Big changes are afoot! APA endorses the use of “they” as a singular third-person pronoun in the seventh edition of the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association. This means it is officially good practice in scholarly writing to use the singular “they.”
This blog post provides insight into how this change came about and provides a forum for questions and feedback.
What is the singular “they”?
The singular “they” is a generic third-person pronoun used in English. It’s not the only third-person singular pronoun—other third-person singular pronouns are “she” and “he” as well as less common options such as “ze” or “hen.”
Although the term singular “they” may be unfamiliar, you’ve probably heard and used the singular “they” in conversation throughout your life. Here is an example:
A person should enjoy their vacation.
The noun in this sentence is “person,” and the pronoun is “their.”
Before the seventh edition, people might have written the aforementioned sentence like this in a scholarly paper:
A person should enjoy his or her vacation.
However, this second sentence presumes that a person uses either the pronoun “he” or the pronoun “she,” which is not necessarily the case. For example, some people use other pronouns, including “they,” “zir,” “ze,” “xe,” “hir,” “per,” “ve,” “ey,” and “hen.”
Why use the singular “they”?
When readers see a gendered pronoun, they make assumptions about the gender of the person being described (Gastil, 1990; Moulton et al., 1978). APA advocates for the singular “they” because it is inclusive of all people and helps writers avoid making assumptions about gender.
When should I use the singular “they”?
Writers should use the singular “they” in two main cases: (a) when referring to a generic person whose gender is unknown or irrelevant to the context and (b) when referring to a specific, known person who uses “they” as their pronoun.
When referring to a generic person whose gender is unknown or irrelevant to the context, use the singular “they” as the pronoun. For example, if you use nouns like “person,” “individual,” or “everyone” or phrases like “every teacher” or “each nurse” in a sentence, use the appropriate form of the pronoun “they” as needed.
Each student submitted their art portfolio to the committee.
Each student submitted his or her art portfolio to the committee.
If you are writing about a specific, known person, always use that person’s pronouns. The person’s pronouns might be “she/her,” “they/them,” “he/him,” or something else—just ask to find out! It is also good practice for an individual to volunteer what pronouns they use so that others do not have to ask.
If a person uses “she” or “he,” do not use “they” instead. Likewise, if a person uses “they,” do not switch to “he” or “she.” Use the pronouns the person uses.
Kai is a nonbinary person. They attend university in their home state of Vermont and are majoring in chemistry. Kai’s friend River is a transgender woman. She attends the same university and is majoring in physics.
What verbs do I use with the singular “they”?
When “they” is the subject of a sentence, “they” takes a plural verb regardless of whether “they” is meant to be singular or plural. For example, write “they are,” not “they is.” The singular “they” works similarly to the singular “you”—even though “you” may refer to one person or multiple people, in a scholarly paper you should write “you are,” not “you is.” However, if the noun in one sentence is a word like “individual” or a person’s name, use a singular verb.
Every individual is unique. They are a combination of strengths and weaknesses.
Every individual is unique. They is a combination of strengths and weaknesses.
Every individual is unique. She or he is a combination of strengths and weaknesses.
Read more about plural verb forms for the singular “they” from the folks at Merriam-Webster.
What is a generic person, anyway?
Some people write about a generic person but give that generic person gendered qualities. For example, someone might write about “Jane Doe” and intend that Jane be a woman who uses “she/her” pronouns. In that case, it would be acceptable to use the pronoun “she” to refer to Jane because Jane is meant to be a generic woman who uses “she/her” pronouns, not a generic person who might use any pronouns.
Use the singular “they” when the generic person is truly generic—devoid of gendered qualities. When describing generic people, it is easiest to avoid names (or to pick names without an obvious gender association) to avoid this confusion.
What if I don’t like the singular “they”—do I have to use it?
If you are writing about a person who uses “they” as their pronoun, then yes, you have to use it. Respectful and inclusive language is important. And it’s part of APA Style.
If you are writing about a generic person, you should use the singular “they” if your sentence includes a pronoun. However, there are many ways to write grammatical and inclusive sentences. For example, you can rewrite a sentence in the plural to use plural pronouns, or you can rewrite a sentence so that it does not use pronouns at all.
Here are some examples:
People should enjoy their vacations.
A person should enjoy vacations.
A vacation should be enjoyable.
These sentences are just as grammatical and inclusive as “A person should enjoy their vacation.”
Where did the change come from?
APA is also not alone in the singular “they” movement. Although usage of the singular “they” was once discouraged in academic writing, many advocacy groups and publishers have accepted and endorsed it, including Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary.
To learn more about the singular “they,” read the style and grammar guidelines page on singular “they.” It includes more examples of the proper forms and ways to write inclusive, grammatical sentences.
You can also find guidance on the singular “they” in Section 4.18 of the Publication Manual (7th ed.).
If you have other questions or feedback, leave a comment!
Nigel Caplan, Associate Professor at University of Delaware, shows how useful they/them can be for non-plural as well as plural reference. English is perhaps at a transition point with its pronouns, so you will want to take in everything he has to say.
Introductory linguistics courses often teach that pronouns are a closed group: languages tend not to add new pronouns, unlike open categories such as nouns and verbs, where there is frequent innovation. However, pronouns can and do still change. For example, English used to have a second-person singular pronoun, thou, which contrasted with the plural pronoun you much like tu/vous in French, tu/usted in Spanish, and du/Sie in German, which it historically derived from. Thou carried the meaning of familiarity: in Hamlet, Gertrude greets her son after her wedding celebrations, “thou hast thy father much offended,” to which Hamlet coldly replies, “No, madam, you have my father much offended.” In modern standard English, of course, the formerly plural pronoun you covers both singular and plural, familiar and polite.
They as a singular-pronoun
Something comparable is happening today with the third-person plural pronoun they. Like you, but for different reasons, they has become a singular pronoun with two different uses that fill two gaps in the English language.
First use of singular they
First, they is used when the gender of the referent (the noun to which the pronoun refers) is unknown or unimportant. This use avoids clumsy workarounds such as he/she and his or her. For example:
- Everyone needs to bring their laptop to class tomorrow.
- I didn’t see the person who stole my wallet. They reached into backpack and ran away.
- The teacher should expect students to contact them with questions after class.
While grammar prescriptivists may object to the use of a plural pronoun with a singular meaning, this is a widely accepted usage that dates back centuries and has finally been recognized by most style guides. Singular they is colloquial, convenient, and concise, and it is an option that English learners can and should be taught.
Second use of singular they
The second use of singular they is more contemporary. Some people do not identify with the pronouns he or she. Many nonbinary people use the pronouns they/them/their. It is a sign of respectful and inclusive language to use people’s identified pronouns. They can also be used for people whose gender and identified pronouns are unknown rather than assuming he/him/his or she/her/hers pronouns simply based on someone’s name or appearance. Note that plural verb forms are always used with they even when referring to one person, as they are with you (e.g., they are and you are and not *they is or *you is).
Making ESL/EFL more inclusive
Teaching English learners to understand the importance of using people’s identified pronouns is part of a broader project of making ESL/EFL more inclusive so that the language we teach is better aligned with the lived reality of the millions of users of English around the world. In some teaching situations, it may be better to wait until a context for singular they arises before pointing its use out to students. In other situations, it might be taught as part of basic instruction in pronouns. In either case, it is important for teaching materials not to assume that there are only two possible singular pronouns for people, he or she.
The downloadable handout demonstrates contexts in which singular they might be used, but it may need adapting for local contexts.
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Singular they, you, and a ‘senseless way of speaking’
It’s enough to drive anyone out of their senses – G. B. Shaw
Every fool can do as they’re bid – Jonathan Swift
I like singular they, and I use it often. Most English speakers do, without even thinking about it. There may be times when alternatives are preferable, but singular they/their/them generally works very well, and the grammatical objections to it are specious. Other objections – based on aesthetics, feelings, or dubious authority – are weaker still.
I bring this up for two reasons. First, it’s topical among language bloggers – yes, yet again, but don’t let the subject’s familiarity put you off reading John McIntyre’s eloquent presentation of the facts, systematic defence, and exasperated addendum; or Lane Greene’s perceptive analysis at Johnson in which he says, simply and succinctly:
If you’re a singular-they non-believer, allow this seemingly paradoxical fact to sink in, and see how deeply it can go before the automatic shields are activated.
People who complain about singular they rarely extend their censure to singular you – but they could, if they wanted to be more consistent, and what peever doesn’t? You was once exclusively plural but crept into widespread singular use, as Greene shows in a subsequent post. (The related history of thee and thou is summarised here, while this essay details the development of their marked use.)
Where then are the howls of protest over singular you from devotees of logic and order? You would do well to find any: it’s just not the done thing to complain about singular you nowadays. No one would take you seriously. At least when you complain about singular they, you can drum up a few mumbles of support, albeit from a misdirected minority.
The second reason for bringing this all up is that I was prompted by Jessa Crispin’s essay on William James and Berlin to re-read, over the Christmas break, James’s Varieties of Religious Experience; and in it I found someone complaining bitterly about singular you. Thomas Elwood (1639–1714), an early Quaker, wrote in his posthumously published autobiography:
Again, the corrupt and unsound form of speaking in the plural number to a single person, you to one, instead of thou, contrary to the pure, plain, and single language of truth, thou to one, and you to more than one, which had always been used by God to men, and men to God, as well as one to another, from the oldest record of time till corrupt men, for corrupt ends, in later and corrupt times, to flatter, fawn, and work upon the corrupt nature in men, brought in that false and senseless way of speaking you to one, which has since corrupted the modern languages, and hath greatly debased the spirits and depraved the manners of men;—this evil custom I had been as forward in as others, and this I was now called out of, and required to cease from.
This is no ordinary rant, but still it presupposes – among a host of other metaphysical assumptions – that there is a “single language of truth”, absolutely harmonious forever, and conveniently in accord with the writer’s stylistic preference. (Funny how that happens.) Think of it as an overambitious theological version of the One Right Way fallacy.
Words can never be so impeccably created, chosen and arranged as to constitute a “single language of truth”; they only ever manage an approximation or a corruption of it. But we do our best, and patterns and principles emerge and congregate on common and generally sound conventions. Such as singular they.
On Twitter lately I said I find it strange when someone declares they don’t like singular they: it’s like hearing they don’t like socks, or carrots. Or singular you. The construction is fully grammatical; it’s been in use since the 14th century, abundant in literature and speech alike. It wasn’t objected to until 18th-century grammarians decided that indefinite pronouns simply had to be singular, and should be masculine.
They don’t, and they don’t.
