Of all areas of disputed English grammar, the use of they to refer to
a singular antecedent is among the most prominent.
The lesson: Tell that special person you love them
before they’re gone.
Them and they both refer to that special person.
Every parent wants their child to be successful in
Their refers to every parent.
Many style and grammar authorities have rejected this use on the grounds
that they is a pronoun with reference to more than one person;
according to this argument, only he and she, which indicate gender,
can refer to a single person. Some have branded it a sign of sloppy
grammar, or even a modern, artificial re-engineering of the language to
force it to have a gender-neutral pronoun.
In this article, references to the
use of “singular they” will be understood to extend to the analogous
use of the possessive determiner their and the object pronoun them;
discussions of he encompass his and him, and so forth.
Although rejectors of singular they frequently view it as an
innovation, its history is long and complex, and begins with the
surprising discovery that they isn’t originally English at all.
English had the third-person personal subject pronouns hē (masculine
nominative), hēo (feminine nominative) and hīe (plural nominative,
any gender). The genitive forms were his (masculine), hire
(feminine) and heora (plural, any gender).
Languages rarely borrow
pronouns, but by the 13th century, following a period of intense contact
with the Vikings, Middle English had adopted the Old Norse plural
masculine demonstrative þeir as the plural pronoun they/thei, and
the Old Norse genitive plural þeirra (any gender) as the possessive
determiner þeir/their (any gender). They and their gradually
displaced the native hīe and heora. Just a century later, in the
1300s, we find the first attested uses of they with singular
Eche on in þer craft ys wijs.
(“Each one in their craft is wise.”) —The Wycliffite Bible (1382)
The following centuries show numerous examples of they/their/them
with a singular antecedent, often one of indeterminate identity such as
any person, no one, whosoever, and so forth. An instance by
Chaucer occurs following whoso in The Pardoner’s Prologue of The
Canterbury Tales (circa 1400):
Q. Is it acceptable to use "they" as a singular, gender-neutral pronoun?
APA 6th Edition
In general, informal use, “they” is often used “to refer to a person whose gender is irrelevant or unknown” (Lee, 2015, para.
5); however, this usage is usually avoided in formal writing and authors are instead encouraged to find an alternative approach.
For example, the APA Style rules have not yet shifted to incorporate using “they” as a singular, third-person pronoun (para. 10), and instead offer the following alternatives:
- Make the sentence plural: “Participants indicated their preferences.”
- Rewrite the sentence to replace the pronoun with an article (a, an, or the): “The participant indicated a preference.”
- Rewrite the sentence to drop the pronoun: “The participant indicated preferences.”
- Combine both singular pronouns (he or she, she or he, his or her, her or his, etc.): “The participant indicated his or her preferences.” (However, avoid overusing this strategy, as it can become cumbersome upon many repetitions.) (para. 6)
“They” can be used as a singular, gender-neutral pronoun when the writer strives for gender inclusivity and a recognition of gender diversity. In those contexts, authors may wish to provide an explanation of this usage of “they” so that audience understands the pronoun choice.
For more information, please see “The Use of Singular 'They' in APA Style” from the APA Style Blog.
Lee, C. (2015, November 16). The use of singular “they” in APA Style [Blog post]. Retrieved from http://blog.apastyle.org/apastyle/2015/11/the-use-of-singular-they-in-apa-style.html
APA 7th Edition
Per the APA Style rules, “the singular “they” is a generic third-person singular pronoun in English.
Use of the singular “they” is endorsed as part of APA Style because it is inclusive of all people and helps writers avoid making assumptions about gender” (American Psychological Association, n.d., para. 1).
For information on using inclusive pronouns, including different forms of “they” as a singular pronoun, please visit Singular ‘They’.
American Psychological Association. (n.d.). Singular “they”. APA Style. https://apastyle.apa.org/style-grammar-guidelines/grammar/singular-they
It Is OK To Use "They" To Describe One Person
Has someone ever asked you to refer to them as they instead of he or she? Or, are you hedging because you can’t possibly refer to one single person as they? What if we told you that they has been used to refer to just one person since at least the 1300s?
