Is “They” Acceptable as a Singular Pronoun?

By Mark Nichol

Every time I use they as a singular pronoun in one of my entries, someone posts a comment, or emails me, scolding me for my grammatical error. My response? I (politely) tell them to get over it.

Granted, multiple grammatical strategies are available for people to identify someone with a personal pronoun, each of which can be used exclusively or in combination with one or more of the others:

Use the male gender: “Each person is entitled to his opinion.”

Use the female gender when all possible referents are women: “Each nun is entitled to her opinion.”

Use both male and female genders: “Each person is entitled to his or her (or his/her) opinion.”

Alternate gender references in repeated usage: “Each person is entitled to his opinion. However, she should also be receptive to those of others.” (This strategy is best employed with distinct anecdotes in separate passages; it’s awkward in proximity as shown in this example.)

Use an indefinite article in place of a pronoun: “Each person is entitled to an opinion.”

Recast the sentence to plural form: “All people are entitled to their own opinions.”

I have used most of these strategies often. However, there is an additional option: “Each person is entitled to their opinion.”

This, to many people, is a controversial solution. It’s true that style guides — which are often prescriptivist (“Do this”) rather than descriptivist (“This is what’s done”) — argue against using it, at best warning that writers who employ it may be considered to be in error. The Chicago Manual of Style, for example, advises, “While [shouldn’t that be although?] this usage is accepted in casual contexts, it is still considered ungrammatical in formal writing.”

Many literate people who use the singular they in speech hesitate to do so in writing because of this prejudice. As a result, too, there is a lingering resistance among many editors to allow it.

However, the singular they is widely accepted in written British English, and it is well documented in the works of many great writers, including Auden, Austen, Byron, Chaucer, Dickens, Eliot, Shakespeare, Shaw, Thackeray, and Trollope. It was the singular pronoun of choice in English for hundreds of years before, in 1745, an otherwise-reasonable grammarian named Anne Fisher — yes, a woman — became possibly the first person to champion he as the universal pronoun of choice.

According to Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, “The use of they, their, them, and themselves as pronouns of indefinite gender and indefinite number is well established in speech and writing, even in literary and formal contexts.” Meanwhile, R.W. Burchfield, editor of The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage, and Bryan A. Garner, in Garner’s Modern American Usage, predict the inevitable dominance of the singular they.

I am flummoxed by the controversy over it and by the resistance of many people to accept it. Singular they has long been used in literature and in conversation, and though it still has an informal taint, it seems to me absurd to resist adopting it when it satisfies an aching need.

Its irregular form is problematic, but each of the other options is flawed as well: Using he alone disenfranchises half the population (no rebuttals of this irrefutable point are necessary; I’ve read enough already), as does using her alone. Use of dual gender terms (“he or she” and “his or her”) is suitable in isolation but tiresome in repetition, and use of an invented gender-neutral term is ludicrous, especially considering that we already have one: they.

Use of alternating genders has the same limited suitability as the dual-gender form, as does that of the gender-neutral indefinite article and the plural form. Even application of two or more options becomes awkward when the strategy is used in excess.

That all being said, I wanted to know what our readers think is the best solution. That’s why I decided to run a poll. Do not hesitate to leave a comment as well if you want to expand on your thoughts. (Email subscribers must visit our website in order to cast their votes).

Click here to get access to 800+ interactive grammar exercises!


Share


113 Responses to “Is “They” Acceptable as a Singular Pronoun?”

  • Jeremy

    In your example, everything except “to each HIS own” sounds silly, but that’s because it’s a set phrase. I accept other writers’ use of they/them/their/theirs as singular pronouns, but rarely use them myself because they distract readers who have a problem with that usage. Instead, I phrase my sentences in such a way as to avoid the conundrum.

  • Carolyn Cordon

    I’m completely happy with using the word ‘they’ when referring to the singular. In fact, when I was working as a mystery shopper, ‘they’ was the preferred term, even when the gender of the person referred to was known.

  • D

    I’ve always attributed the whole “they” versus “his or her” argument to be nothing more than a long-winded exercise in political correctness gone wrong. My only rule is a simple one: which word or phrase sounds the most natural in conversation? If it doesn’t sound like it fits it’s usually because it doesn’t, regardless of what the grammar police may say.

  • James

    Where are the boxes? They are over there. Where is the box? It is over here. “It” clearly is the correct gender neutral singular pronoun.

  • Cecily

    Mark, when people tell you it is wrong to use singular they/their, just tell them you’re British! Most Brits use it and encounter it so much that they don’t even notice it.

    For me (a Brit), it is justified because it is neat, unambiguous and has been widely used by great writers (and bad ones) for hundreds of years, and still is. The alternatives are all inelegant or inaccurate, or both.

  • Trevor

    “… it seems to me absurd to resist adopting it when it satisfies an aching need.”

    HEAR, HEAR!

    Great post.

  • Mary Hodges

    I would find any of the above solutions perfectly acceptable except the “alternate gender references” version. I remember many years ago in an article on babycare reading something like “If you baby is crying SHE may be hungry, offer HIM a feed.”

  • Shawn

    @James
    “Where are the boxes? They are over there. Where is the box? It is over here. ‘It’ clearly is the correct gender neutral singular pronoun.”

    I think this is true when referring to things but not people.

    As for the issue at hand, I think singular they/their is ok. Still, I can’t shake avoiding its use.

  • Friedl

    Just be grateful that we’re not french, where ‘they’ has both a masculine & feminine form!

  • Chuck Hustmyre

    “They” is plural. It’s pretty simple. Just recast your sentence appropriately.

    The recast done in the article was poor, perhaps intentionally, so as to make it seem a less attractive option. [Recast the sentence to plural form: “All people are entitled to their own opinions.”]

    Try: “People are entitled to their opinions.”

  • Matt

    Timely. I just addressed this in our company’s style guide. I’m advising writers to try to rewrite the sentence, if possible, to avoid the situation (sort of a cop-out, I guess), but use the “he or she” construction if it’s unavoidable.

    Personally, though, I agree with Mary Hodges. I think any are acceptable, but the alternating gender approach seems to read very awkwardly.

    Great post and thought-provoking responses. Thanks!

  • Fitz Townsend

    If you had included the very effective alternatives such as indefinite article or plural use, you would have a far different result in this poll!

  • Friedl

    @James – ‘Every person is entitled to its own opinion.’ ?
    Verily I say unto that soundeth not good.

  • Moiby

    *CLAPS*
    Thank you! I have been using a singular ‘their’ for ages for the reasons you outlined, but various people over time have had an issue with it. It’s good to think the singular they was used by many great writers!

  • Emma

    As with Cecily (and, I suspect a few others), I don’t even notice it; which, from reading your article, would appear to arise from my Britishness.

    Seeing the overwhelming majority going for “they” on your poll – would be interested to know the UK/US/other breakdown for each!

  • Fitz Townsend

    If you had included the very effective alternatives such as indefinite article or plural use, you would have a far different result in this poll!

