Singular they is the use in English of the pronoun they or its inflected or derivative forms, them, their, theirs, and themselves (or themself), as an epicene (gender-neutral) singular pronoun. It typically occurs with an unspecified antecedent, as in sentences such as:
- "Somebody left their umbrella in the office. Would they please collect it?"
- "The patient should be told at the outset how much they will be required to pay."
- "But a journalist should not be forced to reveal their sources."
The singular they had emerged by the 14th century, about a century after plural they. It has been commonly employed in everyday English ever since then, and has gained currency in official contexts, though it has been strongly criticized at least since the late-19th century. Its use in modern standard English has become more common and accepted with the trend toward gender-neutral language, though most style guides continue to proscribe it, considering it colloquial and less appropriate in formal writing. Some recent references, however, sanction this usage as appropriate not only in conversational registers of standard English, but also in official or literary usage.
- "This is my friend, Jay. I met them at work. They are a talented artist."
Inflected forms and derivative pronounsEdit
The "singular they" permits a singular antecedent, used with the same (plural) verb forms as plural they, and has the same inflected forms as plural they (i.e. them, their, and theirs), except that in the reflexive form, "themself" is sometimes used instead of "themselves".
|He||He laughs.||I hug him.||His hair grows.||I use his.||He dresses himself.|
|She||She laughs.||I hug her.||Her hair grows.||I use hers.||She dresses herself.|
|Plural they||When I tell people a joke, they laugh.||Whether they win or lose, I hug them.||As long as people live, their hair grows.||Most of my friends have cell phones, so I use theirs.||The children dress themselves.|
|Singular they||When I tell somebody a joke, they laugh.||When I greet a friend, I hug them.||When somebody does not get a haircut, their hair grows long.||If my mobile phone runs out of power, a friend lets me borrow theirs.||Each child dresses themself [or themselves].|
|Generic he||When I tell someone a joke, he laughs.||When I greet a friend, I hug him.||When someone does not get a haircut, his hair grows long.||If my mobile phone runs out of power, a friend lets me borrow his.||Each child dresses himself.|
Themself is attested from the 14th to 16th centuries. Its use has been increasing since the 1970s or 1980s, though it is sometimes still classified as "a minority form". In 2002, Payne and Huddleston, in The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, called its use in standard dialect "rare and acceptable only to a minority of speakers" but "likely to increase with the growing acceptance of they as a singular pronoun". It is useful when referring to a single person of indeterminate gender, where the plural form themselves might seem incongruous, as in:
- "It is not an actor pretending to be Reagan or Thatcher, it is, in grotesque form, the person themself." — Ian Hislop (1984); quoted in Fowler's
The Canadian government recommends themselves as the reflexive form of singular they for use in Canadian federal legislative texts and advises against using themself, but themself is also found:
- "Where a recipient of an allowance under section 4 absents themself from Canada ..." — War Veterans Allowance Act, section 14.
- "... the following conditions are imposed on a person or group of persons in respect of whom a deposit is required: ... to present themself or themselves at the time and place that an officer or the Immigration Division requires them to appear to comply with any obligation imposed on them under the Act." — Immigration and Refugee Protection Regulations, section 48.
They with a singular antecedent goes back to the Middle English of the 14th century (slightly younger than they with a plural antecedent, which was borrowed from Old Norse in the 13th century), and has remained in common use for centuries in spite of its proscription by traditional grammarians beginning in the late 18th century.
Informal spoken English exhibits nearly universal use of the singular they. An examination by Jürgen Gerner of the British National Corpus published in 1998 found that British speakers regardless of social status, age, sex, or region used the singular they overwhelmingly more often than the gender-neutral he or other options.
Singular they is found in the writings of many respected authors. Here are some examples, arranged chronologically:
- "Eche on in þer craft ys wijs." ("Each one in their craft is wise.") — Wycliffe's Bible, Ecclus. 38.35 (1382)
- "And whoso fyndeth hym out of swich blame, They wol come up..." — Chaucer, "The Pardoner's Prologue" of The Canterbury Tales (c. 1400) quoted by Jespersen and thence in Merriam-Webster's Concise Dictionary of English Usage.
- "Eche of theym sholde ... make theymselfe redy." — Caxton, Sonnes of Aymon (c. 1489)
- "If a person is born of a ... gloomy temper ... they cannot help it." — Chesterfield, Letter to his son (1759); quoted in Fowler's.
- "A person can't help their birth." — Rosalind, in W. M. Thackeray, Vanity Fair (1848); quoted from the OED by Curzan in Gender Shifts in the History of English.
- "Now nobody does anything well that they cannot help doing" — Ruskin, The Crown of Wild Olive (1866); quoted in Fowler's.
- "Nobody in their senses would give sixpence on the strength of a promissory note of the kind." — Bagehot, The Liberal Magazine (1910); quoted in Fowler's.
