Seize the They

As you may have heard, the American Dialect Society named singular “they” as their Word of the Year for 2015. And Bill Walsh, who maintains the Washington Post’s style guide, added singular “they” as an acceptable last resort after attempting to rewrite the sentence in which it appears.

While this news is wonderful, you may be thinking, but what is singular “they”? The short answer is that the singular “they” is when you use the plural pronouns “they,” “them,” “their,” “theirs,” or “themselves” with a singular antecedent. An antecedent is the noun that a pronoun takes the place of and refers back to. In the following sentence, the antecedent of the pronoun “she” is Anh:

Anh only realized that she had forgotten her umbrella at home when it began to rain.

a skeleton wearing 70's clothes and a striped hat and holding an umbrella

If you want to learn more about pronouns and antecedents, click here.

Let’s look at an example of a time when a pronoun’s antecedent might be ambiguous or unknown. If you’re listing job responsibilities for a person who has not yet been hired, you cannot know whether the new hire will be male or female, so you might say something like

The Regional Coordinator will meet all established deadlines. They will create and maintain a master schedule incorporating these deadlines and will hold themselves and their staffs responsible for meeting them.

Another, more typical time you might use singular “they” is when you make generalizations, especially using a grammatically singular pronoun like “everyone” or “nobody.” For example, if you’re making statements about college students, you might say,

Everyone should cultivate relationships with their professors.

Or you could declare that

Nobody should have to give up on their dreams.

If you’re like most English speakers today, these examples look somewhere between tolerable and totally acceptable to you. You may not even have realized there was anything slightly weird about them. Unfortunately, singular “they,” while accepted by the linguists at the American Dialect Society, is still not entirely accepted in formal writing. Singular “they” is frowned upon because pronouns are required to match the grammatical number of their antecedents, meaning that plural pronouns like “they” must have plural antecedents.

Many style guides, especially academic ones, suggest avoiding this kind of “they,” including the APA Publication Manual and The Chicago Manual of Style. But John E. McIntyre, a grammar enthusiast and blogger for The Baltimore Sun, was able to compile a list of examples of singular “they” in reputable print publications in only half an hour. (He has also rounded up a useful list of arguments on why singular “they” should be considered acceptable in formal writing.)

The only time singular “they” is generally accepted in formal writing is when referring to a person who does not feel comfortable with either set of gendered pronouns. There are genderqueer, genderfluid, and non-binary transgender people who prefer different pronouns than he/him/his and she/her/hers, and some of these people use they/them/theirs instead. They may also use alternate gender-neutral pronouns like ze/em/zeirs. The general rule when writing about non-binary people is to ask which pronouns they prefer (if possible) and use them, just as you would use their chosen names rather than their birth names. APA Style makes an exception to its rule against singular “they” for people who use they/them/theirs as their preferred pronouns, and many newspapers and magazines have also made this exception.

Singular “they” in more standard contexts has a long history of use in written English dating back to the 14th century, and famous writers—including Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Jane Austen—have used it in every century since. In the mid-19th century, however, grammar mavens declared it ungrammatical and recommended the generic “he” for any antecedents of unknown gender. The grammar mavens’ disapproval of singular “they” was codified into most modern grammar and style guides, and the ban on singular “they” in formal writing has existed ever since.

oil painting of William Shakespeare

In the 1970s, feminists started the fight against generic “he,” arguing that it unfairly excluded women from statements that should have been about all people without regard for gender. Although traditionalists argued that “he,” “his,” and “him” included women too, it is easy to find incredibly weird-sounding counterexamples, such as this one from Gabe Doyle at Motivated Grammar:

At the funeral, everyone was dressed to the nines, each wearing his swankest tie or nicest dress.

Cartoon owls wearing items of fancy clothing--two wearing ties and two wearing necklaces

Geoffrey K. Pullum at Language Log offers an even more clear example of “he” sounding bizarre with a potentially female antecedent:

Is it your brother or your sister who can hold his breath for four minutes?

Language change happens slowly, so while feminists successfully lobbied against generic “he,” linguists have not yet earned full support for singular “they.” Although it is completely acceptable in speech and informal writing—and may even be acceptable in formal writing for certain forward-thinking publications—it is still not allowed in academic writing by most style guides and many professors.

So: what can you, a college student, do about this problem? You have several options, and you will have to decide which option works best on a sentence-by-sentence basis:

  1. Make everything plural.

    Correct: People should have their own philosophies to live by.
    Incorrect: Everybody should have their own philosophy to live by.

  2. Make everything singular and use “he or she,” “him or her,” or “his or her” (but be careful not to use this one too frequently—it can make your writing feel clunky).

    Correct: Nobody brought the food he or she signed up to bring.
    Incorrect: Nobody brought the food they signed up to bring.

  3. Eliminate the pronouns entirely.

    Correct: Nobody should drive a car while drunk.
    Incorrect: Nobody should drive their car while drunk.

  4. Rewrite the sentence to avoid the problem.

    Correct: Someone dropped off a package for you earlier.
    Correct: A package was dropped off for you earlier.
    Correct: The UPS guy dropped off a package for you earlier.
    Incorrect: Someone came by earlier; they left you a package.

Let’s try one more example and look at which method might work best:

When I attend someone’s wedding, I always congratulate them.

  1. When I attend people’s weddings, I congratulate them.
    (Making it plural sounds awkward. Let’s trying making everything singular.)

  2. When I attend someone’s wedding, I always congratulate him or her.
    (Using “him or her” sounds awkward too—are you congratulating either the bride or the groom, but not both? Let’s keep going.)

  3. When I attend weddings, I always congratulate…
    (There’s no real way to avoid pronouns here. Let’s move on to a full rewrite.)

  4. When I attend a wedding, I always congratulate the bride and groom.
    or
    I always congratulate a couple at their wedding.
    (Much better!)

Well, there you have it. You now know why you need to avoid singular “they” in your academic papers, and you have four different strategies for avoiding it.

And if you want to take up the banner of linguistic freedom and join the campaign for full acceptance of singular “they,” you could start by following the links in this article by John E. McIntyre. Happy campaigning!

Picture of Uncle Sam and an eagle holding an American flag. Overlay text reads I WANT YOU to use singular they.

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