    (Glad guys like Chuck and Jeremy are around …)

  • YC

    As English is not my first language I was rather relieved when I came across the singular “they” for the first time. I think it makes one’s writing easier to read as I believe repetition of “his or her” draws much more attention to this issue by breaking up the flow of speech. Using only “his” is not an option for me, most probably due to the fact that I am a woman. Having said that, I address my letters “Dear Sirs” instead of politically correct “Dear Sir/Madam.”

  • Sally

    Yes, ‘their’ is completely acceptable as a gender-neutral pronoun of the third person singular.

    I could write pages on this, but it all boils down to the fact that using ‘he’ in this role is exclusionary and artificial.

  • Peggy

    They is plural. Rewrite the sentence. Or us an indefinite article.

  • Emily Duxbury

    I often use he/she, but I find “they” can be very confusing in some contexts and I don’t understand the assertion that what is a masculine pronoun represents only the male population. In grammatical terms, gender and sex are not the same thing. Why is this so hard to understand?

  • Jane

    I agree that recasting the sentence is the solution, either in the plural or for the indefinite article. So I didn’t vote. 😉 I’m a curmudgeon who imagines herself to be a defender of English. I consider “To each their own” to be just a step higher than “They bought more lettuce’s than fish.”

  • Anna

    I had a friend who thought the the best way to rid our country of criminals was to shoot them all. My reply was that his thoughts were based on frustration and the lack of imagination on how to best address the issue. I’ve also heard it said that foul language makes the point best, but, again, I think foul language is used because of limited vocubulary and lack of imagination. There are so many ways to write correctly without resorting to butchering the rules. It just takes a little imagination and a stronger vocubulary.

    If you have listened to the news lately, instead of differentiating between guys and gals, everyone is referred to as guys. Personally, I resent this, but apparently most people don’t. So…what’s the big deal about the gender pronoun?

    I guess I’m too old to mix my plurals and singulars. Oh, well, I’ll be gone in 20 – 30 years, so be patient.

  • Jeff

    Because of the phobic avoidance of the generic “he,” the garbling of specific semantics with the singular “they” — inconsistent subject verb agreement in old manuscripts can frustrate historians — and the aforementioned red herring introduced by the singular “they,” we need a new pronoun that will calm the fear of allegedly disenfranchising generic pronouns. Someone proposed the neutral personal pronoun “co” — “cos” in the possessive form. Perhaps that will mollify those who want linguistic precision sacrificed on the altar of conveniece.

  • James Magee

    One must keep in mind that there is a difference between gender neutral (without gender) and gender nonspecific (not emphasizing any particular gender). Use of gender neutral pronouns is not a good option. The use of “they” is probably the only viable option (though my training causes me to cringe when I see it used in that fashion). Perhaps someone should invent a gender nonspecific third person singular pronoun.

  • Blue

    Thank you. I never knew! It always bothered me, hearing or reading “they” used as singular. Bit snobbish that way, I am. It helps to know it was used that way historically, but I also have a hangup about sounding British!

    Get over it, Blue!

  • Cecily

    D: Some people may advocate singular they/their on grounds of political correctness, but its use does not spring from that. It is nothing to do with “chairperson” and other gender neutral coinages. Chaucer, Austen, Byron, Thackeray, Eliot, Trollope, Dickens and many others have used it routinely. If “you” and “your” can be singular or plural without causing confusion, why the objections to “they” and “their”?

  • Emma

    The problem with inventing a gender-nonspecific third person singular pronoun (as opposed to “they”) is that there are hundreds of millions of English-speakers, and even if you can get some people to use the invented term, other people won’t understand it and it will never gain widespread usage. I can’t see any way you could purposely introduce a word like that into the language of every English-speaker so everyone understood it, and even if you did, plenty of people (including myself, to be honest) would object. People should just get over their qualms about “they” and accept its use in the singular.

  • Sarah

    I understand why the singular they is needed, but it still grates on my nerves every time I see it in writing. It doesn’t bother me in speech.

    In my writing, I like using an indefinite article or recasting the sentence in the plural, whichever sounds best for the context. No matter how widely accepted the singular they becomes, I will still avoid it to prevent anal people like myself from thinking I’ve made a mistake.

    I agree with the other commenter who said the poll choices weren’t adequate. I accidentally voted for “Use the plural version,” thinking that meant recasting the sentence in the plural. I bet many others made the same mistake.

  • Stephanie

    I generally prefer “he,” but I use “they” more because “he” sometimes invites confusion.

  • Janice

    If it fills a need, use it!

  • Ali

    Thank you for tackling this thorny usage! While I’m prone to recast the sentence when possible, or to throw in the ungainly his/her or s/he, “they” is often the only gender nonspecific alternative that fully renders the thought without forcing me to mangle and weaken the sentence. I would rather manhandle (womanhandle!) a pronoun than be forced to rechannel my thoughts to compensate for a lack in our illogical language. After all, is it molding us, or are we molding it?!

  • Ali

    I love how the first article in the “related articles” section is a direct rebuttal to yours. It is called “A Person Is Not a “They.” Neither Is an Army”. Clearly this is quite a hot-button topic.
    I use they unless I know the gender.. He or she, his or her is horribly awkward with repeated usage. So is changeing the sentence completely, though it isn’t as bad. Also, there are people, myself included, who do not identify as male or female, so I always feel a little guilty excluding them when writing that way. I always thought the English language should have a genderless pronoun. I suppose you could use “it”, but that refers to objects more than humans. I wonder what the rule is for the word “it” to describe people. Is it technically correct, but never used as it is seen as being disrespectful twoards people, or officially discouraged for the same reason.

  • Arlee Bird

    This is an ongoing source of annoyance for me. I greatly dislike the he/she option and feminists are sometimes offended when only the male pronoun is used. Since there is no other good option for indefinite gender reference, they/them/their works best for me as well.

    Lee
    Tossing It Out

  • Raina

    I was actually taught in school that “they” was correct… But let’s put that aside for the moment. I don’t see anything wrong with the use of “they”, but after reading people’s comments, I found that rewording the sentence makes it sound much better.

    A pronoun is often omitted in Japanese, so I like the use of an indefinite article instead of a pronoun, and I use it often too…

    So I guess my view on this is, try to reword the sentence if you can, but if you can’t for any reason (your English isn’t that good, you can’t think of a way, the sentence just can’t be reworded, etc) then use “they”. Sorry all of you nitpickers, but we’re all human and we can’t be perfect all the time.

  • bad tim

    my vote is that the author should use his own gender.

    political correctness is a disease. people need to stop being so easy to offend and – i don’t know – maybe start assuming that no offense was intended instead of immediately going to the negative.

    i don’t accept the plural form as a substitute for the singular just because somebody claims that she’s being excluded. it’s never the case in my writing, and i doubt it’s ever been the case except with obvious sexism. it’s a cleaner, more precise form to use singular pronouns when speaking of an individual. so don’t get offended if i wince when you pluralize. it’s not about you. it’s almost never about you. if it were, i’m sure i’d be very specific.

