. Earlier today, the New York Times headline on a Reuters story on Manning’s announcement danced around gender pronouns: “Manning Says Is Female and Wants to Live as a Woman.” Clearing up the grammar for an updated headline just made the situation worse: “Manning Says He Is Female and Wants to Lives as a Woman.” Well, if “he” is female, then isn’t the word “she”? Manning has finally had a chance to express her gender preferences. Since most journalists had a notion this was coming, using confusion or surprise as an excuse for those headlines isn’t an option.

On Twitter, New York Magazine editor Justin Miller also drew attention to the headline on the Reuters story as it originally appeared on the New York Times site.

It’s important to note, however, that “Manning Says Is Female” is actually typical Reuters-ese, despite how peculiar it sounds. As we’ve discussed on Language Log several times, Reuters headlines often take the form “X say(s) C,” where C is a complement clause with subject omitted, and the omitted subject would normally be a third-person pronoun coreferring with the antecedent X. (See “From the headline desk at Language Log Plaza” [7/28/07], “Reuters says guilty of elliptical headlines” [8/28/07], “An ursine crash blossom” [1/20/10], “’U.S. Supreme Court says upholds health care mandate’” [6/28/12].) It just so happens that in this case, the ellipticism glosses over the difficulty of assigning Manning a personal pronoun.

Of course, the outlets that syndicate Reuters stories are under no obligation to use the original headlines, so when the Times edited the headline on this story the editors had to make a conscious choice of which pronoun to use. One might argue that the “he” is necessary in the headline so as not to confuse the reader, and that the explanation of Manning’s new identity and pronoun choice can then be spelled out explicitly in the article itself. Or one could simply honor Manning’s wishes and use feminine pronouns right away. These debates are no doubt going on in newsrooms around the English-speaking world today.

While Marcotte has critiqued the Times’s use of “he” in the revised headline, it’s interesting to see what other editorial choices the Times is making. After featuring the Reuters wire report, the Times posted an article with its own reporting, written by Emmarie Huetteman and Brian Stelter, with the headline, “After Sentencing, Manning Says, ‘I Am Female’.” Using the reported first-person pronoun “I” neatly sidesteps the “he”/”she” problem entirely.

And as is typical for breaking news, the Times story has been evolving online over the course of the day. The site NewsDiffs helpfully tracks such revisions — here are some changes made to Huetteman and Stelter’s article after it was originally posted:

We can see that Times editors are currently dealing with the pronominal issue by avoiding personal pronouns wherever possible: “some of his supporters” becomes “some supporters,” “his defense team” becomes “the defense team,” and “his trial” becomes “the trial.” Additionally, the use of the military title “Private” avoids having to decide on a gendered “courtesy title” (“Mr.” vs. “Ms.”/”Miss”/”Mrs.”), which the Times would typically assign according to house style. Consider this the journalistic equivalent of “no-naming” — the sociolinguistic phenomenon wherein a speaker avoids address terms because of uncertainty over what to call an interlocutor. Such are the difficulties in a language that lacks a commonly accepted gender-neutral pronoun (no matter what inroads singular “they” has made).

Update: New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan chimes in:

Here is the entry on it from The Times’s “Manual of Style and Usage,” a guidebook used by reporters and editors throughout the newsroom:
transgender (adj.) is an overall term for people whose current identity differs from their sex at birth, whether or not they have changed their biological characteristics. Cite a person’s transgender status only when it is pertinent and its pertinence is clear to the reader. Unless a former name is newsworthy or pertinent, use the name and pronouns (he, his, she, her, hers) preferred by the transgender person. If no preference is known, use the pronouns consistent with the way the subject lives publicly.
Susan Wessling, the deputy editor who supervises The Times’s copy editors, told me that there are two important considerations. “We want to respect the preferences of the subject,” she said, “and we want to provide clarity for readers.”
Toward that end, she said, “We’ll probably use more words than less.” In other words, The Times will explain the change in stories.
“We can’t just spring a new name and a new pronoun” on readers with no explanation, she said. She noted the importance in the stylebook entry of the words “unless a former name is newsworthy or pertinent,” which certainly applies here.
An article on The Times’s Web site on Thursday morning on the gender issue continued to use the masculine pronoun and courtesy title. That, said the associate managing editor Philip B. Corbett, will evolve over time.
It’s tricky, no doubt. But given Ms. Manning’s preference, it may be best to quickly change to the feminine and to explain that — rather than the other way around.

See further commentary from Ryan Kearney in The New Republic, Maureen O’Connor in New York Magazine’s The Cut blog, and Andrew Beaujon in Poynter Online.