How can they be a pronoun for one person?
Language teachers instruct us on the basic pronouns. Those are the words in a language that can be subbed in when nouns (people, places, or things) aren’t up for playing … or when it just takes too much time to say the full noun form.
In English, I, he, she, you, and it are all pronouns you surely learned along the way. Maybe you also learned that they were used to refer to singular nouns, i.e.
, words that describe just one person, one place, or one thing.
I am going to eat chocolate for breakfast is a sentence that you automatically know is just about you, the one person who is living their best life with a decadent daily treat.
But, notice how we just used they when we were talking about a whole bunch of things? Grammatically, they is used as a plural pronoun, a word that’s used to describe multiple people, places, or things. They all read Dictionary.com, for example, would probably mean a bunch of really cool logophiles sat around on a Friday night looking for definitions together, right? (Hey, we tried).
Check out much more from Dictionary.com on Gender & Sexuality
But, they is not only a plural pronoun.
This chameleon word is also a singular pronoun, and it has been for centuries. Lexicographers have determined that as far back as the 1300s, they has been used as a gender-neutral pronoun, a word that was substituted in place of either he (a masculine singular pronoun) or she (a feminine singular pronoun), e.g.
, Each student should get their supplies ready for class. Each student is singular, but we don’t know (or need to know) the gender/sex identity of each student in this situation, so their is perfectly handy.
Even Chaucer, Shakespeare, Jane Austen, and other beloved writers of the English literary canon used singular they.
Fast forward to this century when The American Dialect Society’s 2015 Word of the Year was the gender-neutral singular use of they.
This vote, as it happened, came just after the late Bill Walsh, a copyeditor at the Washington Post, announced that the newspaper’s official style guide now allows the use of gender-neutral singular they.
He called the use of they “the only sensible solution to English’s lack of a gender-neutral third-person singular personal pronoun.”
Opposition of the usage is waning these days.
They is actually an extremely useful word
When we don’t know (or don’t need to know) the gender of the person we’re talking about, they really comes in handy. We even used a variation of it earlier. Did you catch where we said their? Scroll back up!
It’s also an extremely important, powerful, and useful way for people who are nonbinary—don’t identify with the binary genders of female and male to describe themselves, because they and them are not explicitly gendered.
Sharing our pronouns—as the practice of divulging what pronouns you prefer to use for yourself is called—is a way of sharing our gender identity with the world. You might identify as female and ask that people refer to you as she/her/hers.
Or, maybe you identify as male and your friends use he/him/his when they talk about you. For people who are nonbinary, they may ask you to use they/them/their as pronouns for them.
Let’s discuss nonbinary pronouns some more.
What pronouns should you use when referring to a nonbinary person?
This question calls for a quick grammar lesson. For a person who prefers nonbinary they or when you need to use a gender-neutral pronoun, we recommend you use the following grammatical forms:
They (nominative pronoun)
Use they to indicate a nonbinary or gender-neutral subject (doer) of a verb (action) instead of he or she.
For example: They cook an amazing lasagna or They have an important meeting at noon.
Them (objective pronoun)
Use them to indicate a nonbinary or gender-neutral object (receiver) of a verb or preposition, instead of him or her.
For example: I sent them a birthday card or I went to the summer pool party with them.
Their/theirs (possessive pronoun)
Use their or theirs to indicate a nonbinary or gender-neutral person has possession, instead of his or her/hers.
For example: They gave me their extra ticket to the concert or That package at the door is theirs.
Themself/themselves/theirself/theirselves (reflexive pronoun)
In grammar, a reflexive pronoun is used when a subject and object (of a verb) are referring to the same thing or person. It is also used when the object of verb is referring back to the subject. (Yep, grammar gets abstract, so check out the examples below.)
There are several options people use for a singular, nonbinary, gender-neutral reflexive pronoun: themself, themselves, theirself, and theirselves.
- They rinsed themselves off after going to the beach.