  • Nora

    @Emily–I speak English as a native and have only a passing acquaintance with gendered language, so I cannot say from experience whether “gender and sex are not the same thing.” However, the neuroscientist Lera Boroditsky has conducted research on the subject and finds that speakers of gendered languages use gender-related adjectives to describe inanimate objects. What we say affects how we feel and many women feel ignored by being referred to grammatically as “he”, especially in English where we have a fully grammatical alternative of long standing. As Mark points out, the salient point is that “they” has been grammatical as a third person singular pronoun for generations of English speakers, and only fell into disfavor due to the political agenda of an overzealous grammarian in the mid 18th century, a time that also saw the assertion of other controversial and un-English dicta such as avoiding split infinitives and sentence-ending prepositions. No one has any reason to contort their writing, or risk offending half their audience, simply to avoid what is not actually incorrect!

  • Angie

    The problem with using “they” in the scenario is that it represents a plurality that “each” does not match. Reconstructing the sentence is a much better option. Just because others do use “they” (no matter who they are), doesn’t mean the rules of the English language should alter in this situation. That would be like saying it’s and its shouldn’t matter because it’s so hard to remember which is which . . . or insert any other annoying thing we have to remember in writing . . . like homonyms, for example. Frankly, it irks me that people have become so sensitive that reading a singular pronoun offends them. It’s a given that in these circumstances the “he” or “she” chosen is inclusive of everyone.

  • Tricia Tise

    I subscribe to your blog to learn as much as I can about grammar and punctuation. I cannot argue with anyone about what is proper or improper. However, over the last several years I have noticed that all the women’s magazines I read use the pronoun “she”exclusively. To me, this is contrived, overcompensating and annoying. I vote for “they”. Real equality is about equality, not reversing the portion of the population on whom the prejudice is placed.
    P.S. Please be kind. I’m sure I’ve made numerous errors in the foregoing paragraph.

  • Katya

    What about “one”? Can’t we use it in this situation? For example: “Each person is entitled to one’s opinion.” “To each one’s own” Or does it sound as if we are talking about another person? I’m not a native speaker, but English is my job and my passion, so, please, correct me if I’m wrong.

  • Marc Leavitt

    I believe in context. I didn’t cast a vote, because I think you need a category for “all, or any of the above, depending on context.” In the example you gave, “to each his own,” really has the force of idiom. I wouldn’t have coffee witrh a feminist who objected to its use. However, at times(when I wa still working as an editor) I resorted to several of the variations you described. And as at least one of your commenters said, naturalness is also key; if it sounds right, it usually is right. And in normal conversation, I usually use “they,” as I’m sure most people do when they’re not trying to make a statement. As they say in The Big Easy, “Laissez les bons temps roulez.”

  • LisaU

    I prefer the masculine pronoun – it is what I was taught as the neutral back in grade school in the early sixties before PC became popular.

    Using they as singular just feels awkward in formal writing. (I can’t stop using two spaces after a period. It just feels wrong and looks weird to me.) I detest using both alternately; the dual form screams PC and using the feminine exclusively when not referring to women seems a bit militant feminist.

    Everyone is entitled to his opinion, be he a chairman, postman, councilman, or Englishman. When used generically the masculine is gender-free but the masses don’t understand that. When it comes to the “masculine” suffix, I think of it like this councilman = council’man = council human.

    I agree with Bad Tim, people need to get over themselves and stop being offended over every little thing.

  • Jonathon

    Since when are you supposed to avoid “while” to mean “although”? That one’s new to me.

  • Sam

    Lol this is still an issue? Old fogeys.

  • thebluebird11

    OMG I’m just laughing so hard at some of these posts!
    @Bad Tim: I think I’m in love with you LOL
    @Jane: Ditto! (Pass on the lettuce’s though).
    @Friedl: Verily!

    I agree with all posters (e.g. Jeremy, Peggy, Chuck) who shudder at “they” and bid us re-cast our sentences. I’m sure it’s my mother’s ghost that breezes by me if I even THINK of using the word “they” when the singular form is called for. We do have alternatives, as mentioned, and some people are just too lazy to use them. I would love to be able to use “they” guilt-free, but so far it hasn’t happened. In speech, I have to pause for a moment and modify my sentence as needed. In writing, I have used “his/her” or “he/she,” and sometimes, if I’m really lazy, for the latter I might substitute “s/he.” The best way to avoid use, or repetitive use, of these constructs is to re-cast the sentences.

    That being said, I look forward to a day when I might not feel guilty using “they,” because it’s just so….simple!

    @YC: You could always try starting a letter with “To Whom It May Concern.” It might not always be appropriate, but that’s up to you to determine. Also, if there is some way that you can find out who will actually be receiving the letter (usually a simple phone call or email will do), you will know for sure whether to use Sir or Madam. Also, there are other greetings/salutations, or you could get creative and try to come up with something of your own (although I understand that this might be difficult if English is not your first language). Good luck!

  • Charlie

    Funny, they/their has never bothered me. Maybe as I’ve a fondness for British mysteries?
    I look at it a word showing possession for the subject person. More of a generic word than a specific word.
    It is good when you have a name but are not sure of the gender. Think of the names that are used for male and female . . . Taylor, Dakota, Sam, Charlie . . .

  • My Two Innings

    Every time “they” is used as a singular pronoun, an angel loses their wings.

  • Andy Martin

    In my twice WhatSoFunny? podcast, I’ve felt stymied by this very issue. I’ve used most of the alternatives you’ve suggested and have wondered just how much I’m confusing my listeners (soon to be e-readers, hopefully). In truth, no one has mentioned it yet, but I know the day of reckoning is coming. Henceforth I’m sticking with “they”.

    Thanks for the permission!

  • Veronica

    Thank you! I’ve been doing that for a while and well it was subsequently squashed out of me by my AP English teacher my senior year. I would use ‘they’ or ‘their’ and he would mark it down, telling me to use ‘he’ when I was referring to a multitude of people, men and women alike. Using “his or her” seems to cumbersome and wordy.It made me feel like using ‘they’ was incorrect but now that I have proof on my side, I will start using it again. 🙂

  • David Ettlin

    I can accept this limited use of the plural pronoun, but worry about the slippery slope of grammarian forgiveness. Far too many news writers lose track of their pronoun antecedent agreements, and the result is sloppy prose and a loss of linguistic elegance.

  • Linda M Au

    You know, I’m a proofreader by trade, and I’m getting mighty tired of buying new style guides and dictionaries every time a certain percentage of the English-speaking world gets lazy and doesn’t want to think about language usage anymore. (And I remember when “any more” was two words, but hey … the times, they are a-changin’.)

    Inventing a new pronoun won’t work. Changes in language have to come from the bottom up, as this one appears to be doing. I just hate that so many language changes seem to come from general laziness.

    I’m already poised to have a small nervous breakdown when “alright” is fully acceptable, and the day we can write “r u ok?” in a formal dissertation will be the day I hang up my red pen.

    But, even I can see the proverbial writing on the wall…. (sigh)

  • Lynne

    The instances of the singular “they” in works such as Shakespeare and Dickens are usually conversational. These classic authors were writing how people talk. When one is writing a news story, a scholarly paper, or even a blog, HE or SHE can do better by using logical grammar sense. 1≠3.

    By the way, why would you mention Chaucer? He still used genitive ending on nouns like Latin and broke many modern grammar rules—”Me thynketh it acordaunt to resoun / To telle yow al the condicioun / Of ech of hem…” He’s not a good model for 21st c. grammar.

