Let Them Be: Embrace Singular They
Ten years ago, I was among the editors and grammatical hard-liners who fought against using pronouns such as they, them, and theirs as singular. I insisted, “They is plural! It can only apply to two or more people!” I was wrong. If you’re still fighting this fight, I hope that I can change your mind.
There’s more than one way to be wrong. I’ve been wrong out of ignorance and wrong out of malice, but in this case, I was wrong because of privilege. I didn’t acknowledge—and didn’t think to acknowledge—that some people use they as a pronoun because they don’t identify with he or she.
Singular they is older than our rules against it.
With a little digging, I would have known that I was wrong out of ignorance as well. English speakers and writers have used singular they since at least 1375, according to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). They isn’t the only pronoun to change over time: as the OED points out, you was once a solely plural pronoun, and now we use it as both singular and plural. The limitation of they to plural status began in the eighteenth century, and by the end of the twentieth century, that limitation was already vanishing.
It’s definitely (and indefinitely) a good idea.
Gendered pronouns (he/she, him/her, his/hers) create a host of awkward grammatical situations, and singular they solves them smoothly. It applies in two main cases:
- Indefinite—When you don’t know the gender of a person, use they, them, or their. For example, “When a guest arrives, greet them and offer to hang up their coat.”
- Definite—When someone chooses they and them as personal pronouns, use their pronouns of choice. For example, “Alex went to the store and bought themselves new jeans.” (Note: themself is often accepted as well.)
In the indefinite case, you can avoid the singular by pluralizing everything: “When guests arrive, greet them and offer to hang up their coats.” But that ignores the definite case, which requires you to acknowledge and accept people who use they as a personal pronoun.
The experts agree on singular they.
Most major style guides, including those from the Associated Press, the American Psychological Association, and the Modern Language Association, accept singular they as correct in all cases. Even the venerable Chicago Manual of Style accepts singular they, although I should note that Chicago hedges around definite cases and wants to make sure we still treat they as a grammatical plural, e.g., “They have a degree in mechanical engineering.”
Our language is evolving from the gendered, “Let him go his own way,” to the awkward, “Let him or her go his or her own way,” to the inclusive, “Let them go their own way.” I embrace and enjoy the singular they, and I hope you will too.