- They rinsed themself off after going to the beach.
- They run the business all by theirself.
- They run the business all by theirselves.
Does singular they take a singular or plural verb?
While singular they can refer to one person, it still takes a plural verb. In fact, we did it above: They run the business all by theirself, generally never They runs the business all by theirselves.
Keep in mind that, when referring to a nonbinary or gender-conforming person by name, you use a singular verb. For instance: Jess cooks an amazing lasagna inspired by their grandmother’s recipe.
They love making modern twists on traditional cuisine.
Also keep in mind that, while singular they widely takes a plural verb, someone individuals who identify as nonbinary may individually prefer using a singular verb with singular they: They cooks an amazing lasagna. If you don’t know someone’s preference, ask!
But, we know what you’re asking: a singular pronoun but a plural verb? Sound inconceivable to you? You do it everyday. We all do it. In fact, the pronoun you was originally only the plural form for the second person. By the 1700s, you had largely supplanted thou as the singular pronoun for the second person—and it took a plural verb with it, as in We trust you can handle singular they.
Singular, nonbinary they is about much more than just grammar
Rory Gory is Digital Marketing Manager for The Trevor Project, the world’s largest suicide prevention and crisis intervention organization for LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and questioning) young people. Rory uses they/them/their pronouns, and explains the importance of using and respecting people’s preferred pronouns:
Neither sex nor gender is inherently binary in humans, and having a pronoun which can correctly identify non-binary people helps us communicate clearly and respectfully with each other.
The singular, nonbinary they has been used for centuries, and while many commonly use plural verbs with the pronoun they, you can also use a singular verb, as is done with the pronoun you.
At The Trevor Project, many of the young people we serve and the staff members of our organization use they pronouns to be seen and recognized for their true gender identities, regardless of their gender expression.
So, next time someone asks you to use they in the singular, tell them you’re on board. The dictionary approves! And, for more from Rory Gory and gender-inclusive language, check out “How The Letter ‘X’ Creates More Gender-Neutral Language” and “Why Is ‘Bisexual Such A Charged Word?”
Gendered Pronouns & Singular “They” // Purdue Writing Lab
This section has information about how to use pronouns correctly.
Linguistically, pronouns are words that refer to people by replacing proper nouns, like names. A pronoun can refer to either a person talking or a person who is being talked about. Common pronouns include they/them/theirs, she/her/hers, and he/him/his.
Pronouns indicate the gender of a person; traditionally, he refers to males while she refers to females. The English language does not have a gender-neutral third-person singular personal pronoun, but in recent years they has gained considerable traction in this role.
They has been officially recognized as correct by several key bodies such as the Associated Press.
Similarly, the Chicago Manual of Style now notes that the singular “they” is common in informal communication (while acknowledging that it has yet to attain the same ubiquity in formal spaces).
Knowing that “they” can be used to refer to individual people allows writers to avoid defaulting to he in regular use. It is also important for people whose genders are neither male nor female.
In the words of the Chicago Manual (17th ed.
), “Some people identify not with a gender-specific pronoun but instead with the pronoun they and its forms or some other gender-neutral singular pronoun; any such preference should generally be respected.”
What is gender inclusive language? What does it have to do with the OWL?
Historically, the OWL has had resources on gender inclusive language that mainly focus on incorporating women into general language—for instance, using “he or she” or just “she” as the pronoun for a general subject, rather than always defaulting to “he.
” Now, the conversation on gender inclusive language has expanded further to include people whose genders are neither male nor female (e.g., gender-nonconforming, gender-neutral, genderfluid, genderqueer, or nonbinary individuals, though this list is not exhaustive).
In basic terms, this means that he and she are not sufficient to describe the genders of all people, because not all people are either male or female. As such, the phrase “he or she” does not cover the full range of persons.
The alternative pronoun most commonly used is they, often referred to as singular they. Here’s an example:
Someone left his or her backpack behind. → Someone left their backpack behind.