Prescription of generic heEdit
Alongside they, it was acceptable to use the pronoun he to refer to an indefinite person of any gender, as in the following:
- "If any one did not know it, it was his own fault." — George Washington Cable, Old Creole Days (1879); quoted by Baskervill.
- "Every person who turns this page has his own little diary." — W. M. Thackeray, On Lett's Diary (1869); quoted in Baskervill, An English Grammar.
- "Suppose the life and fortune of every one of us would depend on his winning or losing a game of chess." — Thomas Huxley, A Liberal Education (1868); quoted by Baskervill.
- "No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his nationality nor denied the right to change his nationality." — Article 15, Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948).
Such usage is still occasionally found but has lost acceptability in most contexts, due to not being gender-neutral.
The earliest known explicit recommendation by a grammarian to use the generic he rather than they in formal English is Ann Fisher's mid-18th century A New Grammar assertion that "The Masculine Person answers to the general Name, which comprehends both Male and Female; as, any Person who knows what he says." (Ann Fisher as quoted by Ostade)
Nineteenth-century grammarians insisted on he as a gender-neutral pronoun on the grounds of number agreement, while rejecting "he or she" as clumsy, and this was widely adopted: e.g. in 1850, the British Parliament passed an act which provided that, when used in acts of Parliament "words importing the masculine gender shall be deemed and taken to include females". Baskervill and Sewell mention the common use of the singular they in their An English Grammar for the Use of High School, Academy and College Class of 1895, but prefer the generic he on the basis of number agreement:
When the antecedent includes both masculine and feminine, or is a distributive word, taking in each of many persons, – the preferred method is to put the pronoun following in the masculine singular ... Another way of referring to an antecedent which is a distributive pronoun [e.g. everybody] or a noun modified by a distributive adjective [e.g. every], is to use the plural of the pronoun following. This is not considered the best usage, the logical analysis requiring the singular pronoun in each case; but the construction is frequently found when the antecedent includes or implies both genders. The masculine does not really represent a feminine antecedent, and the expression his or her is avoided as being cumbrous.
Baskervill gives a number of examples of recognized authors using the singular they, including:
- "Every one must judge according to their own feelings." — Lord Byron, Werner (1823), quoted as "Every one must judge of [sic] their own feelings."
- "Had the Doctor been contented to take my dining tables as any body in their senses would have done ..." — Jane Austen, Mansfield Park (1814);
- "If the part deserve any comment, every considering Christian will make it to themselves as they go ..." — Daniel Defoe, The Family Instructor (1816);
- "Every person's happiness depends in part upon the respect they meet in the world ..." — William Paley
It has been argued that the real motivation for promoting the "generic" he was an androcentric world view, with the default sex of humans being male – and the default gender therefore being masculine. There is some evidence for this: Wilson wrote in 1560:
- "... let us keepe a naturall order, and set the man before the woman for maners sake". — Wilson, The arte of Rhetorique (1560);
- "... the worthier is preferred and set before. As a man is set before a woman ..." — Wilson, The arte of Rhetorique (1560);
and Poole wrote in 1646
- "The Masculine gender is more worthy than the Feminine." — Poole The English Accidence (1646); cited by Bodine
In spite of continuous attempts on the part of educationalists to proscribe singular they in favour of he, this advice was largely ignored; even writers of the period continued to use they (though the proscription may have been observed more by American writers). Use of the purportedly gender-neutral he remained acceptable until at least the 1960s, though some uses of he were later criticized as being awkward or silly, for instance when referring to:
- indeterminate persons of both sexes:
- "the ideal that every boy and girl should be so equipped that he shall not be handicapped in his struggle for social progress ..." — C. C. Fries, American English Grammar, (1940).
- known persons of both sexes:
- "She and Louis had a game – who could find the ugliest photograph of himself." — Joseph P. Lash, Eleanor and Franklin (1971)
Contemporary use of he to refer to a generic or indefinite antecedentEdit
He is still sometimes found in contemporary writing when referring to a generic or indeterminate antecedent. In some cases it is clear from the situation that the persons potentially referred to are likely to be male, as in:
- "The patient should be informed of his therapeutic options." — a text about prostate cancer (2004)
In some cases the antecedent may refer to persons who are only probably male or to occupations traditionally thought of as male:
- "It wouldn't be as if the lone astronaut would be completely by himself." (2008)
- "Kitchen table issues ... are ones the next president can actually do something about if he actually cares about it. More likely if she cares about it!" — Hillary Rodham Clinton (2008)
In other situations, the antecedent may refer to:
- an indeterminate person of either sex:
In 2010, Choy and Clark still recommend the use of generic he "in formal speech or writing":
- "... when indefinite pronouns are used as antecedents, they require singular subject, object, and possessive pronouns ..."