Alternatives commonly proposed, of turning “generic” he into s/he, she/he or he or she, or alternating between he and she, perpetuate a false idea of gender as a binary set. They, by contrast, is implicitly inclusive. The binary options are also clunky, especially when repeated:
1. Someone left to his or her own devices must take action himself or herself.
2. Someone left to their own devices must take action themselves. [Or themself.]
Line 1 pretty much epitomises a “false and senseless way of speaking”, to use Elwood’s phrase. And pluralising the antecedent (someone → people in the line above) is not always desirable. Whatever you do, avoid he or she are.
Peeves about singular they are unsupported by historical and present usage and unsupportable by appeal to grammar or logic. You don’t have to use it, but resistance invites unnatural awkwardness and unnecessary exclusion. Why not get on board with it?
New rule! Anyone who objects to singular ‘they’ on the basis of logic or grammar has to avoid singular ‘you’ as well. Thou’rt welcome.
The older I get the more unwieldy & exclusionary ‘he or she’ seems when we have singular ‘they’ available. It’s natural, unfussy, inclusive.
A few articles of interest: Geoffrey Pullum’s definitive argument for singular they; Mark Liberman on the future of singular they; more on Quakers and singular you.
Singular they has two uses: specific and generic (“Pronouns”).
The MLA advises writers to always follow the personal pronouns of individuals they write about. Thus, if a person’s pronoun is they, the following sentences are correct:
Jules is writing their research paper on Jane Austen’s Persuasion.
Ari read the instructions to themselves [or themself] before beginning the test.
This use of singular they is widely accepted. In September 2019, Merriam-Webster’s even added a new definition to the entry for they in its online dictionary, stating that they can refer to a “single person whose gender identity is nonbinary” (“They,” def. 3d).
They is also used “as a generic third-person singular pronoun to refer to a person whose gender is unknown or irrelevant to the context,” as the seventh edition of the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association attests (120). This use of singular they, until very recently discouraged in academic writing and other formal contexts, allows writers to omit gendered pronouns from a sentence like the following:
Each taxpayer must file his or her tax return before 15 April.
Instead, writers may substitute singular they:
Each taxpayer must file their tax return before 15 April.
Because it lacks grammatical agreement, this use of singular they has been considered a less desirable option than revising to use the plural or rephrasing without pronouns. But it has emerged as a tool for making language more inclusive (see “Guidelines”), and the MLA encourages writers to accept its use to avoid making or enabling assumptions about gender.
The following principles and examples show some techniques that can help writers avoid the unnecessary and discriminatory use of gendered pronouns. For generic uses, writers should not use he or she alone or alternate he and she.
References to a Hypothetical Person
When a celebrity joins Twitter he or she gains tens of thousands of followers within minutes.
Revised, Singular They
When a celebrity joins Twitter they gain tens of thousands of followers within minutes.
Revised, No Pronoun
A celebrity who joins Twitter gains tens of thousands of followers within minutes.
Revised, Plural Subject and Pronoun
When celebrities join Twitter they gain tens of thousands of followers within minutes.
References to an Anonymous Person
The anonymous reviewer recommends in his or her report that the essay be published after minor revisions.
Revised, Singular They
The anonymous reviewer recommends in their report that the essay be published after minor revisions.
Revised, No Pronoun
The anonymous reviewer’s report recommends that the essay be published after minor revisions.
References to a Person Whose Gender Is Unknown or Irrelevant
I am impressed by the résumé of T. C. Blake, a candidate for the web developer job, and will schedule an interview with her.
Revised, Singular They
I am impressed by the résumé of T. C. Blake, a candidate for the web developer job, and will schedule an interview with them.
Revised, No Pronoun
I am impressed by the résumé of T. C. Blake and will schedule an interview with this candidate for the web developer job.
References to Generic Subjects That Are Grammatically Singular but Plural in Sense
Everyone wants to do well on his or her midterm.
Revised, Singular They
Everyone wants to do well on their midterm.
Revised, No Pronoun
Everyone wants to do well on the midterm.
“Guidelines for Inclusive Language.” Linguistic Society of America, 2016, www.linguisticsociety.org/resource/guidelines-inclusive-language.
“Pronouns.” The Chicago Manual of Style Online, U of Chicago, 2017, www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/qanda/data/faq/topics/Pronouns.html.
Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association. 7th ed., American Psychological Association, 2020.
“The employee believed their safety could not be guaranteed.”
The sentence above has an apparently overt grammar error. The subject of the sentence, employee, is singular but the pronoun their is plural. Most business writers would catch this obvious error. Subjects and pronouns need to agree in number, so the sentence should be “The employee believed his or her safety could not be guaranteed.”
The challenge with the corrected sentence is that it is awkward and it boxes individuals who do not identify as uniquely male or female into a category that doesn’t fit for them. It’s exclusionary, and style guides are addressing this.
Using they as a singular pronoun has become acceptable in some cases, especially as a gender-neutral pronoun.
The 2017 edition of The AP Stylebook — the style guide used most widely in business — stated:
“They/them/their is acceptable in limited cases as a singular and/or gender-neutral pronoun, when alternative wording is overly awkward or clumsy.”
For example, to avoid the specificity of an individual’s gender, this use of their is acceptable: “The employee believed their position was in jeopardy.”
The Washington Post addressed this in 2015:
“Allowing they for a gender-nonconforming person is a no-brainer. And once we’ve done that, why not allow it for the most awkward of those he or she situations that have troubled us for so many years?”
The Chicago Manual of Style now states:
“While this usage [they, them, their, and themselves] is accepted in those spheres [speech and informal writing], it is only lately showing signs of gaining acceptance in formal writing, where Chicago recommends avoiding its use. When referring specifically to a person who does not identify with a gender-specific pronoun, however, they and its forms are often preferred.”
Garner’s Modern American Usage recommends its cautious use:
“Where it can’t be avoided, resort to it cautiously because some people may doubt your literacy.”
Microsoft Manual and Style advises:
“Although . . . they for a singular antecedent is gaining acceptance. . . . Whenever possible, write around the problem.”
Grammarly polled their readers and most objected to the singular use of they. Admittedly, it can become awkward: “They is a talented artist.”
As a comment below correctly noted, use the plural verb conjugation when using “they” to refer to an individual: “They are a talented artist.” Or, just rewrite the sentence to avoid both a gender identification and the need for a pronoun: “The artist is talented.” More on gender-neutral pronouns here.
One of the aspects of business writing that I love most is that it evolves to reflect appropriate information flow and awareness. Style Guides and writing blogs are clearly addressing this with a cautious endorsement of the singular they.
My recommendation now is to generally stick to standard grammar constructs and match singular pronouns with singular subjects and plural pronouns with pronoun subjects. But, do use they as a singular pronoun when it is respectful or more clear to do so.
Words matter. Including everyone respectfully in the discourse warrants bending this grammar rule.
Everyone Uses Singular ‘They,’ Whether They Realize It Or Not
Talk about belated recognition. At its meeting in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 7, the American Dialect Society voted to make the 600-year-old pronoun “they” their word of the year for 2015. Or more precisely, a particular use of that pronoun that grammarians call the singular “they.” This is the “they” that doesn’t care whether it’s referring to a male or female. As in “If I get a call, tell them they can call me back.” Or “Did someone leave their books here?”
As ordinary as it is, that use of “they” has always been a bit disreputable — you might say it, but you wouldn’t want to write it down. But now it’s a pronoun whose hour has come.
A few months ago, the Washington Post style guide accepted it. And it’s been welcomed by people who identify as genderqueer and who feel that “he” and “she” don’t necessarily exhaust all the gender possibilities. Universities allow students to select it as their personal pronoun. And so does Facebook, so that your friends will get notices like “Wish them a happy birthday.”
This use of “they” has been around for a long time. It shows up in Shakespeare, Dickens and George Bernard Shaw. Jane Austen was always saying things like “everybody has their failing.” But the Victorian grammarians made it a matter of schoolroom dogma that one could only say “Everybody has his failing,” with the understanding that “he” stood in for both sexes. As their slogan had it, “the masculine embraces the feminine.”
Nobody would ever say, ‘Every candidate thanked his spouse, including Hillary.’ When you utter ‘he,’ you always bring a male to mind.
That rule wasn’t really discredited until the 1970s, when the second-wave feminists made the generic masculine the paradigm of sexism in language. Male critics ridiculed their complaints as a “libspeak tantrum” and accused them of suffering from “pronoun envy.” But most writers now realize that the so-called gender-neutral “he” is anything but. Nobody would ever say, “Every candidate thanked his spouse, including Hillary.” When you utter “he,” you always bring a male to mind.
But once the generic masculine fell out of favor, what were we going to replace it with? People weren’t about to adopt a brand-new gender-neutral pronoun the way they were adopting gender-neutral job descriptions. “He or she” was impossibly clunky. It was time to restore singular “they” to respectability. And that’s been happening, even in edited books and the media.
But singular “they” still has its critics, and they can get pretty lofty about it. One British grammarian calls it “illiterate,” which always strikes me as something Diane would have said to Sam in Cheers.
A lot of people tell you it sets their teeth on edge, but my guess is that they’re not listening to themselves very attentively. Everyone uses singular “they,” whether they realize it or not. In an engaging recent book called Between You & Me, the New Yorker’s self-designated comma queen Mary Norris says that that use of “they” is “just wrong.” But flip back a few pages and you find her writing “Nobody wanted to think they were not essential.” If that sentence got by a New Yorker copy editor in her own book on grammar, what hope is there for anybody else? If you insist on coming down on singular “they,” it’s best to be a bit ironic about it, since you’re almost certainly going to be making a hypocrite of yourself before the day is out.
The only problem with singular “they” is that some people still think there is one. But that’s reason enough for most grammar guides to advise their readers to write around it. It’s what I think of as the “don’t make trouble” theory of English usage.
The Chicago Manual of Style provides nine different strategies for achieving gender-neutrality without having to resort to using “they” — change the subject to a plural, repeat the noun and so on. That can be prudent. Even when you know your sentence is fine as it is, you don’t want to make some pedant’s morning. But if I could have back all the time I’ve wasted writing my way around a perfectly grammatical singular “they,” I could have added another book or two to my name.
Everybody seems certain that singular “they” will ultimately prevail, even the grammarians who disapprove of it. A lot of younger writers don’t think twice about using it, and the rest tend to think of it as a pretty venial sin — the grammatical equivalent of wearing white after Labor Day.
But our pronoun controversies aren’t going to subside any time soon. English is never going to have a one-size-fits-all pronoun the way Chinese and Finnish do. We’ve spent the last few hundred years struggling to get our unwieldy pronoun system to line up with our genders, and that was when everybody thought there were only two of them.
Now some genderqueer people are taking “they” into new grammatical territory, using it for alternative genders exactly the way you’d use a personal pronoun like “he” or “she.” So you could say, “Pat shrugged their shoulders,” or “Ronnie bit off more than they could chew.” That’s the usage that the American Dialect Society was focusing on when they made “they” their word of the year. It takes quite a bit of getting used to, and it’s launched a whole new conversation. But that’s the advantage of having a messy pronoun system like ours — in every era we have to thrash things over again.