    Tip of the hat to thebluebird11 and Linda M Au and all the rocking, logical grammarians! </;-)

  • Fliss

    I was taken to task by a French gentleman, who is admittedly extremely well versed in the English language, for using ‘their’ as a singular pronoun in a piece of writing. “Shouldn’t it be ‘his?’ he queried. “What if your reader is a woman?” I retorted.

    He looked non-plussed as French (like Spanish) will use the masculine pronoun even though descibing a situation where one male and 50 females are involved.

    Delighted to read your post. I totally agree and shall probably send this on to my French amie (sorry…. AMI!)

  • David

    I felt I had to go back and preface my comments to clarify that they’re not intended to be as sarcastic or harsh as they might come across as if one wanted to interpret them as being so. It’s just a discussion on grammar and this is a well-written article, even if I happen to disagree with your conclusion.

    My interpretation is that your basic point is that people should get over “they” being used as a singular, gender-neutral pronoun even though it’s not actually singular? As opposed to using an actual singular pronoun because it will either sound awkward (using either “he/she” “or (s)he”) or half the species may be offended? The argument could easily be made that you or those individuals who would be offended should be the ones getting over it. So we have the options of an awkward and/or insensitive (but grammatically correct) solution on one hand, or a grammatically incorrect usage (which some might argue is part of the evolution of the language) on the other.

    There isn’t any singular elegant solution to the problem, as lovely as it would be if there were. But the rationale for using “they” seems flimsy at best, especially given all of the possible alternatives. That argument seems to boil down to “It’s too much work to do it properly, let’s just change the rules of grammar to make it easier.”

    If you truly feel the plurality of the pronouns just don’t, why not try replacing all the “I’s” in your next post with either “We” or “Mark Nichol.” It would be wrong and perhaps confusing for your readers, but they’d figure it out, right?

    That isn’t a serious suggestion, of course, but that would seem to be pretty close to equivalent as the singular “they”.

  • tanya grove

    I am a proofer/copyeditor and I’ve faced this situation many times. There is always a better way than resorting to improper use of the language. Recasting as plural is my fallback, but using an occasional he/she is fine. When possible, I use the indefinite article, but it doesn’t work as often as I would like it to.

    So I agree with Jane who just does not accept a word that is clearly plural to stand in as a singular pronoun. It would be nice if, as someone suggested, that we had a word similar to you that could cover both singular and plural. BUT WE DON’T. Curmudgeon defenders of the English language, stay strong!

  • Margot Reine

    one could use ‘one’ in some circumstances

  • Sharon

    I think @thebluebird11 said everything I was thinking (good job!). I could not answer your poll as I didn’t like any option!

    Even if you say it’s okay, I still can’t feel comfortable doing it. If singular doesn’t match with singular, and plural with plural, it just feels completely wrong to me.

    Perhaps if I’d been initially taught that “they”–like you (or money, furniture or food)–could go either way, it would be okay. But, that’s not the case and so I rearrange my words to accommodate my prejudice.

    Note: I am female, but it does not bother me a bit if people are referred to exclusively as “he.” Less distracting than mixing it up or “he/she”ing things, and better than being multiplied with “they” or dehumanized with “it.”

  • Mike

    I’m an amateur author and also a copywriter. I’ve had this ‘they’ problem for some time now and am more than happy to use it instead of ‘he’ or ‘she’ when it clarifies what I’m saying. Writing isn’t primarily about good grammar – it’s about making sure your reader (or audience in the case of advertising) fully understands what you are saying. If it is ambiguos, use ‘they’. Grammar comes second to clarity every time.

  • james

    ‘They’ is preferred in New Zealand English … NZ English as a rule prefers British English.

    James

  • Cecily

    I find it interesting that although comments are fairly evenly divided over the acceptability of singular they/their, the poll is currently overwhelmingly accepting at 72.63% of ~450 votes.

  • Jacks

    “use of an invented gender-neutral term is ludicrous, especially considering that we already have one: they.”

    We have a singular gender-neutral term: it. However, I guess it’s inappropriate to refer to people as “its.” Go figure.

  • thebluebird11

    @mike: “Grammar comes second to clarity every time.”

    I disagree with that blanket statement. I believe (thank you, Sharon and all other like-minded folks here today) that rules of grammar promote precision and clarity. Therefore, I see no reason that grammar and clarity should be mutually exclusive, EVER. English is a very rich language, and as noted, we have words and options to satisfy our needs to express ourselves. If we don’t exercise those options, in this case in particular it is because of laziness, or perhaps ignorance, not because we don’t have a proper option. Why does anyone feel the need to fight for the incorrect use of “their,” when it is correct, and just as easy, to say, “Everyone is entitled to his or her opinion”? Is someone too lazy to say “his or her”? Is someone too afraid to “offend” half the world by saying only “his” or only “her”? Are we at the point that we need to make a choice between being PC or GC?! I’m with Tanya, and if I ever find a “Grammar Curmudgeon” bumper sticker, I’ll be happy to put it on my car!

  • Bill Davis

    If someone has a problem with singular “they,” then they should get over it.

    It’s convenient, elegantly simple, understood AND commonly used.

    And remember… languages CHANGE. “You” used to be only plural, but now serves as both plural and singular. The area of meaning for “they” in this limited contexts is changing… in fact, HAS changed.

  • Valerie Light

    Absolutely! English is the most fluid language and most used as a spoken language. Although I would hesitate to use some of the informal expressions you hear everyday, this is usage that avoids the greater pitfalls you list for the other options.

  • Peter

    I find it interesting that although comments are fairly evenly divided over the acceptability of singular they/their, the poll is currently overwhelmingly accepting at 72.63% of ~450 votes.

    I wonder what that tells us?

    Most of the people voting are illiterates incapable of posting a written response, perhaps? 🙂

  • Cecily

    Peter: Touché. I suspect it demonstrates that those against feel more passionately and want to make their case to counter Mark’s original post. Those who are relaxed about singular they/their are more relaxed in general.

    Mike: “Grammar comes second to clarity every time.”
    thebluebird11: “I see no reason that grammar and clarity should be mutually exclusive, EVER.”

    I think the problem sometimes arises when people confuse grammar with style and promote a grammatical “rule”, regardless of context, and sometimes to the detriment of clarity.

    Context is all.

  • Tim

    “They” should be used for more than 1 person, animal or thing and not to refer to a singular person, animal or thing.

    If you have problems referring to a singular person of unknown gender or want a word that encompasses both, then try to express yourself differently. I do not like using he/she etc either but converting a plural pronoun and calling it a singular pronoun isn’t the answer.

  • Stephen

    Peter> From your cheeky smiley, I assume you are being humorous when you denigrate half of the readers of this blog that disagree with you. Hear me laugh.

  • The Raven

    Back in the Usenet era, the group alt.usage.english thrashed this issue out regularly. Exchanges would run to hundreds of comments, and commentary was provided by expert linguists and scholars.

    Usually, the descriptivist-leaning types would haul out Jane Austen, as this blog writer does, and argue from authority, and past usage, and that’s what we see here.

    The other line of argument is that it doesn’t matter if Austen made a mistake and her editor didn’t correct it – it’s still wrong. There is no such thing as “singular they” because “they” is plural.