- "Everyone did as he pleased"
- "In informal spoken English, plural pronouns are often used with indefinite pronoun antecedents. However, this construction is generally not considered appropriate in formal speech or writing.
- Informal: Somebody should let you borrow their book.
- Formal: Somebody should let you borrow his book."
- — Choy, Basic Grammar and Usage
From the earliest times until about the 1960s it was unquestionably acceptable to use the pronoun he (and him, himself, his) with indefinite reference to denote a person of either sex, especially after indefinite pronouns and determiners such as anybody, ... every, etc., after gender-neutral nouns such as person ... [but] alternative devices are now usually resorted to. When a gender-neutral pronoun or determiner ... is needed, the options usually adopted are the plural forms they, their, themselves, etc., or he or she (his or her, etc.)
In 2016, Garner's Modern English calls the generic use of masculine pronouns "the traditional view, now widely assailed as sexist".
Trend toward gender-neutral languageEdit
This section may stray from the topic of the article. (June 2019)
The earliest known attempt to create gender-neutral pronouns dates back to 1792, when Scottish economist James Anderson advocated for an indeterminate pronoun "ou".
whether we may not, nay ought not, to use a neutral pronoun, relative or representative, to the word 'Person', where it hath been used in the sense of homo, mensch, or noun of the common gender, in order to avoid particularising man or woman, or in order to express either sex indifferently? If this be incorrect in syntax, the whole use of the word Person is lost in a number of instances, or only retained by some stiff and strange position of the words, as – 'not letting the person be aware wherein offense has been given' – instead of – 'wherein he or she has offended'. In my [judgment] both the specific intention and general etymon of 'Person' in such sentences fully authorise the use of it and which instead of he, she, him, her, who, whom."
In the second half of the 20th century, people expressed more widespread concern at the use of sexist and male-oriented language. This included criticism of the use of man as a generic term to include men and women and of the use of he to refer to any human, regardless of sex (social gender).
It was argued that he could not sensibly be used as a generic pronoun understood to include men and women. William Safire in his On Language column in The New York Times approved of the use of generic he, mentioning the mnemonic phrase "the male embraces the female". C. Badendyck from Brooklyn wrote to the New York Times in a reply:
The average American needs the small routines of getting ready for work. As he shaves or blow-dries his hair or pulls on his panty-hose, he is easing himself by small stages into the demands of the day.
By 1980, the movement had gained wide support, and many organizations, including most publishers, had issued guidelines on the use of gender-neutral language.
The use of masculine generic nouns and pronouns in written and spoken language has decreased since the 1970s. In a corpus of spontaneous speech collected in Australia in the 1990s, singular they had become the most frequently used generic pronoun (rather than generic he or he or she). Similarly, a study from 2002 looking at a corpus of American and British newspapers showed a preference for they to be used as a singular epicene pronoun.
The increased use of singular they may owe in part to an increasing desire for gender-neutral language. A solution in formal writing has often been to write "he or she", or something similar, but this is often considered awkward or overly politically correct, particularly when used excessively. In 2016, the journal American Speech published a study by Darren K. LaScotte investigating the pronouns used by native English speakers in informal written responses to questions concerning a subject of unspecified gender, finding that 68% of study participants chose singular they to refer to such an antecedent. Some participants noted that they found constructions such as "he or she" inadequate as they do not include people who do not identify as either male or female.
Use with a pronoun antecedentEdit
The singular antecedent can be a pronoun such as someone, anybody, or everybody, or an interrogative pronoun such as who:
- with somebody or someone:
- "I feel that if someone is not doing their job it should be called to their attention." — an American newspaper (1984); quoted by Fowler.
- with anybody or anyone:
- "If anyone tells you that America's best days are behind her, then they're looking the wrong way." President George Bush, 1991 State of the Union Address; quoted by Garner
- "Anyone can set themselves up as an acupuncturist." — Sarah Lonsdale "Sharp Practice Pricks Reputation of Acupuncture". Observer 15 December 1991, as cited by Garner
- "If anybody calls, take their name and ask them to call again later." Example given by Swan
- with nobody or no one:
- even where the gender is known or assumed:
- with an interrogative pronoun as antecedent:
- "Who thinks they can solve the problem?". Example given by Huddleston et al.; The Cambridge Grammar of the English language.
- with everybody, everyone, etc.:
- "Everyone promised to behave themselves." Example given by Huddleston et al.
Notional plurality or pairwise relationshipsEdit
Although the pronouns everybody, everyone, nobody, and no one are singular in form and are used with a singular verb, these pronouns have an "implied plurality" that is somewhat similar to the implied plurality of collective or group nouns such as crowd or team,[b] and in some sentences where the antecedent is one of these "implied plural" pronouns, the word they cannot be replaced by generic he, suggesting a "notional plural" rather than a "bound variable" interpretation . This is in contrast to sentences that involve multiple pairwise relationships and singular they, such as:
- "Everyone loves their mother."
