Is “They” Acceptable as a Singular Pronoun?

By Mark Nichol - 3 minute read

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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).

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115 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)

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