Learn when you should use "he," "she," "he/she," and "they." [UPDATE: The Chicago Manual of Style and the AP Stylebook changed their recommendations about the singular "they" in late March of 2017. This post will be updated soon. In the meantime, the short story is that Chicago said it's now OK to use singular "they" for transgender people, and the AP made more extensive revisions, which are detailed here: AP Style Updates.]
For Now, Know Your Audience When Making a Decision
Nevertheless, it takes a bold, confident, and possibly reckless person to use "they" with a singular antecedent today. I could almost feel people's blood pressure rising as I started to imply that it is OK to use "they."
The thing is, if you are a respected editor in charge of writing a style guide for your entire organization, you can get away with making it acceptable to use "they" with a singular antecedent. I would even encourage you to do so, and there are a variety of credible references that will back you up (1,2,3) including the Random House Dictionary and Fowler's Modern English Usage. You would be in the company of revered authors such as Jane Austen, Lewis Carroll, and Shakespeare. But, if you are responsible to superiors, there's a good chance that at least one of them will think you are careless or ignorant if you use "they" with a singular antecedent. When I'm writing for a client who doesn't have a style guide, I always, always use "he or she."
And that brings me to an important point: everyone who hires writers or assigns writing needs to have a style guide entry on this topic. Writers can waste a lot of time trying to decide what to do (especially in organizations where people collaborate on documents), and it is better to have one single style that some people don't agree with than to have different writers doing different things so that company documents are all willy-nilly.
So here's the bottom line: Rewrite your sentences to avoid the problem. If that's not possible, check to see if the people you are writing for have a style guide. If not, use "he or she" if you want to play it safe, or use "they" if you feel bold and are prepared to defend yourself.
Thank you for listening, and thank you to Steve Thornton for help preparing the transcript.
- Ask Oxford.com, "Ask the Experts," (accessed December 6, 2006).Burchfield, R. W., ed.
- The New Fowler's Modern English Usage. Third edition. New York: Oxford, 1996, p. 779.
- Dictionary.com Unabridged (v 1.0.1). Random House, Inc., s.v. "they," http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/they (accessed December 6, 2006). (See the Usage Note about halfway down the page.)
- After writing this transcript, I found a very long piece, with many examples, that argues in favor of using their as a singular pronoun.Some lawyers put together a very complete web page documenting all the sources that support using they as a singular generic pronoun.Here's a very interesting piece examining why using he is sexist.
- A Los Angeles Times article about they as a singular pronoun.
- Sweden Adopts a Gender-Neutral Pronoun.