Gender-Neutral Pronouns: Singular ‘They’

Mignon Fogarty
7-minute read
Episode #563

It was only about a year and a half ago that I did a show about using they as a singular pronoun, but I told you this was an active area of language change, and there’s been enough new change that you need an update.

When we’re talking about the singular they, we’re usually talking about using they in sentences like these:

  • Tell the next caller they won a car.
  • Every student should thank their teacher.
  • Who left their coat on the playground?

In these sentences, we’re talking about one person, but we don’t know whether that person is male or female. In the past, people might have written Tell the next caller he won a car or Tell the next caller he or she won a car, but as we’ll see, more people are starting to accept the pronoun they in sentences like these.

Back at the end of 2015, Bill Walsh admitted the singular they into the Washington Post style guide, and the attendees at the American Dialect Society annual meeting voted to make the singular they the word of the year. 

Now both the AP Stylebook and the Chicago Manual of Style have updated their style guides to be more accepting of they as a gender neutral singular pronoun. But this is still an active area of language change, and the two style guides still disagree about how much they accept the singular they.

First, I’ll tell you about the specific changes, and then I’ll wax philosophic about what it all means (or something like that).

Chicago Manual of Style Update: Singular ‘They’

The Chicago Manual of Style took the more timid position of the two stylebooks. In the 17th edition, which will come out in September, the editors first distinguish between formal English and informal English.

Singular ‘They’ in Formal English (Chicago)

In formal English, Chicago would still rather have you avoid using they as a singular pronoun. However, you can tell that they’re struggling with the decision because the editors also want you to avoid gender-biased language, so they seem to grudgingly allow that if you can’t find another way to avoid using he as a generic pronoun, you can use they, even in formal writing. 

Carol Fisher Saller, who gave the presentation at the ACES conference about the style guide updates, described meetings in which some editors wanted to go further than this and allow they to be used more broadly in formal writing. Further, in a later update on the Chicago website, they note that Chicago supports flexibility, writing

“Editors should always practice judgment and regard for the reader. For instance, some recent books published by the University of Chicago Press feature the use of the singular they as a substitute for the generic he. Context should be a guide when choosing a style, and the writer’s preferences should always receive consideration.”

So, in formal writing, the way I read Chicago style is that you should try hard to write around the problem, but if you can’t or you feel really strongly about proactively using they as a singular pronoun, it’s fine.

Singular ‘They’ in Informal English (Chicago)

When we move on to informal English, Chicago is more straightforward. They say it’s fine to use they as a singular pronoun in our “Tell the next caller they won a car” sentences.


About the Author

Mignon Fogarty

Mignon Fogarty is the founder of Quick and Dirty Tips and the author of seven books on language, including the New York Times bestseller "Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing." She is an inductee in the Podcasting Hall of Fame, and the show is a five-time winner of Best Education Podcast in the Podcast Awards. She has appeared as a guest expert on the Oprah Winfrey Show and the Today Show. Her popular LinkedIn Learning courses help people write better to communicate better.