The Merry Grammarian

The Singular Use of “They”

We grammarians love to talk about the “rules” of grammar, as though grammar is something firm and unchanging. But the truth is, grammar—like the English language itself—is always evolving, and sometimes we have to adjust to a new way of thinking and writing.

Behold, the latest evolution in grammar: the use of “they” as a singular pronoun.

For example: “Someone called, but they didn’t leave a message.”

Per strict grammar rules, “someone” is a singular noun, and therefore should correspond with one of the singular pronouns: he, she, or it, as in “Someone called, but he or she didn’t leave a message.”

But linguists now acknowledge that such a construction is awkward, and that using “they” can also be more inclusive than simply using “he” or “she.” “They” was even deemed the Word of the Year by the American Dialect Society last year, specifically because of the rise in the use of “they” as a singular pronoun.

The reasoning behind this is that the English language, unlike many other languages around the world, does not have a gender-neutral pronoun. Yet writers still face situations where the gender is unknown, as in our example above, or where the person they’re writing about wants to stay anonymous or if the author wants to protect their identity.

For a long time, people turned to “he,” in such instances, but all the major style guides now discourage that because it can be construed as sexist, and using “she” alone is really no better. So, in certain cases, using “they” simply makes sense.

This doesn’t mean you want to throw away all your pronoun rules – in general, it’s better to aim for a construction where singular nouns are linked to singular pronouns (he, she, it), and plural nouns get plural pronouns (they, them, we). You’ll also definitely want to avoid referring to named individuals as “they” – instead, use their given names.

But you can now safely use “they” when using nouns like everyone, no one, or anyone, when the gender of the person you’re writing about is unknown, or if you prefer not to reveal the gender of that person for some reason.

Now, be aware that some people dislike this use of “they,” or will claim it’s grammatically incorrect. But rest assured—you are well within your grammatical rights to use “they” as a singular pronoun whenever it feels appropriate.

Editor’s Comment:
This has always been such a troubling writing dilemma. I’m so glad to learn of the change! Thank you, Rebecca.  — Alice