- "'I never did get into that football thing', she said after everyone returned to their seat."
- "Everyone doubts themselves/themself at one time or another."
There are examples where the antecedent pronoun (such as everyone) may refer to a collective, with no necessary implication of pairwise relationships. These are examples of plural they:
- "At first everyone in the room was singing; then they began to laugh." Example given by Kolln.
- "Everybody was crouched behind the furniture to surprise me, and they tried to. But I already knew they were there." Example given by Garner.
- "Nobody was late, were they?" Example given by Swan.
Which are apparent because they do not work with a generic he or he or she:
- "At first everyone in the room was singing; then he or she began to laugh." Example given by Kolln.
- "Everybody was crouched behind the furniture to surprise me, and he tried to. But I already knew he was there."
- "Nobody was late, was he?"
In addition, for these "notional plural" cases, it would not be appropriate to use themself instead of themselves as in:
- "Everybody was crouched behind the furniture to surprise me, but they instead surprised themself."
Use with a generic noun as antecedentEdit
The singular antecedent can also be a noun such as person, patient, or student:
- with a noun (e.g. person, student, patient) used generically (e.g. in the sense of any member of that class or a specific member unknown to the speaker or writer)
- "... if the child possesses the nationality or citizenship of another country, they may lose this when they get a British passport." From a British passport application form; quoted by Swan.
- "cognitive dissonance: "a concept in psychology [that] describes the condition in which a person's attitudes conflict with their behaviour". — Macmillan Dictionary of Business and Management (1988), as cited by Garner.
- "A starting point would be to give more support to the company secretary. They are, or should be, privy to the confidential deliberations and secrets of the board and the company. — Ronald Severn. "Protecting the Secretary Bird". Financial Times, 6 January 1992; quoted by Garner.
- with representatives of a class previously referred to in the singular
- "I had to decide: Is this person being irrational or is he right? Of course, they were often right." — Robert Burchfield in U.S. News & World Report 11 August 1986, as cited in Merriam-Webster's Concise Dictionary of English Usage
- Even when referring to a class of persons of known sex, they is sometimes used.
- "The sizing technology works via an iPhone app. To use it, a woman must take two pictures of themselves while wearing a tight fitted top in front of a mirror." Shane Hickey, "The innovators: the app promising the perfect-fitting bra", The Guardian 10 January 2015, as cited by Mark Liberman on "Language Log"
- "I swear more when I'm talking to a boy, because I'm not afraid of shocking them". From an interview.
- "No mother should be forced to testify against their child".
- They may also be used with antecedents of mixed genders:
- "Let me know if your father or your mother changes their mind." Example given by Huddleston et al.
- "Either the husband or the wife has perjured themself." Here themself might be acceptable to some, themselves seems less acceptable, and himself is unacceptable. Example given by Huddleston et al.
- Even for a definite known person of known sex, they may be used in order to ignore or conceal the sex.
- "I had a friend in Paris, and they had to go to hospital for a month." (definite person, not identified)
- The word themself is also sometimes used when the antecedent is known or believed to be a single person:
- "Someone has apparently locked themself in the office."[acceptability questionable]
Use for specific, known people, including non-binary peopleEdit
Known individuals may also be referred to as they if the individual is non-binary or genderqueer, regards male or female pronouns as inappropriate, and prefers they instead. Several social media applications permit account holders to choose to identify their gender using one of a variety of non-binary or genderqueer options, such as gender fluid, agender, or bigender, and to designate a pronoun, including they/them, which they wish to be used when referring to them. Though "singular they" has long been used with antecedents such as everybody or generic persons of unknown gender, this use, which may be chosen by an individual, is recent.
The singular they in the meaning "gender-neutral singular pronoun for a known person, as a non-binary identifier" was chosen by the American Dialect Society as their "Word of the Year" for 2015. In 2016, the American Dialect Society wrote:
"While editors have increasingly moved to accepting singular they when used in a generic fashion, voters in the Word of the Year proceedings singled out its newer usage as an identifier for someone who may identify as non-binary in gender terms."
The vote followed the previous year's approval of this use by The Washington Post style guide, when Bill Walsh, the Post's copy editor, said that the singular they is "the only sensible solution to English's lack of a gender-neutral third-person singular personal pronoun".
The first non-binary main character on North American television appeared on the Showtime drama series Billions in 2017, with Asia Kate Dillon playing Taylor Mason. Both actor and character use singular they.
Acceptability and prescriptive guidanceEdit
Though both generic he and generic they have long histories of use, and both are still used, both are also systematically avoided by particular groups.
Style guides that avoid expressing a preference for either approach sometimes recommend recasting a problem sentence, for instance replacing generic expressions with plurals to avoid the criticisms of either party.
