What Is the Singular They?
They is a third-person pronoun, usually referring to a group of something.
It is possible, however, to use they in reference to a single something (the same is true for the possessive, objective, and reflexive forms of they: their, them, and themselves). This is sometimes called the singular they.
You can see the singular they in action in the example above. This sentence also demonstrates a common reason people reach for the singular they in both writing and speech: English has no gender-neutral third-person singular pronoun that can be used for talking about people. (Referring to a person as it is derogatory). In the sentence above, the gender of the teacher is unknown; it’s also irrelevant. You might even argue that it doesn’t really exist, because we’re not talking about any particular teacher. We’re talking about teachers in general.
Some people assume that the singular they is a modern invention, perhaps a contrivance to replace the outdated rule that writers should use he/him/his as the generic singular third-person pronoun. But, in fact, the singular they has a long, established history as a standard construction. Merriam-Webster cites examples from Chaucer, Shakespeare, Byron, Swift, Austen, and even the King James Bible.
Furthermore, the singular they isn’t only (or even mainly) used as a pronoun with indefinite gender. As Steven Pinker points out in his book The Sense of Style, it also functions as a pronoun of indefinite number. A frequently cited example from George Bernard Shaw illustrates this use:
The gender of the hypothetical person in this example is unambiguous. But substituting he instead of they changes the meaning of the sentence. “But he does get killed” would imply that Shaw is talking about a specific man. If we changed “No man” to “No men,” though, it sounds like a generalization. We lose the subtle nuance of meaning that emphasizes the fact that every single man who goes to battle does so at extreme personal risk.
Why Do People Get So Worked Up About It?
If the singular they has both pragmatic and nuanced applications, as well as a long and respectable history, why is it so often decried as grammatical heresy? No one worried much about the singular they until the eighteenth century, when prescriptive grammarians decided that he/him/his should be the default indefinite pronoun. Although other invented rules, such as the proscription against ending a sentence with a preposition, have been thoroughly abandoned, the ban on the singular they has been slower to erode because so many of us have been taught that it is a terrible mistake.
But defaulting to he is not only outdated and widely considered to be sexist—it often just doesn’t work.
Obviously, he/him/his is not a generic pronoun.
Ways Around the Singular They
Often, skilled writers can rephrase sentences to avoid the problem of the singular they altogether. The widely disliked he or she is one option. But the result is often awkward and fussy:
Another option is to make the antecedent of the pronoun plural, which would uncontroversially agree with the pronoun they.
In longer pieces, some writers simply alternate between using his and her for generic examples.
But experienced writers also know that these tricks don’t always work.
When You Can’t Avoid It
A good rule of thumb is that if you can avoid using the singular they, then avoid it; it’s unnecessary. The more unnecessary the singular they is in a particular sentence, the more it will stick out.
Their sticks out here because it doesn’t seem necessary or natural. (Although it isn’t true for everyone, for the purposes of this example, we will assume that the friend identifies as either he or she.) Presumably, you are aware of your friend’s gender, so it would seem more natural to say “My friend left her jacket in the theater” or “My friend left his jacket in the theater.”
The singular their is less noticeable here because the pronoun someone is itself indefinite. But you could still easily avoid it by writing “Someone left a jacket in the theater.” That particular escape hatch, however, doesn’t work with a sentence like:
Of the three examples, this sentence contains the least noticeable singular their. There’s no way to get rid of their without totally rewriting the sentence. You could say “Whoever lost this jacket probably regrets the carelessness of leaving it behind,” but, frankly, that’s obnoxiously wordy. You could say “The owner of this jacket probably regrets losing it,” but that doesn’t mean quite the same thing. In this particular sentence, the singular their is the best choice.
So, Is It Ok to Use the Singular They?
Yes. But remember that not all readers accept the usage, and it’s likely that someone, somewhere, will be annoyed. In general, the more formal the situation, the harder you should try to avoid using the singular they. If you do use it, the best way to avoid getting into trouble is to be sure you understand why it’s necessary. And, remember, the reflexive form of they is themselves, not themself.