Is “They” Acceptable as a Singular Pronoun?

By Mark Nichol

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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?”

  • 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.

  • Spoonwood

    “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.”

    This sort of argument appeals to the historical usage of a word. But, when we appeal to the historical usage of a word, how far back should we go to determine the nature of the word?

    In my opinion, we would do best to go back to the point when a word first enters a language to resolve any controversies. Why? Because the amount of knowledge of the history of words comes as limited. Because history can establish context when there exist doubts about meaning. Because when we go back to the point when a word first enters a language, the distinctness of languages becomes clearer.

    With ‘they’, when it enters the English language, it is masculine and plural. Thus, I do not find any prejudice in saying that ideally the singular use of ‘they’ errs (which is to say WANDERS) away from it’s historical roots. And ‘they’ as plural would make for a preferable state of affairs, because we are less lost with respect to the context and meaning of words.

  • Jesse

    I’m reading this comment thread (mostly from 2011) in 2018 and it’s fascinating to see how this discussion–on the internet and elsewhere–has evolved in seven years…and also the ways in which it hasn’t. We living in interesting times, folks!

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