Since we don’t know the gender of the person who left their backpack behind, we use they to include all genders as possibilities for that mystery person. In addition to being respectful of people of all genders, this makes the sentence shorter and easier to say. In fact, almost all of us use this language on a regular basis without even thinking about it.
While they is already a common part of the English language, especially while speaking, there are other third-person singular pronouns in use that you may encounter in writing. Some of these include zie/zim/zir and sie/sie/hir. The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee's LGBT Center has a chart with more options, but even this is not exhaustive.
Some things to keep in mind when using gender-inclusive pronouns:
Introducing Your Pronouns: If you are unsure of how to best ask for someone’s pronouns, you could introduce yourself and the pronouns you use. Thus, you invite the individual to give their pronouns as well if they so choose. For example:
Hello, my name is [insert], and my pronouns are she/her/hers; he/him/his; or they/them/theirs; etc.
Privacy: The main thing one should avoid is making assumptions about an individual’s gender identity.
There is a small danger of outing someone who is trans or nonbinary who might not want that information disclosed. Pay attention to the situation and to how people refer to themselves.
Ask everyone what pronouns they use (even if you think you know). Try to get into the habit of introducing yourself and your pronouns.
Mistakes Happen:As long as you are earnestly putting forth effort to be respectful to someone’s pronouns, small mistakes can be forgiven as long as you learn from them. Being aware of gender pronouns expresses to individuals that you are an ally. People are allowed to be people and ask how to be addressed since that is inherently their right.
Why should we use this kind of language?
Isn’t this incorrect grammar?
In short, no. Grammar shifts and changes over time; for instance, the clunky he or she that a singular they replaces is actually a fairly recent introduction into the language.
Singular they has been used for a long time and is used in most casual situations; you probably do it yourself without realizing it.
We are simply witnessing a reorientation of the rule, mostly with the intention of including more people in language.
When individuals whose gender is neither male nor female (e.g. nonbinary, agender, genderfluid, etc.) use the singular they to refer to themselves, they are using the language to express their identities. Adopting this language is one way writers can be inclusive of a range of people and identities.
Isn’t this political?
Conversations around gender and sexuality have always been political, as Dr. John d’Emilio, Professor of History and Gender and Women's Studies Emeritus at the University of Illinois at Chicago, has discussed in his numerous publications, which have impacted national public policy.
However, using gender-inclusive language and gender-neutral pronouns is not just a move for the sake of political correctness. As mentioned above, these practices are becoming officially recognized by language organizations and other official bodies.
Recently, the Chicago Manual Style and the Associated Press (AP) style book have both announced that they will be accepting they/them/their as an example of a singular and/or gender-neutral pronoun. The American Dialect Society crowned singular they its word of the year in 2015.
That same year, the Oxford Dictionaries website added the honorific Mx, defining it as “a title used before a person's surname or full name by those who wish to avoid specifying their gender or by those who prefer not to identify themselves as male or female” (OED Online).
Is this just a trend?
Gender neutral pronouns were not invented in the modern period—they have a vast and long history. The Oxford English Dictionary’s first citation for a gender-neutral, indefinite they is from about 1375 from the romance of William of Palerne.
The use of they as an indefinite pronoun which refers to people in general has been used even longer. They appears in 1382 in Wycliffe’s translation of the Bible.
Additionally,in Much Ado about Nothing, Shakespeare uses they in the line, “To strange sores, strangely they straine the cure” (see OED Online).
However, it has only been recently, with the changing conception of gender and society’s growing acceptance of non-binary individuals, that gender-neutral pronouns have been more widely discussed.
How can I learn more about gender inclusive language?
- The Chicago Manual of Style on Singular They
- Oxford Dictionary Entry for They
- NCTE Position Statement on Gender-Fair Use of Language
- American Dialect Society on singular They as 2015 word of the year
- University of Wisconsin-Madison on Using Gender–Neutral Pronouns in Academic Writing
You might also be interested in these resources:
- LGBTQ+ Center at Purdue's Terminology List
- University of Minnesota's List of Nonbinary Gender Pronouns
- American Psychological Association (APA) LGBT Resources and Publications
“They, pron., adj., adv., and n.” OED Online, Oxford University Press, June 2017.