    The prescriptivist position is that lax, careless usage leads to lax, careless thinking. For example, let’s say we’re talking about a situation where we have a space capsule, which seats one astronaut. Can we have, “The astronaut should put on their helmet before launch”?

    Well, sure you can. But it’s confusing because there aren’t two or a dozen astronauts. Here, there is one. The plural pronoun looks intrusive and bespeaks the worst sort of political correctness run amok.

    In fact, the answer to this problem is the same as it’s always been: English lacks a neutral third-person pronoun. The smart writer will use a variety of approaches to solve the conundrum, including using plurals or articles, recasting, and the occasional “his or her.”

    Wishing for a panacea, a quick ‘n’ easy fix that eliminates the issue as this blog exhorts, well, that ain’t gonna happen. Sorry.

  • Precise Edit

    As I tell my students (and have had to tell various freelance editors), “they” is often used as a singular pronoun, but frequent usage does not equal grammatical correctness.

    Precise language use and rigorous adherence to grammatical correctness adds to clarity. Additionally, and practically speaking, when people pay us edit and proofread their manuscripts, they want them to be error free. Anything less is bad service.

    In that last paragraph, I could have written, “If someone pays us to edit and proofread his or her…” (which is correct but cumbersome) or “If someone pays us to edit and proofread their…” (which is incorrect). Instead, I used “people” and “their.”

    My two main strategies for resolving this error are as follows, in order of preference.
    1. Use a plural antecedent to allow for the plural pronoun.
    2. Remove the plural pronoun altogether and revise the sentence.

    The article entitled “Sexist Language and Bad Grammar” explores these options in greater detail, but I’ll give you an example of how they are used.

    Consider the following (incorrect) sentence. “Everyone who has a puppy knows they need a carpet cleaner.” This sentence is both wrong (“everyone” vs. “they”) and confusing (does “they” refer to “everyone” or “a puppy”?). This sentence has a singular subject, a singular verb, and a plural pronoun. Whoops!

    Let’s apply the first strategy to the sentence: make the antecedent plural.
    1. “People who have a puppy know they need a carpet cleaner.” This resolves both the agreement problem (“people” is “they”) and the antecedent confusion (“they” can only be “people” because “people” is the only plural noun to which “they” can apply).

    Now let’s apply the second strategy: remove the pronoun and revise.
    2. “Everyone who has a puppy knows the need for a carpet cleaner.” This revision has no pronoun, thus avoiding the issue.

    Here’s the point: A careful writer does not need to use “they” as a singular.

  • thebluebird11

    @Cecily: Context and clarity are obviously two different things, certainly not mutually exclusive. As The Raven so clearly points out (and as Mark pointed out right at the beginning), English lacks a neutral third-person pronoun, but has several other ways of correctly compensating for that, without leaving speakers/writers having to resort to incorrect grammar (as pervasive as it may be). We don’t need to invent a new word; if people are already too lazy, confused or ignorant to use what we have, why invent something else?! That seems, to me, really counterproductive.
    Yes, if you said “The astronaut should put on their helmet,” in context I think everyone would understand what you mean, and I think there would be no problem with clarity. But it’s still incorrect grammar. We have ways to express concepts in context, with clarity and proper grammar all at the same time. Is it so difficult to say “The astronaut should put on a helmet”? If you’re being paid by the word, you can stretch it to “The astronaut should put on his or her helmet.”
    I’m not the Grammar Police; I am not on this planet to tell people what to do. But I choose for myself to speak (or at least write) in an educated manner.

  • Cecily

    thebluebird11: Writing that you choose to use language “in an educated manner” is not an entirely helpful phrase in this debate: British education (and usage) differs from American education and usage regarding singular they/their, just as it does with how to punctuate quotations, how you spell certain words etc.

    The Rave: You state that “The astronaut should put on their helmet before launch” is confusing, but I think it is only confusing to those who insist that “their”, unlike “your”, can only ever be singular. To those like me (i.e. most Brits) who have grown up with the ubiquity of such usage, there is no confusion at all.

  • Doug Murray

    It’s odd to me that this is so controversial when the same principle is almost universally accepted for “you”. I say almost, because here in the South the plural of you, of course, is “y’all” (never “you all”).

  • thebluebird11

    @Precise Edit: “People who have a puppy know they need a carpet cleaner.”
    While I agree with you, I would not be happy with the above sentence, because “people” would more likely have “puppies.” My first choice in rewording the sentence would be, “People who have puppies know that a carpet-cleaner is needed.” Second choice would be “People who have puppies know that they need a carpet-cleaner.” (I am assuming here that a carpet-cleaner is a type of cleanser, some sort of spray or whatever). The reason for the second choice is that there is still some ambiguity, as stated, with the question being, do the people need the carpet-cleaner, or do the puppies need it?
    @Cecily:”Educated” for ME is where I was educated; “educated” as applied to someone else is wherever that someone was educated. While it is obviously common practice (and seemingly correct) for Brits to use they/their, it is not considered correct here in the US. “When in Rome” and all that. If an American uses they/their, it is not because they like the Brit rule better; chances are they aren’t even aware of it. Chances are they are just uneducated or lazy! When I begin to speak with a British accent, I will be sure to use they/their 😉 I must say I prefer Brit accents to mine!

  • Precise Edit

    People with puppies understand the need for a carpet cleaner. — Ambiguity solved.

  • The Raven

    @Cecily: “The Rave: You state that “The astronaut should put on their helmet before launch” is confusing, but I think it is only confusing to those who insist that “their”, unlike “your”, can only ever be singular.”
    ————-
    The point here is a bit more fine. The astronaut example specifies that there is only one capsule, one seat, one astronaut, and one helmet. “They” seems less forced in examples where there is, notionally, some plurality involved.

    For example: “Every student should put their tray in the bin when leaving the hall.” This is improper grammar, but it’s the sort of thing you tend to hear frequently, because we are referring to all students in question. The more the idea of a single, specific individual is being stressed, the weirder “they” looks in such constructions.

    So on my grammatical scale, “singular they” has a sliding level of impropriety, ranging from “almost acceptable” to “grammatically intolerable.”

  • Cassandra

    I only use “they” as singular to refer to someone when I don’t know “their” gender. I think it is acceptable to be used as a genderless singular pronoun since we inconveniently do not have any other genderless singular pronouns than “it,” which is very impersonal and used more to refer to objects than to people.. or when applied to a person, would probably more likely refer to a person who has no gender or is both genders, rather than someone whose gender you don’t know.

    But when anonymity is so rampant on the internet, and most of the time you have no idea whether the person you’re talking to or about is male or female, then a genderless singular pronoun is very much needed.

    Using “he or she” and “he/she” and the like are just very awkward, especially in casual speech, and reconstructing your entire sentence just to avoid the use of one little pronoun seems even more awfully inconvenient to me.

  • Charles

    The pronoun “their” is appropriate and using “to each his own” in referrence to an unknown gender is also correct (especially when men are involved).

  • Lynette Smith

    What happened to the voting option, “Recast the sentence to eliminate the problem”? I was disappointed to be forced to vote for the best of four poor options.

