Singular 'They' Has Its Day

Mignon Fogarty
6-minute read
Episode #499

singular they

2015 was a big year for the little pronoun they and its slide into use as a singular pronoun. 

First, in December, the Washington Post admitted the singular they into its style guide, saying it is fine for Post writers to use they as a singular pronoun for transgender people and to avoid awkward sentences. Then last week, hundreds of linguists at the American Dialect Society annual meeting voted for the singular they as the 2015 word of the year

To be clear, what we’re talking about is how to complete a sentence such as

If a resident wins the lottery … 

At this point, writers struggle because English has a big, gaping pronoun hole—we have no universally accepted word to describe a person if we don’t know whether that person is male or female. We could write If a resident wins the lottery, he should at least buy everyone ice cream, she should at least buy everyone ice cream, he or she should at least buy everyone ice cream, or something else.

Add in transgender people and people who don't identify with either traditional gender, and the gaping pronoun hole becomes an even bigger problem.

Alternating Between the Pronouns 'He' and 'She'

A listener named Betty summed it up best by saying that he or she seems too awkward and he alone seems sexist. I’ll add that exclusively using she also seems sexist, the hybrid s/he seems silly and awkward, and switching between he and she can be downright confusing to readers. A listener named Bryan called switching between he and she “whiplash grammar,” which I loved. 

The Singular 'They'

Finally, we have the solution that everyone loves to hate and which the Washington Post has now adopted—using the personal pronoun they, which breaks the rule that you don't use a plural pronoun with a singular antecedent. Now, a Post journalist could write they should at least buy everyone ice cream—and get away with it. (Not exactly because Bill Walsh still recommends that you should rewrite sentences to avoid the problem, which you can usually do by making the antecedent plural—If any residents win the lottery, they should at least buy everyone ice cream—but still, the singular they isn’t as verboten as it used to be.)

What's Wrong With the Pronoun 'He'?

Jumping back for a minute, I know some of you may disagree that using he is sexist; but even if you disagree, you should still at least consider the alternatives because most of the major style guides do recommend against using he in a generic way. (I specifically checked MLA, APA, and Chicago, and I know I have seen it in others. The Associated Press does allow he where the Post would allow they, but the Associated Press style guide also say it’s usually better to rewrite your sentence.) In the article where the Washington Post copy editor Bill Walsh announced that the Post would allow the singular they, he said that “a male default [pronoun] hasn’t been palatable for decades.”

This is obviously an area of language that is in flux. The American Dialect Society word of the year is something exciting and new, not something that’s been settled for decades.

What About New Pronouns Like 'Zie' and 'Hen'?

Over the years, people have tried to introduce new pronouns such as zie, zir, and thon to fill the void, but none of these has had much success outside specialized communities. 

Interestingly, in Sweden, a gender neutral pronoun, hen, started getting a lot of attention in 2013 when the media picked up a story about a children’s book that was written using the pronoun. In Swedish, han means “he” and hon means “she.” In the 1960s, people introduced hen as a gender neutral pronoun, and last year the Swedish Academy added hen to the country’s official dictionary. So although it’s rare, new pronouns can sometimes gain acceptance.

Coming back to English, in 2007, Dr. Elaine Stotko, from the School of Education at Johns Hopkins University, and her student, Margaret Troyer, heard school children in Baltimore using the slang word yo as a gender-neutral singular pronoun—not in a way to get attention, like Yo, check this out, and not as a form of your as in yo momma, but like a real singular pronoun. They used it only in informal situations, like talking to each other in the halls and taking about other children, and I haven’t heard of this isolated trend spreading, but it’s still an interesting development that highlights how much we need a pronoun to fill the gap: so much that kids are making up words.

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.

Historical Support for Singular 'They'

If you are a respected editor in charge of writing a style guide for your 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 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. I applaud Bill Walsh for making the singular they acceptable at the Post, and I encourage others to follow his lead. 

But, if you are at a more conservative publication and are responsible to superiors, there's still a good chance that at least one of them will think you are careless or ignorant or at least a rebel if you use the singular they. If I were writing for a business client who didn’t have a style guide, I would still always avoid the singular they.

Write a Style Guide Entry

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 must, or use they if you feel bold, secure, and are prepared to defend yourself.

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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.