The singular “they” is a generic third-person singular pronoun in English.
Use of the singular “they” is endorsed as part of APA Style because it is inclusive of all people and helps writers avoid making assumptions about gender.
Although usage of the singular “they” was once discouraged in academic writing, many advocacy groups and publishers have accepted and endorsed it, including Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary.
- Always use a person’s self-identified pronoun, including when a person uses the singular “they” as their pronoun.
- Also use “they” as a generic third-person singular pronoun to refer to a person whose gender is unknown or irrelevant to the context of the usage.
- Do not use “he” or “she” alone as generic third-person singular pronouns. Use combination forms such as “he or she” and “she or he” only if you know that these pronouns match the people being described.
- Do not use combination forms such as “(s)he” and “s/he.”
- If you do not know the pronouns of the person being described, reword the sentence to avoid a pronoun or use the pronoun “they.”
Use following forms of the singular “they”:
|they||Casey is a gender-fluid person. They are from Texas and enjoy tacos.|
|them||Every client got a care package delivered to them.|
|their||Each child played with their parent.|
|theirs||The cup of coffee is theirs.|
|themselves (or themself)||A private person usually keeps to themselves [or themself].|
Here are some tips to help you use the proper forms:
- Use a plural verb form with the singular pronoun “they” (i.e., write “they are” not “they is”).
- Use a singular verb form with a singular noun (i.e., write “Casey is” or “a person is,” not “Casey are” or “a person are”).
- Both “themselves” and “themself” are acceptable as reflexive singular pronouns; however, “themselves” is currently the more common usage.
If using the singular “they” as a generic third-person pronoun seems awkward, try rewording the sentence or using the plural.
|Rewording the sentence||I delivered a care package to the client.|
|Using the plural||Private people usually keep to themselves.|
However, do not use alternatives when people use “they” as their pronoun—always use the pronouns that people use to refer to themselves.
Legistics Singular "They"
The use of the singular “they” is becoming more common not only in spoken but in written English and can prove to be useful to legislative counsel in a legislative context to eliminate gender-specific language and heavy or awkward repetition of nouns.
Consider using the third-person pronouns “they”, “their”, “them”, “themselves” or “theirs” to refer to a singular indefinite noun, to avoid the unnatural language that results from repeating the noun.
Do not use “they” to refer to a definite singular noun.
Ensure that the pronoun's antecedent is clear.
Most dictionaries and grammars deal with the singular usage of “they” and its other grammatical forms (“their”, “them”, “themselves” or “theirs”). This usage is also reflected in the legislative practices of other jurisdictions.
Consider using the third-person pronouns “they”, “their”, “them”, “themselves” or “theirs” to refer to a singular indefinite noun, to avoid the unnatural language that results from repeating the noun. Examples of singular indefinite nouns are:
- no one/nobody
- every applicant
- any officer
- every judge
Do not use “they” to refer to a definite singular noun. Examples of definite nouns are:
- Solicitor General
- Chief Electoral Officer
- Receiver General
- Attorney General
(Pronouns for definite nouns are discussed in the article on Gender-neutral Language.)
Ensure that the pronoun's antecedent is clear.
For example, “When an applicant notifies the other residents, they must lodge a section 12 notice within 14 days.” The use of “they” in this sentence is ambiguous; it is not clear if the antecedent is “residents” or “applicant”.