The misused word is everywhere, proliferating like fruit flies ’round a bowl of rotting bananas. We must stop it before it goes too far.
Let’s talk about something. Let’s talk about the “singular” they. That’s when a writer or a speaker — a he or a she — is discussing someone who might be either a he or a she (it’s unknown, or the writer doesn’t intend to make a subject or object gender-specific and instead hopes to convey a universality of personhood). So instead of writing, say, he or she did x or y, the writer uses they. It’s everywhere, proliferating like fruit flies ’round a bowl of rotting bananas, bad writing surrounding bad writing. Some examples:
“If someone is concerned about their mental health, they should seek professional help.”
“If a person decides they like dubstep, that’s really their prerogative.”
“What do you say to a coworker when their attitude is just terrible?”
These all make me cringe, but it’s a usage that has a fair number of supporters. In a post on The Economist‘s Grammar blog, R.L.G. examines the matter further, as inspired by grad student and blogger Freddie deBoer, who thinks we need to stop fighting the use of their as a singular pronoun. deBoer writes,
Using “their” for singular antecedents is one that I think people need to just give up on. As I’ve argued, it only occurs in a very limited set of circumstances, and those circumstances [are very] unlikely to produce confusion about what is meant. We all know what is intended in such a statement, to the point that most of us don’t even notice it in spoken conversation. And as we lack a satisfying alternative, the usage is likely to persist. That’s not to say that you shouldn’t understand what the “rule” is, if only to be able to satisfy those gatekeepers that police it. (Don’t use it in your resume, don’t use it in your grade school application.) But this is an example of a gate that’s not worth defending anymore.
R.L.G. takes it from there, explaining that they was used as a singular pronoun for centuries without anyone complaining (and by many notable crafters of language, including Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Swift). He adds that not only is the usage “very unlikely” to produce confusion, but also, it’s ” nearly literally impossible for singular they to be confusing in an actual conversation or in a longer piece of writing.” Further, “t hat still doesn’t prove singular they ungrammatical,” he writes, concluding, along with deBoer and Bryan Garner, that the singular they is ” the most convenient solution” to all of our pronoun trouble. A caveat or suggestion: “Use singular they in relaxed prose, when you know you’re in the company of those who get this right, or if you don’t mind annoying a determined and vocal minority.”
Being one of that determined minority, I disagree. Don’t use it at all. We must stop this, stop it before it goes too far.
I’m all for a certain flexibility and adaptive ease with regard to language and how we use it. I’m happy to add three exclamation points to a sentence or write in ALL CAPS when it seems to fit the moment, especially online. But I see absolutely no reason other than laziness to start subbing our hes and shes with a clunky they, or our hises and hers with theirs . There is a reason we have distinct pronouns, and that is so we can be specific. If we don’t know the specifics, we should try to find them out, or use one of those handy words — he or she or one, for instance — that get around the they problem. Peppering one’s sentences with some hes and shes can be kind of nice, really, a way to assemble a collection of characters who are certainly more real and individualized than a collective they.
There is criticism that the use of he as the generic pronoun is an example of linguistic sexism of a sort, and I agree there’s no need to always use he as the default if you don’t know the gender of the person about whom you are speaking, or if you’re using the pronoun to stand for persons of either gender. You can just as easily swap in a she; mix it up! Make it fun! Keep people on their toes! Maybe even create a new word, and make it happen! The message that something should be easy, that we all understand anyway, that it doesn’t really matter and we should give up the fight may be the most galling part of this argument, though. Since when was writing or creating art with words (if you’re being high-minded) supposed to be convenient? Since when was past history the rule for how we live in the present and future? Break the rules if you must, for a purpose, to make an impact. Don’t do something because it’s easy and everyone else is doing it. If a word sounds like it’s landing with a horrid thump in your ear, it’s landing that way to at least some of your readers. Every time I see a singular they, my inner grammatical spirit aches.
I have no issue with their used in its proper place, as a plural pronoun. That’s completely fine, even necessary, and the usage is quite valuable. But why must we accept their as a singular? I say no. I say, use anything instead. Use he or she . Use one. Use a person’s name. Or rewrite! Pluralize throughout, if you must, for consistency:
“If PEOPLE ARE concerned about their mental health, they should seek professional help.”
Even better, get rid of the they altogether.
“People who are concerned about their mental health should seek professional help.”
But isn’t it better with a he or she?
“Someone who is concerned about his mental health should seek professional help.”
We know this already, but it bears repeating: The easy fix is not necessarily the best one, and they is not the solution to our pronoun ills. The singular they is ear-hurting, eye-burning, soul-ravaging, mind-numbing syntactic folly. Stop the singular they. Stop it now.
O n Tuesday, Merriam-Webster selected its word of the year, not some viral neologism like post-truth or selfie but a word that has been around since the Middle Ages: the pronoun they.
Pronouns are tools that people typically use with all the thought one gives to using doorknobs. Students are taught in early language lessons that every sentence needs a subject and are given a short list of usual suspects: words like he, she, you and they. The latter, they are told, is used to refer to more than one person. Yet that’s not always the case. Merriam-Webster chose the singular form, one that has been gaining currency and causing controversy.
There are two reasons that singular they is on the upswing. One is that it’s a convenient way to refer to an unknown person in a gender-neutral way, versus using cumbersome constructions like “he or she.” In recent years, it has been far easier to find this generic they in mass media because using it makes life easier for readers and writers alike.
In 2015, Washington Post copy editor Bill Walsh announced that his desk would start allowing this usage of they, explaining that it’s the best option in a language that famously lacks a gender-neutral third-person singular pronoun: Using he seems sexist, using she seems patronizing and “alternating he and she is silly,” he wrote, “as are he/she, (s)he and attempts at made-up pronouns.” In 2017, no less an authority than the AP Stylebook also approved this usage “when alternative wording is overly awkward or clumsy.”
The other is that singular they is being used by individuals — who might identify as transgender, non-binary, agender, intersex or even cisgender — who don’t feel like a gendered pronoun fits. This usage of singular they can operate as a form of protest against some of the most fundamental ideas governing society today: namely, that every person can be identified as male or female in a clear-cut manner and that males and females should look and act and be referred to in certain ways. Modern terms like the honorific Mx. and the adjective Latinx have been taken up with similar flair.
Using singular they to refer to an unknown person is both better established in the language and less likely to lead to outrage on Twitter. Though some traditionalists wrinkle their noses at seeing the word themself in a newspaper article, this usage has been around for some 600 years, and people employ it every day in conversation. Kirby Conrod, a University of Washington linguist who studies pronoun usage, provides the example of dealing with bad drivers: It’s unlikely you’d slam your hand on the wheel and exclaim, “Did you see that? He or she cut me off!”
The newer usage of singular they to describe a known individual who is rejecting the yoke of other pronouns has been inching closer to the mainstream for years. In 2015, the American Dialect Society chose it as their word of the year, having seen how people were starting to use it to “[transcend] the gender binary.” In 2017, singer Jennifer Lopez made news when she used singular they on Instagram to refer to a younger family member. (TIME also ran a cover story on non-binary identities that year titled “Beyond He or She“.) And this year, singer Sam Smith announced on the same platform that “My pronouns are they/them.”
This version of singular they causes more consternation, grammatical and political.
It’s unlikely you’d slam your hand on the wheel and exclaim, “Did you see that? He or she cut me off!”
While it’s natural for the usage of pronouns to evolve, just as all language evolves, students are taught that pronouns are the bedrock of language, and it can be discomfiting when the rules about how to use them start to shift. “When there are changes, it can feel much more fundamental,” explains linguist Ben Zimmer, “and that obviously leads to a lot of backlash.”
The backlash has come as singular they has become associated with new protocols that progressives have adopted at schools and conference check-in tables around the country. “What are your pronouns?” everyone is asked, the suggestion being that one should never assume another person’s gender, however obvious it might seem, in part because it is offensive to use words like him or her for individuals who use they and them. For some people, this all amounts to just one more example of hand-wringing liberals trying to control people’s behavior and speech.
Conrod, who identifies as non-binary and uses the pronouns they and them, sums up this objection as people feeling “the social justice police” are creating a world where one “can’t say anything.” In response, Conrod argues that everyone generally agrees that it is rude to misgender a cisgender person, like mistakenly saying “Thank you, ma’am” to a long-haired man, and believes this same attitude should extend to people like them, even if it means doing more work in social situations.
Others balk at using singular they to refer to people like Conrod on the grounds that it is linguistically confusing (e.g. does one say “they is” or “they are”?) or that it just sounds weird.
“If people have trouble now, it’s understandable,” Zimmer says, “because when we’re dealing with something as fundamental as a pronoun, changes like this might seem to go against people’s deeply held feelings about how language works.”
There is, however, historical precedent that proves this kind of evolution can take place. Centuries ago, the pronoun you was used only in a plural sense: Individuals were referred to as thee or thou. Gradually, people started to view you as the more polite way to refer to individuals as well. And there was similar confusion about whether to say “you is” or “you are.”
“There were a lot of animated arguments,” Zimmer explains. This was especially the case among Quakers who preferred thou and considered singular you to be an abomination uttered by those who “are out of the pure language.” In the end, the Quakers lost and English speakers embraced singular you, as well as the verb form that was already in use. Today people say “you are” when referring to singles and doubles alike, with minimal fuss. Using thou, meanwhile, would likely lead to some furrowed brows.
In research about the acceptance of different pronoun usage, Conrod has found that when it comes to people disliking singular they, there seems to be a breaking point around age 35: People of all ages are fairly accepting of using singular they to refer to an unknown person, but those over age 35 don’t like it when it’s used to refer to Mary or John.
Merriam-Webster’s selection of a word of the year is based on data showing that far more people than usual are looking up a particular term. Because of that, Conrod sees the anointment of singular they less as a sign that it has been widely accepted than a signal that more families are probably having arguments about the pronoun over their holiday meals.
“The language is always shifting and normally people aren’t aware of it,” Conrod says. “This time people seem really aware of it and have a lot of opinions.”
Singular they has become the pronoun of choice to replace he and she in cases where the gender of the antecedent – the word the pronoun refers to – is unknown, irrelevant, or nonbinary, or where gender needs to be concealed. It’s the word we use for sentences like Everyone loves his mother.
But that’s nothing new. The Oxford English Dictionary traces singular they back to 1375, where it appears in the medieval romance William and the Werewolf. Except for the old-style language of that poem, its use of singular they to refer to an unnamed person seems very modern. Here’s the Middle English version: ‘Hastely hiȝed eche . . . þei neyȝþed so neiȝh . . . þere william & his worþi lef were liand i-fere.’ In modern English, that’s: ‘Each man hurried . . . till they drew near . . . where William and his darling were lying together.’
