Grammar Basics: How to Use Singular “They”

Grammar Basics: How to Use Singular “They”
Updated on 23 March 2016

You probably learned about “they” and other pronouns in the first grade. “They” is the third-person plural pronoun, used for talking about groups of things or people.

Henry and Lucy want to go to the movies, but they (Henry and Lucy) don’t have enough money.

“Never tell people how to do things. Tell them what to do and they (people in general) will surprise you with their ingenuity.” —George S. Patton

When you’re only talking about one person, though, the only pronoun choices you have are “he” or “she,” even if you don’t know the gender of the person in question. At one time, usage guides advised writers to always use “he,” but in time, people started to think about gender equality. Should the pronoun “he” continue to represent indefinite pronouns and singular nouns in cases of unknown or unspecified gender? In speech and even in some writing, people had already started using “they” as a singular pronoun. In fact, people were using the singular “they” all the way back in the fourteenth century. So why not also accept the singular “they” in formal writing? Some people still balk at the practice, calling it an antecedent-pronoun agreement error. However, the American Dialect Society voted the singular “they” as the 2015 Word of the Year. Bill Walsh, copy editor and author of “The Elephants of Style” calls the move “the only sensible solution to English’s lack of a gender-neutral third-person singular personal pronoun.” How do you use it?

Use the singular “they” to replace unknown or unspecified gender:

I will have an interview with an executive. (You have never met this person, and you do not know their sex.) Rather than the bulky “he or she,” use “they” to refer to this singular person: They will ask me questions that I hope I can answer!

Formerly, “he” filled this role. Now, you have a gender-neutral option. What will “they” think of next?

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