Usage guidance in American style guidesEdit
Garner's Modern American UsageEdit
Garner's Modern American Usage (2nd ed., 2003) recommends cautious use of singular they, and avoidance where possible because its use is stigmatized.
- "Where noun–pronoun disagreement can be avoided, avoid it. Where it can't be avoided, resort to it cautiously because some people will doubt your literacy ..."
Garner suggests that use of singular they is more acceptable in British English:
- "Speakers of AmE resist this development more than speakers of BrE, in which the indeterminate they is already more or less standard."
and apparently regrets the resistance by the American language community:
- "That it sets many literate Americans' teeth on edge is an unfortunate obstacle to what promises to be the ultimate solution to the problem."
He regards the trend toward using singular they with antecedents like everybody, anyone and somebody as inevitable:
- "Disturbing though these developments may be to purists, they're irreversible. And nothing that a grammarian says will change them."
The Chicago Manual of Style (1993–2010)Edit
In the 14th edition (1993) of The Chicago Manual of Style, the University of Chicago Press explicitly recommended using singular they and their, noting a "revival" of this usage and citing "its venerable use by such writers as Addison, Austen, Chesterfield, Fielding, Ruskin, Scott, and Shakespeare." From the 15th edition (2003), this was changed. In Chapter 5 of the 16th edition (2010), now written by Bryan A. Garner, the recommendations are:
The singular they. A singular antecedent requires a singular referent pronoun. Because he is no longer accepted as a generic pronoun referring to a person of either sex, it has become common in speech and in informal writing to substitute the third-person plural pronouns they, them, their, and themselves, and the nonstandard singular themself. While this usage is accepted in casual context, it is still considered ungrammatical in formal writing.
Gender bias ... On the one hand, it is unacceptable to a great many reasonable readers to use the generic masculine pronoun (he in reference to no one in particular). On the other hand, it is unacceptable to a great many readers (often different readers) either to resort to non-traditional gimmicks to avoid the generic masculine (by using he/she or s/he, for example) or to use they as a kind of singular pronoun. Either way, credibility is lost with some readers.
The American Heritage Book of English Usage (1996)Edit
According to The American Heritage Book of English Usage and its usage panel of selected writers, journalism professors, linguists, and other experts, many Americans avoid use of they to refer to a singular antecedent out of respect for a "traditional" grammatical rule, despite use of singular they by modern writers of note and mainstream publications:
Most of the Usage Panel rejects the use of they with singular antecedents as ungrammatical, even in informal speech. Eighty-two percent find the sentence The typical student in the program takes about six years to complete their course work unacceptable ... panel members seem to make a distinction between singular nouns, such as the typical student and a person, and pronouns that are grammatically singular but semantically plural, such as anyone, everyone and no one. Sixty-four percent of panel members accept the sentence No one is willing to work for those wages anymore, are they?
Publication Manual of the American Psychological AssociationEdit
Neither the highest scorer nor the lowest scorer in the group had any doubt about their competence."
while also specifically taking the position that generic he is unacceptable. The APA recommends using he or she, recasting the sentence with a plural subject to allow correct use of they, or simply rewriting the sentence to avoid issues with gender or number.
Strunk & White's The Elements of StyleEdit
William Strunk Jr. & E. B. White, the original authors of The Elements of Style, found use of they with a singular antecedent unacceptable and advised use of the singular pronoun (he). In the 3rd edition (1979), the recommendation was still:
They. Not to be used when the antecedent is a distributive expression, such as each, each one. everybody, every one, many a man. Use the singular pronoun. ... A similar fault is the use of the plural pronoun with the antecedent anybody, anyone, somebody, someone ....
The assessment, in 1979, was:
The use of he as pronoun for nouns embracing both genders is a simple, practical convention rooted in the beginnings of the English language. He has lost all suggestion of maleness in these circumstances. ... It has no pejorative connotation; it is never incorrect.
In the 4th edition (2000), use of singular they was still proscribed against, but use of generic he was no longer recommended.
Joseph M. Williams's The Basics of Clarity and Grace (2009)Edit
Joseph M. Williams, who wrote a number of books on writing with "clarity and grace", discusses the advantages and disadvantages of various solutions when faced with the problem of referring to an antecedent such as someone, everyone, no one or a noun that does not indicate gender and suggests that this will continue to be a problem for some time. He "suspect[s] that eventually we will accept the plural they as a correct singular" but states that currently "formal usage requires a singular pronoun".
The Little, Brown Handbook (1992)Edit
According to The Little, Brown Handbook, most experts – and some teachers and employers – find use of singular they unacceptable:
Although some experts accept they, them, and their with singular indefinite words, most do not, and many teachers and employers regard the plural as incorrect. To be safe, work for agreement between singular indefinite words and the pronouns that refer to them ....
It recommends using he or she or avoiding the problem by rewriting the sentence to use a plural or omit the pronoun.