Since forms may exist in speech long before they’re written down, it’s likely that singular they was common even before the late fourteenth century. That makes an old form even older.
In the eighteenth century, grammarians began warning that singular they was an error because a plural pronoun can’t take a singular antecedent. They clearly forgot that singular you was a plural pronoun that had become singular as well. You functioned as a polite singular for centuries, but in the seventeenth century singular you replaced thou, thee, and thy, except for some dialect use. That change met with some resistance. In 1660, George Fox, the founder of Quakerism, wrote a whole book labeling anyone who used singular you an idiot or a fool. And eighteenth-century grammarians like Robert Lowth and Lindley Murray regularly tested students on thou as singular, you as plural, despite the fact that students used singular you when their teachers weren’t looking, and teachers used singular you when their students weren’t looking. Anyone who said thou and thee was seen as a fool and an idiot, or a Quaker, or at least hopelessly out of date.
Singular you has become normal and unremarkable. Also unremarkable are the royal we and, in countries without a monarchy, the editorial we: first-person plurals used regularly as singulars and nobody calling anyone an idiot and a fool. And singular they is well on its way to being normal and unremarkable as well. Toward the end of the twentieth century, language authorities began to approve the form. The New Oxford Dictionary of English (1998) not only accepts singular they, they also use the form in their definitions. And the New Oxford American Dictionary (Third Edition, 2010), calls singular they ‘generally accepted’ with indefinites, and ‘now common but less widely accepted’ with definite nouns, especially in formal contexts.
Not everyone is down with singular they. The well-respected Chicago Manual of Style still rejects singular they for formal writing, and just the other day a teacher told me that he still corrects students who use everyone … their in their papers, though he probably uses singular they when his students aren’t looking. Last Fall, a transgender Florida school teacher was removed from their fifth-grade classroom for asking their students to refer to them with the gender-neutral singular they. And two years ago, after the Diversity Office at the University of Tennessee suggested that teachers ask their students, ‘What’s your pronoun?’ because some students might prefer an invented nonbinary pronoun like zie or something more conventional, like singular they, the Tennessee state legislature passed a law banning the use of taxpayer dollars for gender-neutral pronouns, despite the fact that no one knows how much a pronoun actually costs.
It’s no surprise that Tennessee, the state that banned the teaching of evolution in 1925, also failed to stop the evolution of English one hundred years later, because the fight against singular they was already lost by the time eighteenth-century critics began objecting to it. In 1794, a contributor to the New Bedford Medley mansplains to three women that the singular they they used in an earlier essay in the newspaper was grammatically incorrect and does no ‘honor to themselves, or the female sex in general.’ To which they honourably reply that they used singular they on purpose because ‘we wished to conceal the gender,’ and they challenge their critic to invent a new pronoun if their politically-charged use of singular they upsets him so much. More recently, a colleague who is otherwise conservative told me that they found singular they useful ‘when talking about what certain people in my field say about other people in my field as a way of concealing the identity of my source.’
Former Chief Editor of the OED Robert Burchfield, in The New Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage (1996), dismisses objections to singular they as unsupported by the historical record. Burchfield observes that the construction is ‘passing unnoticed’ by speakers of standard English as well as by copy editors, and he concludes that this trend is ‘irreversible’. People who want to be inclusive, or respectful of other people’s preferences, use singular they. And people who don’t want to be inclusive, or who don’t respect other people’s pronoun choices, use singular they as well. Even people who object to singular they as a grammatical error use it themselves when they’re not looking, a sure sign that anyone who objects to singular they is, if not a fool or an idiot, at least hopelessly out of date.
The opinions and other information contained in the OED blog posts and comments do not necessarily reflect the opinions or positions of Oxford University Press.
Many teenagers find their parents embarrassing in some way or another, and as my children, now ten and thirteen, started approaching the end of elementary school, I expected my words and actions might come under intense scrutiny soon. Still, I was a little surprised to discover one way in particular my thirteen-year-old found me awkwardly outdated: my occasional use of “he or she” or “his or her” with “someone” or another gender ambiguous person! When I would use such an expression, it was met with an irritated “You can just say ‘they’!”
My daughter’s modern ear heard “he or she” as biased.
As an editor, I am naturally sensitive to language matters, and I took this criticism seriously. I’ve made an effort to modernize my pronoun usage, and in today’s blog I’ll provide tips to avoid gender bias in your pronoun use.
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First, a little review about pronouns, words that may be used in place of a noun, or a person, place, or thing. English pronouns include the following:
1 st Person
2 nd Person
3 rd Person
He/him/his, she/her/hers, it/its
The singular pronouns he and she are gendered (considered male and female), which can present problems when the gender of the antecedent (what the pronoun refers to) is unknown or ambiguous, when it is better not to reveal the gender, or when the person to which the pronoun refers identifies as nonbinary (neither male nor female). Using it, the other third person pronoun, which is gender neutral, is rarely appropriate for use with people, as the word it can imply a non- or less-than-human status. Consider, “The person asked if we would give it a drink of water.” Sounds weird, right?
English speakers have made many attempts to manufacture gender-neutral third person pronouns, including zie, ey, ve, e, ter, and others, but none of them has gained significant traction, not even thon, which made it far enough to appear in Merriam-Webster and Funk & Wagnalls for decades but was rarely spoken.
The better option for a gender-neutral third person singular pronoun, the one often used but not always accepted by grammar purists, is they. The use of singular they is not new. Since the fourteenth century, this pronoun has been used as a singular when the gender of the antecedent is unknown or needs to be hidden. Examples of this type of usage can be found in the works of many writers throughout the centuries, including Geoffrey Chaucer, William Shakespeare, and Jane Austin. But some people balk at using they as a singular pronoun because it has always been thought of as a plural pronoun and thus, goes the thinking, is not to be used to refer to a single person.
In conversations, the singular they is commonly used and accepted, as in, “The chef at the new French restaurant on the corner used all of their best recipes on the opening night menu.” The speaker doesn’t necessarily know the chef’s gender, so they say their (did you notice I snuck in another “they”?). And it’s rare anyone bats an eye at such a sentence.
Many people are still uncomfortable with using they for a specific, known person, though. It is common to try to fit all individuals into the categories of male or female by using he or she, but not everyone fits into these binary categories. Insisting on using he or she for someone can easily result in error or offense, as when the AP wrote an article earlier this year about singer Sam Smith’s announcement of their nonbinary status and use of pronouns they/them/their and yet referred to Smith using he/him/his throughout the article.
Such contradictions are evidence to our changing use of language and understanding of gender identity. Over time, using the pronoun they fluidly will undoubtedly become part of everyone’s daily speech no matter the purpose.
This transitional place in which we English speakers find ourselves presents a challenge for those writing for formal purposes. A review of the most current editions of the Chicago Manual of Style, MLA, APA, and AP shows agreement on two main rules for pronoun usage:
1. When referring to a person who is gender fluid, nonbinary, or otherwise does not identify with the pronouns he or she, use they. This is a matter of respecting individual rights about identity.
2. When referring to a person whose gender has not been specified or is ambiguous (like the chef in the example above), try one of three strategies to avoid using singular they, he (which may seem sexist), he or she (which is awkward) or she (which may seem condescending) or alternating between he and she (which may be confusing):
• Switch from singular to plural. Instead of, “A teacher should be kind to their students,” write, “Teachers should be kind to their students.”
• Take out the pronoun: “A teacher should be kind to students.”
• Rewrite the sentence: “Students deserve teachers’ kindness.”
Following these guidelines will help you avoid gender bias in pronoun use and help your writing maintain credibility with your audience.
Something to reflect on: in the seventeenth century, the plural and formal second person pronoun you took over for all second person pronoun use, pushing thou aside except in certain English dialects, and this change, like today’s changing use of they, he, and she, caused confusion and controversy. But slowly the dust settled, confusion cleared, and singular you was accepted.
At the rate things are changing now, it seems the acceptance of singular they in speech and formal and informal writing is not too far off.
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Yesterday I opened a can of worms. There were many worms in the can; some male and some female. I discovered that a few of the worms were married to each other. One couple was having a marital disagreement. They were arguing about grammar, of all things. The fight was about the proper use of gender pronouns. Here is the sentence under dispute:
“When a spouse greets a partner with derision because of an opinion, what should be ___ reaction?”
Fill in the blank. Should you use his, his or her, or their? This is a grammatical conundrum. Your choice will determine whether you will be categorized as “sexist,” “offensive,” “tiresome,” or “ungrammatical.”
Our vernacular has changed over the past years due to our sensitivity over the generic “he.” For some it is a matter of being politically correct. For others it is merely a way of being inclusive of both genders in their writing. In addition it can be simply a matter of using the common language of everyday speech.
There are some who wish to change all pronouns to be gender neutral, going from he/she to zie; from him/her to zim; from his/her to zir; from his/hers to zis; and himself/herself to zieself instead. But rather than debate that issue, let’s look at the use of the singular “they.”
So what is correct? I have polled a number of editors on this subject and find them equally divided. Some trained in journalism and others who are fierce copy-editors are vehemently opposed to the use of the “singular they.” Others claim to be more concerned about simple communication and lay the finer points of grammar aside. Yet even they are not unified on the usage. There is an entire website devoted to the issue as found in the writing of Jane Austen and other classic writers!
Rosalie Maggio, in her book The Nonsexist Word Finder (Beacon Press, 1989) speaks to the issue of gender inclusive language:
“Defenders of the convention most often claim that it is a point of grammar and certainly not intended to offend anyone. That it does in reality offend large numbers of people does not appear to sway some grammarians, nor does the fact that their recourse to the laws of language is on shaky ground. While he involves a disagreement in gender, singular they involves a disagreement in number [as in ‘to each his own’ and ‘to each their own’]. Eighteenth-century [male] grammarians decided that number was more important than gender, although the singular they had been in favor until that time.”
The plural pronoun has been used regularly for years. Few realize that some of the greatest writers in history utilized this method without criticism–Chaucer, Shakespeare, Swift, Goldsmith, Dickens, Fielding, Thackery, Byron, Austen, Orwell, Kipling, and even C.S. Lewis.
In 2015 the Singular They was named “Word of the Year” by American Dialect Society (a group of 200 linguists). Even the venerable Chicago Manual of Style, 17th ed. (2017) now allows for its use.