  • Susie

    The Raven and @Cecily: “The astronaut should put on their helmet before launch” Why not just use: The astronaut should put on a helmet…”? Simple, right?

  • Debra Jason

    As a marketing copywriter, I agree that the best solution is the word that sounds the most natural in conversation. Many times I’ve started out by using “his/her”, but as you suggested the use of dual gender terms like this may be suitable in isolation but gets very tiresome in repetition – especially when reading written text.

    Thanks for sharing your point of view. Much appreciated.
    Debra Jason, The Write Direction

  • Karen Cioffi

    I agree. A writer should use whatever he/she feels is right. 🙂

  • Davidka

    “Every student should bring HIS pen,” unless the class is solely female. It is clear, it is universally understood to include both genders and all variants such as hermaphrodites, castrati, trans-genders, and it is concise. “His/her” is awkward and verbose; “her” is irritatingly politically correct; constantly alternating masculine and feminine is irritating, confusing and often absurd; and “their” makes anyone cringe who treasures our mother tongue cringe.

    And I do not think people should rework their writing to evade a non-problem.

  • Eleanor K. Sommer

    As an editor, I allow the use of “they” as a gender-neutral, singular pronoun when it works better than alternatives or massive recasting. In addition, I weary of the use of “he.” Wake up. This is the 21st century. Life evolves. Language evolves. Stuffy academics need to embrace change. If our language is not flexible, our culture may stagnate.

  • Sharon

    Wow Mark — great topic! Your readers share their opinions very eloquently…and there are two definite sides to this debate! The comments are excellent.

  • Fizz

    Don’t forget that the singular “they” is inclusive of trans, genderqueer, and other nonbinary people, some of whom may not identify with “he” or “she” at all. “It,” on the other hand, is used for inanimate things, and totally inappropriate for any human who hasn’t explicitly stated it as an acceptable or preferred pronoun.

  • Alex

    The strict usage of male-specific pronouns isn’t “allegedly disenfranchising” or “possibly disenfranchising”; it IS disenfranchising. That’s a fact. To what degree may be more open to debate, but there’s a difference between a little problem and no problem at all, and shouldn’t we all strive to solve any problems we encounter in our lives and world around us, big or small?

    For those wishing there were gender-neutral pronouns; well, there ARE. Plenty of them, in fact. The ones I’ve heard most often are ze and hir (possessive), but a minute of research turned up several other pairings in use today. The fact that there are so many is probably a contributor as to why none of them have caught on particularly well. Of course, as this article so deftly points out; we already have one: they/their.

    There’s no reason not to adopt they/their as acceptable third person singular pronouns in both informal and formal use. Considering that “they/their” were common and accepted in formal, literary works predating the adoption of “he/his”, not even the typical Old Curmudgeon defense holds much water. They and their are by their very nature inclusive, and inclusivity is a different beast altogether from mere political correctness.

    Besides, if your readers are honestly confused as to whether you are using they/their in singular or plural forms, if your context is that vague, then you have more pressing problems than figuring out which pronoun to use.

  • Beth Terry

    Recently our resident wordsmith and retired Newspaper Publisher with 40 years experience gave a talk to our speakers association wherein he covered the “his/her” vs “they” controversy.

    His take on it? “His or Her” is too awkward. As you pointed out, using “his” was common back when it was OK to write as if all the world were male. But when the consciousness changed and we started to include women, “his or her” became common.

    Thus the writing “rule” about his/her has essentially only been emphasized for about four decades. It interrupts the rhythm and cadence of good writing and it’s awkwardness borders on preening self-consciousness. To me it shouts, “Look at me! I’m gender conscious. I’m making sure everyone reading this is comfortable and everyone will notice I’m being inclusive.”

    IMHO being overly careful about political correctness with “his or her” steals energy from the piece and is rarely required. Not only is “they” singular, it’s used in every day conversation, and people understand what you mean.

    We have to remember English is a fluid language and use changes over time. Rigidly sticking to some rule you learned in the 3rd grade or found in a “Writing Rules” book is a silly reason to write awkward sentences.

  • Wizard Gynoid

    We are they. We are them. We *are* the Men In Black.

  • Dr. Zeile

    Nichol’s discussion overlooks the other convention of the inclusive pronoun, namely, the use of the feminine when speaking of collectives- the nation, the ship, the church. Such collectives are thought of as “carrying us,” a motherhood image, and requiring our submission and/or service. Feminists have failed to acknowledge this aspect of inclusive pronouns because it does not fit in with the paradigm of gender oppression corrected by politally correct speech.

  • Kiki

    There are two reasons I use “they” instead of other choices.

    First, “they” is far less distracting than the awkwardness of he/she. I find all other forms to draw attention to gender, whereas, “they” is genderless, and so gender is not the distracting feature.

    Second, I use “they” as much as I can, because a dictionary is a *reflection* of language, not the determiner of it. The more “they” is used, the more it will become accepted (and less distracting, as I mention above.)

  • Jody Rein

    No, no no! Oh, so eloquently argued, Mark, but, fluidity of language notwithstanding, sometimes incorrect is simply incorrect. Henry Higgins had a point–eloquence elevates, internally and externally. Then again, I lost the battle against “hopefully;” so whats do I knows?

  • Shari

    Consensus does not make an opinion correct; it just makes it popular. And that is not the same thing at all. Using “they” as a singular pronoun is just plain lazy, and it belongs in the same waste bucket as “Please call Eric or myself if you have any questions concerning the contents of this letter.”

  • thebluebird11

    @Fizz: Yes, Cousin It comes to mind!
    @Wizard: If “We are they. We are them. We *are* the Men In Black,” does that mean the *are* the MIB too?!
    @Shari: OUCH, I hurt my eyes and almost barfed up my dinner reading your last sentence LOL! Where is the waste bucket?!

  • Paul Jones

    When speaking and in casual writing, I use they. In formal writing, I use he or his. I find s/he, he or she, his or her, etc. abominations.

  • Karl Udy

    I find “they” to be the best choice. “He/She” is unwieldy, especially when spoken and we must be aware that many written works need to be read aloud.

    For all those who object to the “ungrammatical” use of “they” as a singular pronoun, I suggest you also refrain from the use of “you” as a singular pronoun. “You” is plural, the second person singular is “thou” as anyone reading the Bard or the Authorised Version will observe.

  • Precise Edit

    I can’t stomach “he/she” and “s/he.” “His or her” and variations quickly become cumbersome, as in
    “Each player should take his or her uniform to his or her home to wash before he or she plays in the next game.”

    Let’s look at this error closely.
    “Everyone wants to look their best.”

    When we parse this sentence, we find a singular subject, “everyone.” We also find a singular verb, “wants.” Thus, this incorrect example has a singular subject and singular verb and then, suddenly, switches to the plural “they.”

    Here’s another incorrect sentence: “Each member of the team completes their progress reports daily.” This, too, has a singular subject, a singular verb, and a plural pronoun.

    Happily, a careful writer does not need to rely on “they” (and variations) for the singular.

    I cannot accept the results of the poll because the poll is missing two strategies that will solve this problem, as follows.