Purdue Online Writing LabEdit
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.
OWL also notes that the use of singular they is more inclusive:
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.
The Washington PostEdit
The Washington Post's stylebook, as of 2015, recommends trying to "write around the problem, perhaps by changing singulars to plurals, before using the singular they as a last resort" and specifically permits use of they for a "gender-nonconforming person".
Associated Press StylebookEdit
The Associated Press Stylebook, as of 2017, recommends: "They/them/their is acceptable in limited cases as a singular and-or gender-neutral pronoun, when alternative wording is overly awkward or clumsy. However, rewording usually is possible and always is preferable."
The Handbook of Nonsexist WritingEdit
In The Handbook of Nonsexist Writing, Casey Miller and Kate Swift accept or recommend singular uses of they in cases where there is an element of semantic plurality expressed by a word such as "everyone" or where an indeterminate person is referred to, citing examples of such usage in formal speech.  They also suggest rewriting sentences to use a plural they, eliminating pronouns, or recasting sentences to use "one" or (for babies) "it".
Usage guidance in British style guidesEdit
In the first edition of A Dictionary of Modern English Usage (published in 1926) use of the generic he is recommended. It is stated that singular they is disapproved of by grammarians. Numerous examples of its use by eminent writers in the past are given, but it is stated that "few good modern writers would flout [grammarians] so conspicuously as Fielding and Thackeray", whose sentences are described as having an "old-fashioned sound".
The second edition, Fowler's Modern English Usage (edited by Sir Ernest Gowers and published in 1965) continues to recommend use of the generic he; use of the singular they is called "the popular solution", which "sets the literary man's teeth on edge". It is stated that singular they is disapproved of by grammarians but common in colloquial speech. Numerous examples of its use by eminent writers are given, but it is stated that "few good modern writers would flout [grammarians] so conspicuously as Fielding and Thackeray".
According to the third edition, The New Fowler's Modern English Usage (edited by Burchfield and published in 1996) singular they has not only been widely used by good writers for centuries, but is now generally accepted, except by some conservative grammarians, including the Fowler of 1926, who, it is argued, ignored the evidence:
Over the centuries, writers of standing have used they, their, and them with anaphoric reference to a singular noun or pronoun, and the practice has continued in the 20C. to the point that, traditional grammarians aside, such constructions are hardly noticed any more or are not widely felt to lie in a prohibited zone. Fowler (1926) disliked the practice ... and gave a number of unattributed "faulty' examples ... The evidence presented in the OED points in another direction altogether.
The Complete Plain Words was originally written in 1948 by Ernest Gowers, a civil servant, in an attempt by the British civil service to improve "official English". A second edition, edited by Sir Bruce Fraser, was published in 1973. It refers to they or them as the "equivalent of a singular pronoun of common sex" as "common in speech and not unknown in serious writing " but "stigmatized by grammarians as usage grammatically indefensible. The book's advice for "official writers" (civil servants) is to avoid its use and not to be tempted by its "greater convenience", though "necessity may eventually force it into the category of accepted idiom".
A new edition of Plain Words, revised and updated by Gowers's great granddaughter, Rebecca Gowers, was published in 2014. It notes that singular they and them have become much more widespread since Gowers' original comments, but still finds it "safer" to treat a sentence like 'The reader may toss their book aside' as incorrect "in formal English", while rejecting even more strongly sentences like
- "There must be opportunity for the individual boy or girl to go as far as his keennness and ability will take him."
The Times Style and Usage Guide (first published in 2003 by The Times of London) recommends avoiding sentences like
- "If someone loves animals, they should protect them."
by using a plural construction:
- "If people love animals, they should protect them."
For those listening or reading, it has become unremarkable – an element of common usage.
It expresses several preferences.
- "Generic/universal their provides a gender-free pronoun, avoiding the exclusive his and the clumsy his/her. It avoids gratuitous sexism and gives the statement broadest reference ... They, them, their are now freely used in agreement with singular indefinite pronouns and determiners, those with universal implications such as any(one), every(one), no(one), as well as each and some(one), whose reference is often more individual ..."
The Economist Style Guide refers to the use of they in sentences like
- "We can't afford to squander anyone's talents, whatever colour their skin is."
as "scrambled syntax that people adopt because they cannot bring themselves to use a singular pronoun".
New Hart's Rules (Oxford University Press, 2012) is aimed at those engaged in copy editing, and the emphasis is on the formal elements of presentation including punctuation and typeface, rather than on linguistic style, although – like The Chicago Manual of Style – it makes occasional forays into matters of usage. It advises against use of the purportedly gender-neutral he, and suggests cautious use of they where he or she presents problems.