Richard Lederer and Richard Downs, in their great book The Write Way wrote, “Let the word go out that anyone . . . their is destined to become good, idiomatic English. It already pervades the speech of educated Americans, and daily it grows more common in writing.” (page 161)
Members of the Copyediting-L e-mail list state, “‘They’ with a singular antecedent works well, because it’s already part of everyone’s vocabulary. Like the generic ‘he,’ it entails no new words, just a shift in semantics…[it] is just one item in the toolkit of those who wish to avoid using generic ‘he.’ It isn’t the only item, and it doesn’t fit every situation, but it is useful.” (http://atropos.c2.net/
srm/samples/net/celfaq.htm [link now broken])
My feeling is that it is entirely appropriate to use the “singular they.” We need to adjust, ever so slightly, to accommodate the changes in our language. While not succumbing to the landmine of being politically correct, I do believe that there are appropriate places to use “ungrammatical” words to effectively communicate to our readers.
Richard Lederer provided a wonderful exercise to illustrate the point. Fill in the blank in the following sentence: “Everyone in the building attended the party, and ___ had a wonderful time.” I suspect that nearly everyone supplied the word they.
For a nice, but not definitive, introduction to the subject visit the Wikipedia entry for this topic.
And please note that I am NOT a grammar expert by any means. Heaven forbid I get that much credit. While I am an advocate of great writing and proper use of the English language I am also an advocate of communication. And communication has a tendency to adapt over time, the written word is no exception.
Adapted and abridged from an article called “Opening a Can of Worms” in The Advanced Christian Writer , June 1998. Previous blog version posted September 21, 2009.
The venerable Merriam-Webster dictionary has declared the word “they” its 2019 word of the year. The singular they and its many supporters have won and it’s here to stay. Despite what many language skeptics think, the use of they as a gender-neutral singular pronoun is no mistake; it goes back to the 14 th century.
For decades, transgender rights advocates have noted that literary giants Emily Dickinson, William Shakespeare, William Wordsworth, and Geoffrey Chaucer all used singular they in their writing. In a letter dated Sept. 24, 1881, Dickinson wrote: “Almost anyone under the circumstances would have doubted if [the letter] were theirs, or indeed if they were themself — but to us it was clear.” In “Hamlet,” Shakespeare used “them” in reference to the word mother: “‘Tis meet that some more audience than a mother — Since nature makes them partial — should o’erhear the speech.”
Even the most strident grammarians give pause when faced with evidence that singular they has long been a tool of the trade. Activists have also emphasized that singular they is used all the time in speaking and writing when we don’t know or don’t want to specify the gender of the subject — as in recent commentary about the whistleblower in the Trump impeachment inquiry.
The current usage of the singular they, however, has expanded beyond the historical precedent. A few months before declaring they the word of the year, Merriam-Webster added a new definition to the word: “used to refer to a single person whose gender identity is nonbinary.” Some might view this change as happening too quickly, but it has been a long time coming.
For hundreds of years, pronouns were used to denigrate trans, nonbinary and gender-nonconforming people — especially in the press. When George Wilson, a Scottish immigrant worker, was hauled into the police station in New York’s Lower East Side in 1836 for being both drunk and trans, a reporter for the Journal of Commerce described them using female pronouns from start to finish, stating: “When she arrived there, she went to work in a factory, still retaining her boy’s dress,” despite the fact they lived and worked as a man and were legally married as a man to a woman.
For decades, the transgender community has fought back against this misgendering, using its own publications as a place to critique mainstream newspaper practices and model gender expansive and inclusive language. When Brandon Teena was brutally assaulted and murdered in Nebraska in 1993, headlines were sensational and transphobic. One from the Orlando Sentinel on Jan. 4, 1994, read: “She lived as a man but died a woman.”
In an effort to reclaim Brandon’s story for the community in a respectful way that honored Brandon’s life, Forrest Wolf, a writer for “Transgender Tapestry,” reprinted excerpts from news reports with the misgendering crossed out. Wolf explained: “[PLEASE NOTE that the strike through is a rhetorical device utilized to indicate that a particular word (in this case the pronouns she and her used in connection with Brandon) is deemed by the writer as inappropriate, contradictory or questionable and shows no meaningful or authentic correspondence to that which it refers.” In death, as in life, pronouns matter.
No single author or activist did more to challenge the binary gender in language and publishing than Leslie Feinberg. Feinberg insisted on using “s/he” and “hir” pronouns on the jacket of their 1996 book “Transgender Warriors.” Feinberg was breaking new ground and knew it, stating: “It’s the first time that I know of that any publisher has used that for an author.” Their reason was simple, as they stated: “Neither she or he can adequately address my experience, and the pronoun it has been used to dehumanize us as trans people.”
A decade later in 2006, trans author S. Bear Bergman chose “ze” and “hir” as the gender-neutral pronouns to anchor their book, “Butch is a Noun.” Bergman explains the decision this way: “By using gender-neutral pronouns in this book . I am trying to open up a space in the language for people who are not man- or woman-gendered.”
In researching and writing my forthcoming book on trans history, I quickly realized that I needed to use gender neutral pronouns in reference to everyone who transitioned in some way. I settled on “they/them/their” and told the editors this was nonnegotiable. Much to my surprise and in contrast to earlier experiences in publishing historical writing with the singular they, my manuscript sailed through the editing process. Merriam-Webster’s acclamation for they is an important standardization that further secures the idea in the cultural mainstream.
The dictionary matters because language matters. As history shows, language is a very powerful tool. It can dehumanize and erase. It can empower and render visible. It doesn’t take much to get it right. I’m sure Emily Dickinson would approve.
Jen Manion is an associate professor of history at Amherst College and author of the forthcoming “Female Husbands: a Trans History.”
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Every employee is expected to be at their desk by 9.00.
This is an example of what is often referred to as ‘singular they’.
The grammatical subject—every employee—is singular, as is the verb is expected, but the following pronoun, their, is plural. Hence the name. It happens when they, them, their, and themselves refer back to subjects that are grammatically singular:
It was every teen for themselves.
When does it happen?
This construction often occurs after words such as:
- nobody/no one
that are used to make indefinite or general statements, without specifying the individual concerned.
Each and every one of my colleagues at the university will express their own opinion.
I feel that if someone is not doing their job it should be called to their attention.
Everyone was absorbed in their own business.
Nobody wants to return to the car park and find that their car has been clamped.
Why do people use it?
At first glance, such mismatches appear to flout the normal rules of agreement, and that is why many people object to them. However, many of these words, for example everyone, can be thought of as plural in meaning, albeit grammatically singular, so semantically there is not really a mismatch.
Additionally, the practical reason that people often use this form of words is if you are referring to someone of an unknown gender, to use he, him, his, etc. is nowadays considered sexist. Using them, they, or their is a way to avoid making an assumption of gender as there is no gender explicit in these pronouns. Find out more about gender-neutral language. Second, people prefer not to use he or she, him or her, etc. because they are long-winded and can be distracting, especially if they have to be repeated several times in the same sentence or paragraph.
Is it grammatically correct?
Despite objections, there is a trend to use ‘singular they’. In fact, it is historically long established. It goes back at least to the 14 th century, and writers such as Shakespeare, Sidney, Byron, and Ruskin used it:
There’s not a man I meet but doth salute me
As if I were their well-acquainted friend (Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors)
You was a plural pronoun before it became acceptable to use it to refer to a singular person. You replaced thy/thee/thou as the singular pronoun during the 1600s. The form existed in speech before it was written down, and similarly, speakers using singular they have paved the way for approval.
According to “A brief history of singular ‘they'”, “The New Oxford Dictionary of English (1998) not only accepts singular they, they also use the form in their definitions. And the New Oxford American Dictionary (Third Edition, 2010), calls singular they ‘generally accepted’ with indefinites, and ‘now common but less widely accepted’ with definite nouns, especially in formal contexts.”
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Blog Post | 108 KY. L. J. ONLINE | July 30, 2019
The Curious Case of Singular They
Many lawyers consider precision a key aspect of legal writing; wording drastically changes the interpretation of a statute. A contract using the word “shall” rather than “may” could change the reading of said contract, impacting a client’s case. As such, classes throughout the legal curriculum impart the importance of exact words, conciseness, and proper drafting. One instance where this arises is in the use of pronouns and what pronouns are proper to use in legal writing.
Stylebooks are split over the proper usage of the “singular they” pronoun, which is used to reference an indeterminate singular person or entity. For example, the Associated Press Stylebook (AP) recommends limited use of the singular they/them/their pronoun. It recommends singular they only be used in cases where alternative wording is clumsy or awkward—stressing the need to reword a sentence to avoid this usage, if possible. AP style is used largely in newspapers, magazines, and public relations throughout the United States, and therefore is likely one of the styles most familiar to the average person.
The styles used most frequently by the legal community are the Bluebook and Chicago styles, for citation and style guidelines, respectively. Chicago style differentiates between two different usages of the singular they pronoun: used in reference to (1) a known person or (2) an unknown or unspecified person. Chicago style directs writers to respect a person’s pronouns in the case of the first usage, and to use gender-neutral they/them pronouns if those are their preferred pronouns. The second type, used to refer to a generic, unknown person, is accepted for speech and informal writing. Furthermore, Chicago style does not prohibit usage of singular they/them pronouns in formal writing, but recommends avoiding it when possible. Chicago Manual of Style § 5.48, which sets out the guidelines for the usage of the singular they, also suggests looking at § 5.255, which sets out a list of techniques for achieving gender neutrality in writing. This list gives suggestions on how to write around the usage of the singular they in such a way as to keep the writing gender-neutral.
This list is a good start for gender-neutral writing, but some of the suggestions are not feasible, or even go against the aims of good legal writing. The usage of “he or she” in a sentence is not clearer than the use of the term “they,” and if a writer is not careful, can end up creating a rather clunky, awkward sentence. If conciseness is a goal of legal writing, why use three words when one can do just as well? “He or she” does not impart any better understanding of who is being referred to than does “they.”
The Chicago Manual of Style further refers the reader to consider the issue of writer credibility and the usage of biased language. Readers may read into the usage of certain pronouns in such a way as to impact the credibility of the writer. But the truth is that the average person uses the singular they in informal speech as a default; in 2016, the journal American Speech published a study by Darren K. LaScotte that found that about 63% of the respondents consistently used “they” to refer back to an unidentified singular person.
This is important because legal writing emphasizes the importance of clarity, precision, and conciseness, and the avoidance of the “singular they” does not further any of these goals. Rewriting sentences around the use of “they” can end in clunky rephrasing of what could have been stated much more simply. When speaking of an indeterminate third party, “they” is no less precise than “he or she” or the equivalent rewrites. Referring to “them,” rather than “he or she,” certainly increases the conciseness of a statement. But beyond all of this, there’s the issue of inclusivity. The legal profession continues to decry its lack of diversity and its failure to adequately reflect the populace. And yet the profession continues to cling to traditional practices that exclude that same populace, indicating that their presence is not welcome in a legal profession where the use of the singular they is something to be talked around, avoided, rewritten, and excised. For society to change, people must change in order to facilitate it. The use of the “singular they” is one small step in the march of progress and inclusivity in the legal field.
Lauren Easton, Making a Case for a Singular ‘They’, AP Blog(Mar. 24, 2017), https://blog.ap.org/products-and-services/making-a-case-for-a-singular-they.
Associated Press Style, Purdue OWL, https://owl.purdue.edu/owl/subject_specific_writing/journalism_and_journalistic_writing/ap_style.html (last visited July 5, 2019).
Style Guidelines, Am. Bar Ass’n(Apr. 11, 2013), https://www.americanbar.org/groups/construction_industry/about_us/rules_procedures/style_guidelines/.
Chicago Manual, Chicago Style for the Singular They, Chi. Manual of Style(Apr. 3, 2017), https://cmosshoptalk.com/2017/04/03/chicago-style-for-the-singular-they/.
Chicago Manual of Style, § 5.48, 5.255 (17th ed. 2017).
The list consists of nine suggestions. These suggestions are (1) omit the pronoun; (2) repeat the noun; (3) use a plural antecedent; (4) use an article instead of a pronoun; (5) use the neutral singular pronoun one; (6) use the relative pronoun who; (7) use the imperative mood; (8) use “he or she;” or (9) revise the sentence. Id.at § 5.255.
Darren K. LaScotte, Singular They: An Empirical Study of Generic Pronoun Use, 91 Am. Speech 62, 68 (2016).
Allison E. Laffey & Allison Ng, Diversity and Inclusion in the Law: Challenges and Initiatives, Am. Bar Ass’n (May 8, 2018), https://www.americanbar.org/groups/litigation/committees/jiop/articles/2018/diversity-and-inclusion-in-the-law-challenges-and-initiatives/.
**This image is licensed in the public domain: by torbakhopper is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0
Anne Curzan is the Geneva Smitherman collegiate professor of English and linguistics at the University of Michigan, where she is also dean of the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts.
Some of the most open-minded, inclusive people I know struggle with the singular pronoun “they.” And while it’s hard to unlearn what we were taught was grammatically “wrong,” it’s worth doing. To start, let’s clear away all the non-arguments that clutter the “they” debate to get to the heart of the matter.
Critics often start from the premise that “they” cannot be singular because a pronoun cannot be singular and plural at the same time. That argument is historically, socially and linguistically wrong. A pronoun most certainly can be singular and plural at the same time, as demonstrated by English’s very own pronoun “you.” And, when we look at the record, we discover the pronoun “they” has been used as a singular generic pronoun, alongside its plural uses, for hundreds of years. Shakespeare and Austen both used singular “they” this way, just as many English speakers do now. “But to expose the former faults of any person,” noted Jane Bennet in “Pride and Prejudice,” “without knowing what their present feelings were, seemed unjustifiable.”
In other words, the use of “they” as a singular pronoun, when the gender of the person is unknown or irrelevant, is nothing new. It’s considered wrong only because 200-plus years of grammarians have told us it is wrong, without solidly justifying that judgment. And whatever ambiguity the singular generic “they” may cause, it is clearly something speakers and writers can manage, as I will explain.
What is relatively new is the use of singular “they” to refer to specific people who identify as nonbinary. This leads to a construction such as, “Alex is spending their senior year in Alaska.” I have heard critics describe this construction as unclear, ambiguous, silly, and/or unnecessary. None of these criticisms hold up well.
Let’s start with the issue of clarity. This argument has been pulled out triumphantly against all uses of singular “they” for years, and it isn’t convincing. First, in many instances, we employ singular “they” exactly because the gender of the antecedent noun (the person we are referring to) is unknown or irrelevant, as in: “A serious runner replaces their shoes every few months.” The ambiguity about the runner’s gender is intentional. And there is usually no ambiguity about number: In a sentence like “My neighbor washes their car every day,” it is unambiguous that I am talking about one person, and that person is my neighbor.
Zombie rules are grammar rules that follow you around like the undead. They’re not really grammar rules, though. Some are stylistic choices, while others are made-up nonsense to make English work more like Latin. In this series, you’ll learn why the rules don’t work and what rule you can follow instead.
Zombie Rule: Don’t Use They for a Singular Person.
They and its related forms, their and them, have long been used to refer to one person of an unknown gender:
Each student should bring their book to class every day.
But like the other rules in this series, suddenly the usage, often referred as singular they, became popular. Defenders of the language cringed and cried, “This we will not accept! A writer should know his grammar better!”
Why do people have such a hard time with they being used in the singular? They don’t have a hard time with you being both singular and plural. They, their, and them have been used regularly for singular nouns as far back as 1523. And with the social pressure not to use he, his, and him for all singular nouns, male or female, singular they is gaining more usage and attention.
As with split infinitives, usage experts are slowly coming around to the idea that singular they is grammatical. Yet they will spill lots of ink to convince you not to use it. A writer should feel free to ignore them and use singular they if they desire and if it works in their sentence.
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Use singular they:
- With indefinite pronouns (anyone, everyone, someone)
- When the person’s gender is unknown
- When the person is gender-nonconforming and doesn’t state a preference
- When someone states this is their preferred pronoun
Remember to use a plural verb with this plural pronoun. You can also choose to recast the sentence.
A version of this article originally published on August 12, 2013, on Visual Thesaurus.
We all learned during grammar classes in elementary school that “they,” “them,” and “their” can be used as singular pronouns when a person’s gender is unknown. For example, if someone finds a phone and doesn’t know who it belongs to, the person might say “I wonder if they realize their phone is missing yet. I will hold it in safekeeping for them until they come back.”
Some older generations learned that we should default to using “he” as the pronoun in that scenario, and you might run into one of those grammar sticklers in the comment section of social media posts vociferously proclaiming that using singular they is PC, as if they are an English teacher ready to break out a red grading pen.
That’s because in 1745, “A New Grammar” was published that called for “he” to be used as a universal singular pronoun. Interestingly, that book was written by Ann Fisher, a woman who stated that “The Masculine Person answers to the general Name…as, Any person who knows what he says.” Sadly, that sexist idea caught on. Soon after, people were using masculine pronouns to include all people.
In an attempt to ditch the sexist language that literally ignores half the population, we began seeing the enlightened use of “he or she” or the oddly punctuated “he/she” as an attempt to be more inclusive. Unfortunately, that is really clunky and repetitive. You might have learned it in school, but thankfully most people aren’t interested in using it in real life.
While the use of “he” to refer to anyone whose gender wasn’t known was in vogue for the last few centuries, the first known written text using singular they dates all the way back to 1375! “William and the Werewolf” is a Middle English poem published that year using they to refer to one person. It was also used by other writers of the time, including Geoffrey Chaucer and Shakespeare, so it was likely in common usage in every day speech.
Fast forward several centuries and we have finally landed in a space where transgender folks are visible and non-binary identities are finally being recognized. For the last decade, it has become common to hear people refer to themselves or nonbinary friends or family using “they.” And in 2019, Merriam-Webster made it the Word of the Year to encourage more people to get on board.
“But what about using “they” with verbs?” you might be asking. Use a plural verb form with the singular pronoun “they,” for example, write “they are” not “they is.” And even if you are speaking about a person who you know uses singular they as their pronoun, if you refer back to them by name or with another descriptor (“my friend who plays piano”), use a singular verb form with a singular noun. So it would be “My friend Jessica who plays piano is coming to visit. They are going to be a guest with a local musical group.”
Practicing using they as a singular pronoun is pretty easy. You are already using it in your everyday language without even giving it thought. So when you are introduced to someone who uses “they” as their pronoun, make a conscious effort to use it correctly and don’t worry about old grammar rules. They are worth the effort!
Published on May 22, 2019 by Shona McCombes. Revised on November 19, 2020.
Pronouns are words that stand in for nouns. They can refer to specific people and things (e.g. I, you, it, him, their, this) or to non-specific people and things (e.g. anybody, one, some, each).
In academic writing, first-person pronouns (I, we) may be used depending on your field. Second person pronouns (you, yours) should almost always be avoided. Third person pronouns (he, she, they) should be used in a way that avoids gender bias.
Table of contents
- Pronoun antecedents
- First-person pronouns (I, we)
- Second-person pronouns (you)
- Third-person pronouns (he, she, they)
- Pronoun consistency
- Demonstrative pronouns (this, that, these, those)
The antecedent of a pronoun is the noun that it refers back to. The antecedent is usually mentioned in the text before the pronoun, but sometimes it comes just after it in a sentence.
- Annie was late to class again because she missed her bus.
- As they debated the point, the students became increasingly animated.
When you use any type of pronoun, it’s important to ensure that the antecedent is clear and unambiguous. If there is any ambiguity, use the noun instead.
- After the interview and the written test were complete, it was checked for incomplete answers.
Here it is unclear whether it refers to the interview, the test, or both.
- After the interview and the written test were complete, the test was checked for incomplete answers.
First-person pronouns (I, we)
Personal pronouns that refer to the author or authors – I, we, my, etc. – are a topic of debate in academic writing. In some scientific disciplines, the first person has traditionally been avoided to maintain an objective, impersonal tone and keep the focus on the material rather than the author.
However, first-person pronouns are increasingly standard in many types of academic writing (though they are still more prevalent in some fields than others). Some style guides, such as APA, require the use of first person pronouns when referring to your own actions and opinions.
If in doubt about whether you should use the first person, check with your teacher or supervisor.
Using first-person pronouns in academic writing
Don’t overuse first-person pronouns in academic texts – make sure only to use them when it’s appropriate to do so, as in the following situations.
Note that the plural we/our should only be used if you are writing with coauthors. If you are writing the paper alone, use the singular I/my.
How to avoid first-person pronouns
If you have been told not to use first-person pronouns, there are three approaches you can take.
|First-person sentence||Revision||Revised sentence|
|We interviewed 12 participants.||Use the third person||The researchers interviewed 12 participants.|
|I argue that the theory needs to be refined further.||Use a different subject||This paper argues that the theory needs to be refined further.|
|I checked the dataset for missing data and outliers.||Use the passive voice||The dataset was checked for missing data and outliers.|
Each of these approaches has different advantages and disadvantages. For example, the passive voice can sometimes result in dangling modifiers that make your text less clear. Therefore, if you are allowed to use first-person pronouns, retaining them is the best choice.
There are some types of academic writing where first-person pronouns are always acceptable – for example, in application documents such as a personal statement or statement of purpose.
Avoid the editorial we
Don’t use the first person plural to refer to people in general. This is sometimes called the “editorial we,” as it is commonly used in newspaper editorials to speak on behalf of the publication, or to express a widely shared opinion or experience.
However, in academic writing, it’s important to be precise about who you are referring to and to avoid broad generalizations. If possible, specify exactly which group of people you are talking about.
- When we are given more freedom, we can work more effectively.
- When employees are given more freedom, they can work more effectively.
- As we age, we tend to become less concerned with others’ opinions of us .