    1. Use a plural antecedent: “Members of the team complete their progress reports daily.” This now has a plural subject, plural verb, and plural pronoun. Problem solved

    2. Remove the pronoun and revise as needed: “Each member of the team completes a progress report daily.” This now has a singular subject, singular verb, and no pronoun. Problem solved.

  • Dave

    Good Golly, fellas, ain’t we gonna just say that nothin’ is incorrect no more?

    With all due respect, I cannot agree with Mark and his supporters. There are two arguments used by pro-singular-they team, one being “get over it” and the other being “people talk like this anyway”. Neither appeals to me.

    Let’s face it – whatever uses might have there been for using they as singular by the classics, each instance of the use must be considered separately. Shakespeare used forms of thou in his writings, why shouldn’t we? And I long to meet someone who speaks in the language of Dickens or at least Jane Austin, apart from in BBC films 😉

    I can only say one thing to the purporters of singular they, basing solely on their being British. There are many expressions in Cockney English that will probably never find way into the written norm. Bernard Shaw has depicted brilliantly the transformation that correct language can work on a person.

    So, my general point is in the first sentence. Rebut it if you will.

  • Robert

    Language changes. If it didn’t, we would all be speaking Indo-European. There is a long history of the singular they. At some point it was decreed that a singular they was unacceptable. It truly has nothing to do with singular versus plural, it is treating someone’s decree as if it actually mattered. It is like the split infinitive or ending a sentence with a preposition. There was nothing wrong with either of these, but some grammarian decreed it to be so, so people were taught that it was wrong. That doesn’t make it wrong forever, there is no authority who has the power to decree how the language must be used. Shakespeare used a singular they, Jane Austen used a singular they, the King James Bible used a singular they. They were not incorrect to do so, despite later decrees. And it isn’t wrong today. The alternatives don’t work. He or she is unwieldy, restructuring the sentence is awkward, and just going with he has obvious problems. Parroting “PC!” doesn’t make any point. Those who thought they controlled the language have been vetoed.

  • Dave

    @Friedl
    “Just be grateful that we’re not french, where ‘they’ has both a masculine & feminine form!”

    A good laugh, but French also has a gender-nonspecific third-person-singular pronoun–“l’on”–n’est-ce pas ? 🙂

    @various, re “you/your”–Thanks for bringing up the analogy. I don’t have much of an issue with singular “they,” but I do cringe at the reflexive “themselves” used as singular. How about following the “yourself” model and using “themself” in this context?

  • Dwardo

    After reading this LWD (Long-Winded Debate, pronounced “loud”), one might come away thinking that the nanophrase IMHO (impossible to pronounce) should be avoided when a better alternative, IMAHO (In My Absolutely Humble Opinion–pronounced “I’m a ho”), is available.

    And speaking of alternatives, I recommend that the pronoun combination “his or her or one’s or their” be used to keep everyone happy, except for the laziest, who might prefer the nanophrase HOHOOOT (pronounced “ho hoot”) as in the sentence, “The astronaut should put HOHOOOT helmet on quick!”

    But perhaps the simplest solution is to change the spelling of the singular “they” to “thay” and “their” to “thair,” allowing us to keep saying it like a Brit while letting our readers know we know better. If our singular astronaut really cares, thay will put thair helmet on quick.

    MSTIM (More Said Than I Meant–pronounced “missed ’em”)

    VSFA (Virtual Smiley Face Attached–goes without saying)

    YIKISHWQ (Yes, I know, I should have written quickly.)

  • Kerry

    The debate over the singular ‘they’ is a bit silly, especially since English already has a pronoun that was originally plural, and functions as both a singular and plural pronoun. That pronoun is ‘you’, which was solely plural before the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Before, Middle and Early Modern English had the singular ‘you’, ‘thou’, and the plural and polite singular form of ‘you’, ‘ye’, which had ‘you’ as an objective form. In Old English, the ancestors of ‘thou’ and ‘you’ were strictly singular and plural. The cognates of the word ‘you’ are all plural in Indo-European languages. The same process occurred in the Romance languages; in Latin, ‘tu’ was strictly the singular form of ‘you’, and ‘vos’ was the plural form; in French, ‘tu’ became the familiar form of ‘you’, and ‘vous’ took on two roles as the polite singular form of ‘you’, as well as the all-purpose plural. (In fact, the French usage was what caused English to change from a strictly singular/plural division to a hierarchical system of forms of address.)

    If you use the word ‘you’ as a singular pronoun and think that the singular they is a horrible, unacceptable corruption of the English language, you are a hypocrite. If you’re going to argue on the basis of conservatism and tradition, the argument that ‘they’ is a needless corruption of the language falls flat.

    Using the generic ‘he’ is sexist. I’ve noticed the majority of the people defending this usage are male, and wouldn’t be excluded by the pronoun. The same applies to language like ‘man’ to refer to all people—yes, at one time, the word ‘man’ did refer to all people, but for centuries, it has come to mean ‘males’, so its use as a generic is problematic to many people, including me. Using ‘she/her’ as a generic is noble, but I feel that a lot of people would feel that it was unnecessarily shoehorning feminism into an essay or book. (I don’t personally think so, but I know that its effect is different.) Recasting the sentence is fine. But the singular they isn’t necessarily erroneous, since there is already a precedent for a pronoun changing from strictly plural to singular and plural.

    If you really hate ‘they’, cast your sentence in the plural, or say ‘he or she’. But the argument that the singular they is a newfangled corruption of the English language is not the best one to use to state your case.

  • Virginia

    English major alert: I was taught in both undergraduate and graduate coursework that using “they” or “their” in the singular is the lazy writer’s way to avoid being sexist. That implied threat of appearing to be lazy with words has stuck with me, and as a professional editor today, I still can’t let the singular usage pass. It’s not that difficult to recast most sentences.

    It does appear “they” is destined to be the future generic pronoun, but as long as I have the skill myself — and the red pen to change it in copy that crosses my desk — I will continue to use it in the traditionally correct manner.

  • Cloudy-7

    I prefer “they” because it includes all those outside the gender binary. Not everyone is strictly male or female, and using he/she does not include that group of people.

  • Henry

    I have always been reluctant to use a plural pronoun for a singular antecedent. However, I am slowly being swayed otherwise. I still believe though that the best approach, in formal writing at least, is to avoid it. You can (nearly) always rewrite the sentence so that the pronoun and the antecendent agree.

    I find that antecedent disagreement is one of the most commonly made grammatical error in modern writing, regardless to whether they or their is deemed acceptable. By sticking to and being mindful to this rule, you end up with better sentences.

    I recently reviewed a script, and in a single paragraph, you have “someone” “users” “people” all referring to the same subject. “Their” is used as a possessive pronoun. In that same paragraph, the object is singular in one sentence and plural in another, again referring to the same object.

    The important thing, I suppose, is being consistent. Sticking to the rule helps that.

  • Charles

    Though I’ve lived for more than half a century without any need to use plurals as singulars, I’d support the introduction or re-introduction of a set of gender-neutral singular pronouns. I’ll even use “it” and “its”.

    The argument that we already have “you” working as both singular and plural, so “they”, “them” and “their” should work just as well, simply doesn’t wash. There are continually attempts to distinguish between singular “you” and plural “you all”. Of course, some monkeys have turned “y’all” into a singular so now we have “all y’all” as well.