... it is now regarded ... as old-fashioned or sexist to use he in reference to a person of unspecified sex, as in every child needs to know that he is loved. The alternative he or she is often preferred, and in formal contexts probably the best solution, but can become tiresome or long-winded when used frequently. Use of they in this sense (everyone needs to feel that they matter) is becoming generally accepted both in speech and in writing, especially where it occurs after an indefinite pronoun such as everyone or someone, but should not be imposed by an editor if an author has used he or she consistently.
The 2011 edition of the New International Version Bible uses singular they instead of the traditional he when translating pronouns that apply to both genders in the original Greek or Hebrew. This decision was based on research by a commission that studied modern English usage and determined that singular they (them/their) was by far the most common way that English-language speakers and writers today refer back to singular antecedents such as whoever, anyone, somebody, a person, no one, and the like."
The British edition of The Handbook of Nonsexist Writing, modified in some respects from the original US edition to conform to differences in culture and vocabulary, preserved the same recommendations, allowing singular they with semantically plural terms like "everyone" and indeterminate ones like "person", but recommending a rewrite to avoid.
Australian usage guidanceEdit
The Australian Federation Press Style Guide for Use in Preparation of Book Manuscripts recommends "gender-neutral language should be used", stating that use of they and their as singular pronouns is acceptable.
Usage guidance in English grammarsEdit
The pronoun they is commonly used as a 3rd person singular pronoun that is neutral between masculine and feminine ... At one time restricted to informal usage. it is now increasingly accepted in formal usage, especially in [American English].
The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language discusses the prescriptivist argument that they is a plural pronoun and that the use of they with a singular "antecedent" therefore violates the rule of agreement between antecedent and pronoun, but takes the view that they, though primarily plural, can also be singular in a secondary extended sense, comparable to the purportedly extended sense of he to include female gender.
Use of singular they is stated to be "particularly common", even "stylistically neutral" with antecedents such as everyone, someone, and no one, but more restricted when referring to common nouns as antecedents, as in
- "The patient should be told at the outset how much they will be required to pay."
- "A friend of mine has asked me to go over and help them ..."
Use of the pronoun themself is described as being "rare" and "acceptable only to a minority of speakers", while use of the morphologically plural themselves is considered problematic when referring to someone rather that everyone (since only the latter implies a plural set).
There are also issues of grammatical acceptability when reflexive pronouns refer to singular noun phrases joined by or, the following all being problematic:
- "Either the husband or the wife has perjured himself." [ungrammatical]
- "Either the husband or the wife has perjured themselves." [of questionable grammaticality]
- "Either the husband or the wife has perjured themself." [typically used by only some speakers of Standard English].
On the motivation for using singular they, A Student's Introduction to English Grammar states:
this avoidance of he can't be dismissed just as a matter of political correctness. The real problem with using he is that it unquestionably colours the interpretation, sometimes inappropriately ... he doesn't have a genuinely sex-neutral sense.
The alternative he or she can be "far too cumbersome", as in:
- "Everyone agreed that he or she would bring his or her lunch with him or her.
or even "flatly ungrammatical", as in
- "Everyone's here, isn't he or she?
"Among younger speakers", use of singular they even with definite noun-phrase antecedents finds increasing acceptance, "sidestepping any presumption about the sex of the person referred to", as in:
- "You should ask your partner what they think."
- "The person I was with said they hated the film." Example given by Huddleston et al.
Grammatical and logical analysisEdit
One explanation given for some uses of they referring to a singular antecedent is notional agreement, when the antecedent is seen as semantically plural:
- "'Tis meet that some more audience than a mother, since nature makes them partial, should o'erhear the speech." — Shakespeare, Hamlet (1599); quoted in Merriam-Webster's Concise Dictionary of English Usage.
- "No man goes to battle to be killed." ... "But they do get killed. — George Bernard Shaw, quoted in Merriam-Webster's Concise Dictionary of English Usage
In other words, in the Shakespeare quotation a mother is syntactically singular but stands for all mothers, and in the Shaw quotation no man is syntactically singular (demonstrated by taking the singular form goes) but is semantically plural (all go [to kill] not to be killed), hence idiomatically requiring they. Such use, which goes back a long way, includes examples where the sex is known, as in the above examples.
Distributive constructions apply a single idea to multiple members of a group. They are typically marked in English by words like each, every and any. The simplest examples are applied to groups of two, and use words like either and or – "Would you like tea or coffee?". Since distributive constructions apply an idea relevant to each individual in the group, rather than to the group as a whole, they are most often conceived of as singular, and a singular pronoun is used:
- "England expects that every man will do his duty." — Nelson (1805, referring to a fleet crewed by male sailors)
- "Every dog hath his day." – John Ray A Collection of English Proverbs (1670), originally from Plutarch, Moralia, c. 95 AD, regarding the death of Euripides.
Referential and non-referential anaphorsEdit
The singular they, which uses the same verb form plurals do, is typically used to refer to an indeterminate antecedent, for example:
- "The person you mentioned, are they coming?"