- As people age, they tend to become less concerned with others’ opinions of them .
Using we in this way is acceptable if you want to emphasize the shared experiences of a particular group to which you belong. Just make sure it is clear exactly who you are referring to.
- It is important to be aware of our own biases.
- It is important for educators to be aware of our own biases.
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People of a certain age learned funny rules about writing in English. Like don’t use like. And never start a sentence with because, and, or but. Because grammar.
But linguists insist English doesn’t need us to be stiff on the language’s behalf. It’s flexible and can accommodate a transforming society and new technologies, according to University of Michigan English professor Anne Curzan, an expert on gender and language.
Speaking at the annual American Copy Editors Society (ACES) conference in March, Curzan reassured word nerds. “People have been worried this language will fall apart for a long time. It’s not going to fall apart.”
Language changes. Resisting, or insisting that traditional rules still apply, is futile and foolish. Even many of the English-language standard bearers agree: for example, in May, the Associated Press will update its style guide. One of the major changes that signals a shift in societal thinking is that ”they” is now officially singular (as well as plural) and an appropriate gender neutral choice.
Mignon Fogarty—who covers English as the “Grammar Girl” on the guidance site Quick and Dirty Tips—explains what this means, practically speaking, for your writing:
- The AP Stylebook now allows writers to use they as a singular pronoun when rewriting the sentence as plural would be overly awkward or clumsy. Example: The Obama administration told public schools to grant bathroom access even if a student’s gender identity isn’t what’s in their record.
- The style also allows writers to pair they with everyone in similar situations.
- In stories about people who identify as neither male nor female or ask not to be referred to as he/she/him/her: Use the person’s name in place of a pronoun, or otherwise reword the sentence, whenever possible. If they/them/their use is essential, explain in the text that the person prefers a gender-neutral pronoun. Be sure that the phrasing does not imply more than one person.
- his, her. AP style used to be to use he when gender is not known. This entry now refers to the entry on they, them, their.
To those of us born into a world where man was the standard and woman stood in his shadow, linguistically, and in life, that last change is notable indeed. He is no longer the go-to when gender is unknown, nor an appropriate gender neutral. The seemingly tiny linguistic shift is socially seismic. By transforming our writing, we also change our minds and rewire thought— and who can say what influence this linguistic fluidity will have on the thinking of future children?
But the singular use of “they” also hearkens back to the past, according to Curzan. The English professor says the new usage is actually classic, dating back to the 1300s, and has been used by great English writers over the centuries to reflect the singular indistinct gender in literature.
Fogarty says ACES is where all the big linguistic news breaks. “It’s where we first heard in 2011 that the Associated Press would no longer use a hyphen in email and in 2016 that the Associate Press would lowercase internet…and now today, the AP is leading the charge again.”
And everyone needs to get with the program, or at least learn linguistic flexibility. Attachment to formulations of the past reveal not only our obsolescence but a failure to understand language. John McIntyre at The Baltimore Sun, who writes about writing, points out that what’s right depends on context. He notes, ”The range of standard English is a continuum, and working effectively in it requires judgments rather than the mechanical application of rules, some of them bogus.”
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Growing up in the 1950s and 60s, I was subject to constant correction of my grammar when speaking at home, the legacy of a school-teacher grandmother and a well-read father. One of these corrections focused upon whether to use singular or plural pronouns in a sentence such as “Everyone drank a glass of milk with his dinner.” (In those days, “his” was the accepted standard for both genders.) This was in contrast to the grammatically forbidden “Everyone drank a glass of milk with their dinner.” The latter sentence was–and often still is–considered incorrect because “everyone” is singular and “their” is plural, thus a mismatch within one sentence.
In the 1970s during the women’s movement, usage progressed to the more inclusive “Everyone has his or her favorite style of dance” (or his/her), but the rule remained the same: “everyone” is singular. This gets awkward with longer sentences such as “Everyone knows that the best way to take care of a leg injury is to rest his or her leg so that he or she can recuperate quickly.” (Some people combine he and she into “s/he.”) It is grammatically correct, but inelegant.
Then in the 2000s, a new concern arose about how to address persons who did not consider themselves either male or female. Whether gender-fluid, transgender, gender-queer, androgynous, or intersex, some people did not feel comfortable identifying as male or female. People outside the gender binary began to elect alternative pronouns, and most commonly that pronoun was “they,” as in “They went outside to get the mail,” when speaking about a single person. Since this was a re-purposing of a word previously used only to indicate two or more people, it became confusing.
In addition to the confusion of using the singular “their” as a gender alternative was the problem of common usage, as in “Everyone loves their dance teacher.” This is ubiquitous in conversation, even among those who would never commit such a grammatical “faux-pas” on paper. However, perhaps in 2018 it is appropriate to ask if using “their” to indicate the singular should still be considered incorrect, since it is so commonly used, and language does evolve and change.
The latest version of the Chicago Manual of Style (CMS) ( 2017 ) allows for a few different uses of “they” to indicate the singular. First, “they” may be used as a substitute for the generic he when referring to someone whose gender is unknown. (Ex. Does anyone want their coffee cup refilled?) CMS accepts this usage for speech and informal writing. While they do not prohibit it in formal writing, CMS suggest avoiding it by using alternative wording that does not rely on the generic use of “he,” such as making the sentence plural (Chicago Manual of Style, 5.255–256). However, The University of Chicago Press has recently published books that use “they” in place of the generic “he,” citing the reasons of context and author preference (Chicago Manual of Style Shop Talk 2017 , p1/4).
Finally, there are the situations where “they” refers to a single person who does not want to be called either “she” or “he.” CMS 2017 advises that “‘a person’s stated preference for a specific pronoun should be respected.’ This usage is still not widespread either in speech or in writing, but Chicago accepts it even in formal writing” (Chicago Manual of Style Shop Talk 2017 ). Although it refers to a singular person, “they” takes a plural verb, as in “They prefer Gene Kelly to Fred Astaire.”
As of issue 18(3), Journal of Dance Education is switching to the latest Chicago Author-Date style for writing references from a modified version as an additional platform to acknowledge the gender identity of authors, since authors’ first names will be included in the references. This decision in conjunction with the flexible approach to use of “they” and “their” will be reflected in forthcoming issues.
We will continue to follow the CMS recommendation that in formal writing, such as JODE articles, use of the singular “they” is best avoided, with the exception of referring to a non-binary person. Authors who find it restrictive or incorrect to use the pronouns “he” or “she” when referring to an individual who does not identify as specifically either male or female may use “their” as a substitute. In addition, should an author have a different specific reason for use the singular “they” in a journal article, please consult the editor.
Since the use of the singular “they” is not yet common in scholarly journals, we ask that authors include an endnote to guide readers in understanding that the singular use of “they” is not a mistake. JODE editors hope that offering these new options to authors will make our journal more inclusive and welcoming.
Gender neutrality in language minimizes assumptions about the gender or sex of people referred to in writing or speech.
Give examples of gender-neutral language
- Gender neutrality in English aims to minimize assumptions about the gender or biological sex of people referred to in speech.
- Proponents of gender- neutral language argue that the use of gender-specific language often implies male superiority or reflects an unequal state of society.
- Proponents of gender-neutral language claim that linguistic clarity, as well as equality, would be better served by having “man” refer unambiguously to males, and “human” to all persons.
- Proposed alternatives to the generic “he” include “he or she,” “s/he,” or the use of “they” in the singular.
- In some cases, when writing or speaking about a person whose gender is unknown, ambiguous, or unimportant, gender-neutral language may be achieved by using gender-inclusive, gender-neutral, or epicene words in place of gender-specific ones.
- Gender-neutral language may also be achieved by parallel usage of existing gender-specific terms.
- epicene: Refers to the loss of gender distinction, often specifically the loss of masculinity.
- gender-neutral language: Used to eliminate (or neutralize) references to gender when describing people.
- singular they: A pronoun that is gender neutral and refers to a single person when paired appropriately with a gender-neutral antecedent.
Gender-neutral language is neither masculine nor feminine and avoids using gender specific pronouns such as “he” or “she.” The purpose of gender neutrality in writing is to minimize assumptions about the gender or sex of people.
The Importance of Gender-Neutral Language
Proponents of gender-neutral language argue that gender-specific language (such as policeman or waitress) often implies male superiority or reflects an unequal state of society. According to The Handbook of English Linguistics, generic masculine pronouns (such as he) and gender-specific language serve as examples of how, historically, society has treated men as the standard for all humans. Words referring to women often devolve in meaning, and frequently take on sexual overtones. In essence, the use of masculine pronouns when referring to subjects of mixed or indeterminate gender is frowned upon in academic writing. The following sentence is a good illustration of avoiding sexist language by using the gender neutral ” humanity ” and “human” rather than the gender-specific “mankind”: “Since then, humanity has entered a new phase of spiritual development, an evolution of high faculties, the very existence of which in human nature our ancestors scarcely suspected.” Using gender-neutral pronouns avoids presumptions of male superiority.
Guidelines for Gender-Neutral Language
In most cases of writing or speaking about a person whose gender is unknown, ambiguous, or irrelevant, gender-neutral language may be achieved through the use of gender-inclusive, gender-neutral, or epicene words (having characteristics of both sexes) in place of gender-specific ones. If no gender-inclusive terms exist, new ones may be coined. It is also important to consider parallel usage of existing gender-specific terms.
When possible and contextually appropriate, use nouns and pronouns that are gender-neutral rather than gender-specific.
- Instead of: waitress; businessman; workman; mailman
- Use: server; businessperson; worker; mail carrier
- Instead of: mankind; man-made; man hours; man-sized job
- Use: humankind; synthetic; working hours; large job
When referring to people in general, use plural pronouns “s/he” or “he or she” instead of gender-linked pronouns.
- Instead of: She looks for premium products and appreciates a stylish design.
- Use: They look for premium products and appreciate a stylish design.
- Instead of: Before a new business-owner files tax returns, he should seek advice from a certified public accountant.
- Use: Before a new business-owner files tax returns, she or he should seek advice from a certified public accountant.
When a singular pronoun is needed, use the “singular they” with a singular antecedent. In these examples, the antecedents are “the patient” and “someone.”
- Instead of: The patient should be informed of how much he will need to pay prior to the procedure.
- Use: The patient should be informed of how much they will need to pay prior to the procedure.
- Instead of: Someone left his lunch in the break-room microwave.
- Use: Someone left their lunch in the break-room microwave.
When in doubt, use gender-neutral salutations.
- Instead of: Dear Sir; Dear Gentlemen
- Use: Dear Personnel Department; Dear Switzer Plastics Corporation; Dear Director of Research
Additionally, many editing houses, corporations, and government bodies have official policies favoring in-house use of gender-neutral language. In some cases, laws exist to enforce the use of gender-neutral language in certain situations, such as job advertisements. Different authorities have presented guidelines on when and how to use gender-neutral, or “non-sexist” language. Several are listed below:
- The Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association has an oft-cited section on “Guidelines to Reduce Bias in Language.”