    The teachers rather than the ignorant or uneducated should determine the evolution of English. Failing to teach people to speak correctly is one thing, but allowing those same people to drag English down is absolutely ridiculous.

  • 1 IQ Point

    I must disagree with this article on a few grounds.

    Firstly, although it is absolutely correct that the English language severely needs a singular third-person pronoun suitable for a person of unknown or indeterminate gender, “they” cannot be accepted as the ultimate solution as things currently stand.

    While [which is a perfectly acceptable subordinating conjunction to begin a sentence with] it is true that there are many examples of “they” being used as a singular pronoun throughout history, this cannot be accepted as a reason for declaring it to be correct. Imagine how many people nowadays confuse “they’re”, “their”, and “there”, and then take a moment to be grateful that those words are not accepted as interchangeable. Of course, the things I am comparing are very different, but my point remains that something is not declared correct simply because it is common; there such things as common mistakes.

    The most significant problem in adopting “they” as a singular pronoun is the fact that it remains awkward in some contexts. Consider the following:

    “The person who wrote this article had very strong opinions.”

    “Yes, they certainly did.”

    The preceding dialogue is read and spoken easily, and ‘feels’ correct. However, “they” begins to sound awkward when referring to a person who is directly present and clearly a single individual. This dialogue provides an example:

    “Who is this?”

    “They are my cousin. Aren’t they cute?”

    “But are they a boy or a girl?”

    “I can’t recall which gender they are.”

    That sounds a bit awkward, doesn’t it? Although that situation was very fabricated, it makes the flaw of “they” clearly apparent. Not to mention that even in this context, we still resort to treating “they” as being inherently a plural pronoun. Notice that the plural verb “are” was used instead of the singular “is” in my dialogue. If we were to treat “they” as a proper singular pronoun and pair it with a singular verb, the result would be as follows:

    “Who is this?”

    “They is my cousin. Isn’t they cute?”

    “But is they a boy or a girl?”

    “I can’t recall which gender they is.”

    This dialogue is no longer even remotely acceptable to either the casual listener or the strict grammarian. For comparison, replace “they” with “it” in the second version of the conversation. While coldly distant (since our speakers would be using “it” to refer to a person), the dialogue would be perfectly grammatical if the pronoun in use was properly singular.

    It is then clear that “they” is not the answer to our grammatical struggles with subjects of indeterminate gender. Until such time as an answer surfaces, we speakers of the English language must simple muddle through as best as we can.

  • Norman BIrt.x

    It’s unfortunate that grammar and relations between the sexes(‘sexual politics’) have become enmeshed with each other, because usages which some people think likely to promote sexual equality subvert both logical and grammatical speech and writing and can introduce both inelegance and contortion of meaning.

    I don’t believe the use of politically correct grammar and diction is any more likely to promote sensible or egalitarian attitudes than is the imposition of outward religious conformity to promote genuine piety.Someone might conform to p.c. language conventions and persist in regarding the opposite sex with contempt or jealous resentment.Hypocricy doesn’t assure moral improvement.

    As long as some men regard women as inferior their use of ‘degendered’ language will only disguise their nasty attitudes.

    Even if ‘degendered’ grammar and diction were proven to promote better attitudes its use would still be contrary to good style and to logic.
    To speak of individuals as if they were plural is illogical and unaesthetic. Expressions such as ‘someone who thinks too much of themselves’ make those who use them seem ridiculous.

    The prevalent prejudice against logical and elegant ‘prescriptive’ grammar is a prejudice against logic and education.It is a prejudice adhered to by the uneducated and wilfully ignorant and typifies the childish resentment of the better informed which is so commonexesamongst in people who have massive inferiority comple
    To say such things as

  • Jerry

    Consider this recent example. The gender of the health care worker is unknown because he/she did not wish to be identified:

    “Dr. David Varga, of the Texas Health Resource, says the worker was in full protective gear when they provided care to Thomas Eric Duncan during his second visit to Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital.”

    Could the writer have said “when he or she provided care to Thomas Eric Duncan during Duncan’s second visit…? Could the sentence have been recast as “while providing care during Thomas Eric Duncan’s second visit…..”?

    In the context of such an important story, “they” seems jarring. Only one worker was infected. “They” could unintentionally imply more than one.

  • theodor

    To all the purists saying they must be plural, this is some new rule you’ve invented, it can be plural or singular. And language evolves anyhow, even if it weren’t.

    However, if you want to be really correct, the correct pronoun is ‘ONE’ . I dont know why everyone was and is trying to find new words when this already fitted more than any of them, is correct, yet not mentioned, didn’t they have the dictionary at hand writing grammatical essays?

    well, each person is entitled to one’s own opinion…

  • Cassie

    I was discussing this topic with an AP Literature teacher the other day, and a point she mentioned that I hadn’t thought of was that the pronoun ‘they’ can be a chosen singular pronoun for individuals who decline to identify as either male or female, those who identify with a third gender, or those whose identify as genderless. In this sense, ‘they’ is as definite a gender article as ‘he’ or ‘she’, and so she suggested using ‘he or she’ when referring to a person of unknown gender. This seems exclusive to me, though, obviously discounting those who identify with the ‘they’ pronoun and only referring to people who chose to use the ‘he’ or ‘she’ pronouns.

    Personally, given the increasing informal use of ‘they’ as a pronoun for someone of unknown gender, I think it is the most efficient and convenient way to refer to a person of unknown gender.

  • Monzur

    Is it a grammar mistake to use “they” when only one gender is possible? For example, if all the students in a class were male, then the teacher said, “If anyone has a question, they should raise their hand,” but there are only “he”s in the lesson. So is that grammatically incorrect?

  • Rachel R.

    The bias in this article is clear and strong. Supposedly it is “absurd to resist adopting it when it fills an aching need,” but that makes two assumptions:

    1) That it is absurd to resist the adoption of “they” this context but NOT absurd to resist the adoption of “he.” There is at least as strong an argument for “he” as for “they.” They is plural. He is singular. You (or your “camp”) argue that “he” is masculine; I would argue that it is either masculine or neuter — just as you argue that “they” is either singular or plural.

    2) That there is an “aching need.” I disagree. I believe “he” serves perfectly well. The mere fact that our neuter option and our masculine option happen to be the same does not negate that we HAVE a neuter option.

    Cling to your singular “they” if you must, but understand that you’re not being any less “absurd” than I am.

  • PAUL WILLIAM DIXON

    I am British and I prefer the rewording option.
    Each person can have his own opinion > Everyone can have an opinion.
    The passenger can check in his luggage on arrival > Passengers can check in their luggage on arrival, etc.
    Interestingly, in Portuguese new words ending in x have been created, rather than the masculine o and the feminine a (also in adjectives which in Portuguese agree with the noun). This is not current yet, but popular in Facebook, for example.
    Ele (he), ela (she) so we have elx (gender-neutral)
    bonito (handsome, masc.) bonita (pretty, fem), so we have bonitx (pretty, gender-neutral). However, no-one knows how these x-ended words would be pronounced.

Leave a comment: