Singular 'They' Has Its Day

Mignon Fogarty
6-minute read
Episode #499

Is ‘They’ the Future of Generic Pronouns?

Many years ago, I stated for the record that I was a firm believer that someday they will be the acceptable choice for this situation. English lacked an acceptable pronoun that fit the bill, and many people were already either mistakenly or purposely using they as a singular generic personal pronoun; so it seemed logical that rules would eventually move toward favoring they.

Therefore, I'm delighted that the singular they is getting more prominent backing from linguists and gatekeepers. Those are some of the things that encourage language change.

Rewrite Your Sentence Whenever Possible

Nevertheless, it still 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 made the case for it being OK to use singular they and said that I support the idea.

So, what should you do? Certainly you shouldn’t write If a resident wins the lottery, yo should at least buy everyone ice cream, even if it’s not a formal document. And if you don’t work for the Washington Post, your editors still might not think it’s OK to use they as a singular pronoun.

Rewriting your sentence to avoid the problem is almost always possible, and if it is, you should do it; but if it isn't, then you have to make a choice.

‘He or She’ Works in Formal Writing

Ten years ago, I used to use he or she a lot when I was writing business and technical documents. For example, I might have written When you are approached by the winner, first verify his or her identity. But these days, I find that terribly awkward. I would use it as an absolute last resort, but first I’d redouble my efforts to rewrite the sentence so I could use they as a plural pronoun. Sometimes there are multiple lottery winners or an employee could interact with multiple individual winners over the year, so it wouldn’t be unrealistic to write When you are approached by the winners, first verify their identity.


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.