- American Philosophical Association—published in 1986
- The Guardian—see section called “gender issues”
- “Avoiding Heterosexual Bias in Language,” published by the Committee on Lesbian and Gay Concerns, American Psychological Association.
Active Voice vs. Passive Voice
In grammar, “voice” refers to the relationship between the subject and the verb—that is to say, how the action is performed.
By Merrill Perlman
They is here.
Two major style manuals are now allowing the singular use of “they” in certain circumstances. While this is a victory for common sense, the paths taken are unusual in the evolution of usage.
Both manuals, the Associated Press Stylebook and the Chicago Manual of Style, emphasize that “they” cannot be used with abandon. Even so, it’s the middle of the end for the insistence that “they” can be only a plural pronoun.
To recap: In English, there is no gender-neutral pronoun for a single person. In French, for example, the pronoun on can stand in for “he” or “she.” English has no such equivalent; “it” is our singular pronoun, so devoid of gender that calling a person “it” is often considered insulting. We could use “one,” but that is a very impersonal pronoun.
The need for a singular personal pronoun occurs largely in two situations. The most common is when speaking generically: “Every time someone gets too close to that cliff, _____ dies.” Because you don’t know whether the next person will be male or female, you can’t insert the correct pronoun. In spoken language, we commonly resort to “they” in that situation (changing the verb to “die” in the process). Similarly, when using a singular noun that refers to a group of people, we have no inclusive pronoun: “Everyone needs to be sure to tighten ______ safety belt before approaching the cliff.”
For hundreds of years, anyone writing formally would default to “he.” Advances in women’s rights led to the clumsy “he or she.” Many writers alternate “he” or “she.” This twisting and turning is because what’s known as “the epicene they” has been considered incorrect.
Yet nearly everyone uses it in speech, as in “everyone knows they should use singular pronouns with singular nouns.” It’s been so used for hundreds of years.
But that’s not the “they” the style guides have let loose. Simply, the singular “they” will be allowed if someone does not identify as “he” or “she.”
We’ve written about this topic several times, most recently last year , noting that The Washington Post was allowing the singular they for someone who did not want to be “he” or “she,” and that The American Heritage Dictionary was including “they” as a singular in both the generic and identification uses.
The ramparts have been falling quickly. The big breach came at the annual conference of ACES: The Society for Editing (more formally the American Copy Editors Society), where both AP and Chicago announced their changes.
The AP Stylebook , used by many news organizations, includes its changes on “they” as part of what Paula Froke, lead editor of the stylebook, called an umbrella approach to gender issues in the new edition. (Though the 2017 printed edition will not be out for a couple of months, the changes are effective immediately and available in the online stylebook.)
“We offer new advice for two reasons,” Froke told the ACES conference . “Recognition that the spoken language uses they as singular and that we also recognize the need for a pronoun for people who don’t identify as a he or a she.”
That last is the driving reason for the change, and the stylebook entries reflect as much.
In stories about people who identify as neither male nor female or ask not to be referred to as he/she/him/her : Use the person’s name in place of a pronoun, or otherwise reword the sentence, whenever possible. If they/them/their use is essential, explain in the text that the person prefers a gender-neutral pronoun.
On “they” as a generic pronoun, the stylebook is a little less open:
They/them/their is acceptable in limited cases as a singular and/or gender-neutral pronoun, when alternative wording is overly awkward or clumsy. However, rewording usually is possible and always is preferable. Clarity is a top priority; gender-neutral use of a singular they is unfamiliar to many readers. We do not use other gender-neutral pronouns such as xe or ze .
Usage example: A singular they might be used when an anonymous source’s gender must be shielded and other wording is overly awkward: The person feared for their own safety and spoke on condition of anonymity .
Arguments for using they/them as a singular sometimes arise with an indefinite pronoun ( anyone, everyone, someone ) or unspecified/unknown gender ( a person, the victim, the winner ). Examples of rewording:
All the class members raised their hands (instead of everyone raised their hands ).
Chicago, used by many books, magazines, and academic publishers, has always been more formal than newsroom style, and that’s reflected in its entries on “they,” appearing in the 17 th edition this fall. As Carol Saller, editor of Chicago ’s Q & A , said , some changes are “hard to describe and not easy to put in little bullet points.”
Demonstrating Chicago ‘s permissible uses of “they,” Saller used the sentence “Carly cleared their voice and spoke.” In that instance, Carly does not identify as male or female, so neither “his” nor “her” is appropriate there. Chicago will also allow “themself” in a similar situation, with the entry reading: “ Themself (like yourself ) may be used to signal the singular antecedent (though some people will prefer themselves ).”
About “they” as a pronoun of preference, Saller told the ACES audience: “This form of the singular they is not very controversial although it is still not found frequently in either formal or informal writing.”
But on “they” as a generic, Chicago, too, holds the line:
“ They and their have become common in informal usage, but neither is considered fully acceptable in formal writing, though they are steadily gaining ground. For now, unless you are given guidelines of the contrary, be wary of using these forms in a singular sense.”
In other words, for both AP and Chicago, the “they” that is more acceptable is the one found less often in spoken and written usage.
That’s a twist. Style guides, like dictionaries, follow the language, not lead it, and they often accept usage years after it has become embraced by users, if not by language sticklers. (As an example, see the outcry over AP ’s acceptance of the equivalence of “over” and “more than,” a distinction imposed with no explanation by William Cullen Bryant.)
The “acceptable” uses of “they” are being encouraged more by issues of gender identity than by common usage, but the impact is the same. Though some might claim the style guides are caving in to political correctness or barbarism, in fact, these changes are too long in coming.
And it’s now only a matter of time before the generic singular “they” can come out into the light as well.
Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at the New York Times, where she worked for twenty-five years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.
by Klazien Tilstra
Klazien Tilstra, a BA student at the English Department of the University of Leiden, just finished her BA thesis. The title is “Attitudes to the Usage of Singular They, 40 years on. A Survey among Editors”, and here follows a summary, written by herself.
The point of departure for my thesis was the book Attitudes to English Usage, published in 1970 and written by W.H.Mittins, Mary Salu, Mary Edminson and Sheila Coyne. The context of the book is the “battleground” of prescriptive versus descriptive approaches to language use, the first focusing on “correctness” as laid down in “rules”, and the second concentrating on actual usage. Mittins et al. asked about 500 people to judge as acceptable or not acceptable the use of 55 debatable sentences, among which was the use of singular they (the use of they to refer to a singular sex-indefinite referent, as in Everyone has their off-days. About 80% of their target audience consisted of people with an educational background, of whom Mittins et al. expected to choose a middle position between a prescriptive and a descriptive approach. Their inquiry revealed that 72% of the respondents accepted the use of singular they in informal speech, while only 19% accepted the use of singular they in formal writing.
The central question of my thesis was whether the acceptability of the use of singular they in formal writing had increased since the 1970’s. In order to find an answer I conducted an on-line survey among members of SENSE, a network organization of native-speaking English editing professionals. I assumed that they would show similar attitudes to language use as the educators in the inquiry of Mittins et al., and that this would make the results of my survey to a certain extent comparable to their inquiry. I asked the editors’ judgments about four sentences, each with three variants to refer to a sex-indefinite antecedent: one using the pronoun they, one using he, and one using he or she, assuming that a comparison would enrich the view on the present attitude to the use of singular they.
The survey had a response of 41 editors: I am very grateful for them to contribute to the survey! And although the results should be treated with caution – a non-random sample of 41 editors of a group of about 400 is not per se representative for the group as a whole – the results confirm the observation of Huddleston and Pullum (The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language 2002) that the acceptance of singular they has increased. Mittins et al. showed an average acceptance rate of 19% in formal writing, while my survey shows an average acceptance rate of 63%. The results also indicate that the use of singular they, on average, met with more approval than disapproval, and preferred to the use of the alternatives he and he or she.
As might be expected at a time in which sexist language is not socially accepted anymore, the results also show that the attitudes to the use of sex-indefinite he are rather negative: more than 80% of the respondents rejected the form. Surprisingly, the attitudes to the use of he or she are also rather negative: more than 75% of the respondents rejected the use of he or she to refer to a sex-indefinite referent, calling the phrase “clumsy”, “fussy” or “clunky”. As a non-sexist alternative to the use of sex-indefinite he, it is not clear to me why the acceptance of the use of he or she is so low.
Many respondents used the space offered in the survey to comment, and suggested rewriting the sentences. Rewriting a sentence with a debatable pronoun to refer to a sex-indefinite referent is what Huddleston and Pullum (2002) call an avoidance strategy. The suggestions may indicate that the issue of singular they to refer to a singular sex-indefinite referent still produces tension, and that avoidance is seen as an attractive option. It may be that many respondents would agree with Kolln and Gray (Rhetorical Grammar: Grammatical Choices, Rhetorical Effects 2010), who, taking a rhetorical point of view, give the advice to keep the target audience in mind and, to reach the intended effect, avoid problems.
Although Mittins et al. hadn’t done so, I also looked at the relationship between the attitudes to the use of singular they and the sociolinguistic variables gender and age. I expected that women and younger people would show a more tolerant attitude to the use of singular they. Unfortunately, my sample was too small to make statistically relevant correlations. I also looked at the relationship between the attitudes to singular they and the linguistic, i.e. British or American English, background of the respondents. Mittins et al. (1970: 102) suggest that writers from England are more inclined to take a prescriptive approach than writers from the US. I found a statistically relevant correlation for this which suggested that Mittins et al. were right.
The survey gave me the opportunity, as Bodine called it in her article “ Androcentrism in Prescriptive Grammar: Singular ‘They’, Sex-Indefinite ‘He’, and ‘He or She’” (1975), to study language change in progress. In the 1970’s, Bodine pointed at the relevance of the issue of singular they by stressing that personal reference is one of the most socially significant aspects of language, and predicted a change in the attitudes to the use of singular they as a consequence of feminists’ protests against the use of sex-indefinite he. The results of my survey indicate that her prediction has come true.
Bodine, Ann (1975). Androcentrism in Prescriptive Grammar: Singular ‘They’, Sex-Indefinite ‘He’, and ‘He or She’. Language in Society, Vol 4. No.2 (Aug., 1975), 129-146.
Huddleston, R. , Pullum, G.K. (2002). The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Kolln, Martha and Gray, Loretta (2010). Rhetorical Grammar: Grammatical Choices, Rhetorical Effects, Boston: Pearson Education, Inc. [6 th ed.].
Mittins, W., Salu, M., Edminson, M. and Coyne, S. (1970). Attitiudes to English Language. London: Oxford University Press.