In some sentences, typically those including words like every or any, the morphologically singular antecedent does not refer to a single entity but is "anaphorically linked" to the associated pronoun to indicate a set of pairwise relationships, as in the sentence:
- "Everyone returned to their seats." (where each person is associated with one seat)
Linguists like Steven Pinker and Rodney Huddleston explain sentences like this (and others) in terms of bound variables, a term borrowed from logic. Pinker prefers the terms quantifier and bound variable to antecedent and pronoun. He suggests that pronouns used as "variables" in this way are more appropriately regarded as homonyms of the equivalent referential pronouns.
The following shows different types of anaphoric reference, using various pronouns, including they:
- coreferential, with a definite antecedent (the antecedent and the anaphoric pronoun both refer to the same real-world entity):
- "Your wife phoned but she didn't leave a message."
- coreferential with an indefinite antecedent:
- "One of your girlfriends phoned, but she didn't leave a message."
- "One of your boyfriends phoned, but he didn't leave a message.
- "One of your friends phoned, but they didn't leave a message."
- reference to a hypothetical, indefinite entity
- "If you had an unemployed daughter, what would you think if she wanted to accept work as a pole dancer?"
- "If you had an unemployed child, what would you think if they wanted to accept work as a mercenary or a pole dancer?"
- a bound variable pronoun is anaphorically linked to a quantifier (no single real-world or hypothetical entity is referenced; examples and explanations from Huddleston and Pullum, The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language):
- "No one put their hand up." [approximately: "There is no person x such that x put x's hand up."]
- "Every car had its windscreen broken." [approximately: "For every car x, x had x's windscreen broken."]
A study of whether "singular they" is more "difficult" to understand than gendered pronouns ("In Search of Gender Neutrality: Is Singular They a Cognitively Efficient Substitute for Generic He?" by Foertsch and Gernsbacher) found that "singular they is a cognitively efficient substitute for generic he or she, particularly when the antecedent is nonreferential" (e.g. anybody, a nurse, or a truck driver) rather than referring to a specific person (e.g. a runner I knew or my nurse). Clauses with singular they were read "just as quickly as clauses containing a gendered pronoun that matched the stereotype of the antecedent" (e.g. she for a nurse and he for a truck driver) and "much more quickly than clauses containing a gendered pronoun that went against the gender stereotype of the antecedent".
On the other hand, when the pronoun they was used to refer to known individuals ("referential antecedents, for which the gender was presumably known", e.g. my nurse, that truck driver, a runner I knew), reading was slowed when compared with use of a gendered pronoun consistent with the "stereotypic gender" (e.g. he for a specific truck driver).
The study concluded that "the increased use of singular they is not problematic for the majority of readers".
Comparison with other pronounsEdit
The singular and plural use of they can be compared with the pronoun you, which had been both a plural and polite singular, but by about 1700 replaced thou for singular referents. For "you", the singular reflexive pronoun ("yourself") is different from its plural reflexive pronoun ("yourselves"); with "they" one can hear either "themself" or "themselves" for the singular reflexive pronoun.
Singular "they" has also been compared to "royal we" (also termed "editorial we"), when a single person uses first-person plural in place of first-person singular pronouns. Similar to singular "you", its singular reflexive pronoun ("ourself") is different from the plural reflexive pronoun ("ourselves").
The pronoun it, which is typically used for inanimate objects, can also be used for infants of unspecified gender but tends to be "dehumanizing" and is therefore more likely in a clinical context; in a more personal context, the use of it to refer to a person might indicate antipathy or other negative emotions.It can also be used for non-human animals of unspecified gender, though they is common for pets and other domesticated animals of unspecified gender, especially when referred to by a proper name (e.g. Rags, Snuggles). It is uncommon to use singular they instead of it for something other than a life form.
- At the time, the gender was known or assumed because same-sex marriage had not yet been legalized in any country.
- Especially in British English, such collective nouns can be followed by a plural verb and a plural pronoun; in American English such collective nouns are more usually followed by a singular verb and a singular pronoun.
- "Either the plural or the singular may be acceptable for a true bound pronoun ...": "Every student thinks she / they is / are smart."
- Swan 2009, §528.
- Huddleston & Pullum 2002, p. 493.
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- Cable 1879.
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- Baskervill 1895, §410.
- Huxley 1868.
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- Defoe 1816, p. 200.
- Paley 1825, p. 200.
- Wilson 1560, p. 167.
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- Chicago 2010, §5.222.
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... our pronoun they was originally borrowed into English from the Scandinavian language family ... and since then has been doing useful service in English as the morphosyntactically plural but singular-antecedent-permitting gender-neutral pronoun known to linguists as singular they.
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|Look up they in Wiktionary, the free dictionary.|
- "Anyone who had a heart (would know their own language)" by Geoff Pullum. Transcript of a radio talk.