In this case, use of the pronoun is not advised and it would be better to repeat the noun “applicant”, replace it with “he or she”, or re-write the sentence to avoid the use of the pronoun altogether, as follows: “When notifying the other residents, an applicant must lodge a section 12 notice within 14 days”.
|Subject to this Act, every person who is qualified as an elector is entitled to have the person's name included in the list of electors.||Subject to this Act, every person who is qualified as an elector is entitled to have their name included in the list of electors.|
|…that person has no other residential quarters that the person considers to be the person's residence.||…that person has no other residential quarters that they consider to be their residence.|
|Between the date of issue of the writ and polling day, each returning officer shall update the Register of Electors from the information that the returning officer obtains in the course of duty.||Between the date of issue of the writ and polling day, each returning officer shall update the Register of Electors from the information that they obtain in the course of duty.|
|Each revising agent shall take an oath in the prescribed form before beginning the revising agent's duties.||Each revising agent shall take an oath in the prescribed form before beginning their duties.|
|…the person against whom the objection is made, where that person wishes to present the person's position,…||…the person against whom the objection is made, where they wish to present their position,…|
|A person who knowingly makes a false or misleading statement, orally or in writing, relating to the person's qualification as an elector…||A person who knowingly makes a false or misleading statement, orally or in writing, relating to their qualification as an elector…|
|…whether those tasks are performed by that person or on that person's behalf.||…whether those tasks are performed by them or on their behalf.|
|The exporter of a device shall maintain, at the exporter's principal place of business in Canada, …||The exporter of a device shall maintain, at their principal place of business in Canada ,…|
The Canadian Oxford Dictionary:
4. disputed as a third person sing. indefinite pronoun meaning 'he or she'. The use of they instead of 'he or she' is common in spoken English and increasingly so in written English, although still deplored by some people.
It is particularly useful when the sex of the person is unspecified or unknown and the writer wishes to avoid the accusation of sexism that can arise from the use of he. Similarly, their can replace 'his' or 'his or her' and themselves 'himself' or 'himself or herself', e.g.
Everyone must provide their own lunch; Did anyone hurt themselves in the accident?
The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary:
2. Often used in reference to a singular noun made universal by every, any, no, etc., or applicable to either sex (= 'he or she')
3. Often used in relation to a singular noun or pronoun denoting a person, after each, every, either, neither, no one, everyone, etc. Also so used instead of 'his or her', when the gender is inconclusive or uncertain.
2. In concord with a singular pronoun or noun denoting a person, in cases where the meaning implies more than one, as when the noun is qualified by a distributive, or refers to either sex: = 'himself or herself'.
The New Shorter Oxford Dictionary of English:
4. In relation to a singular noun or pronoun of undetermined gender: he or she.
Grammars and Style Guides
Webster's Dictionary of English Usage:
On pages 901 to 903, the authors provide quotations from great writers, from Austen, Chaucer, Shaw, Auden, Shakespeare and others, and go on to say:
“The examples here of the 'great ones' from Chaucer to the present are not lapses.
They are uses following a normal pattern in English that was established four centuries before the 18th-century grammarians invented the solecism (whereby 'he' is to be used as the “gender-neutral” pronoun).
The plural pronoun is one solution devised by native speakers of English to a grammatical problem inherent in that language — and it is by no means the worst solution.
They, their, them have been used continuously in singular reference for about six centuries, and have been disparaged in such use for about two centuries. Now the influence of social forces is making their use even more attractive.”
A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language:
Masculine and feminine gender (cf 6.9): Difficulties of usage arise, however, because English has no sex-neutral 3rd person singular pronoun. Consequently, the plural pronoun they is often used informally in defiance of strict number concord, in coreference with the indefinite pronouns everybody; someone, somebody; anyone, anybody; no one, nobody.
Pronoun reference (cf 10.50): The pronoun they is commonly used as a 3rd person singular pronoun that is neutral between masculine and feminine. It is a convenient means of avoiding the dilemma of whether to use the he or she form. At one time restricted to informal usage, it is now increasingly accepted even in formal usage, especially in AmE.
The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language:
Singular they (p. 426)
They is commonly used with a singular antecedent, as in Someone has left their umbrella behind. As such, it fills a gap in the gender system of the core personal pronouns by virtue of being neutral as to sex.
(e) Singular they (pp. 493-494)
The use of they with a singular antecedent goes back to the Middle English, and in spite of criticism since the earliest prescriptive grammars it has continued to be very common in informal style. In recent years it has gained greater acceptance in other styles as the use of purportedly sex-neutral he