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Can “they, their, or them” ever be singular?

Dr. Gillian Bartlett, Advisor & Content Expert

Dr. Gillian Bartlett, Advisor & Content Expert

March 24, 2017 was a breakthrough day for writers: The Associated Press style guide allowed -- for the very first time -- that forms of they” might sometimes be used to stand for singular nouns. It was by no means a full-blown endorsement. But it opened the door to a usage that has appeared in common English speech for decades.

 

It’s easy to find examples of ”they,” “them,” and “their” used as singular pronouns. Linguists call this usage “the singular (or epicene) they”:

 

          • If a driver is stopped for speeding, they will be asked to produce their license.

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        • Be good to your neighbour, and they will be good to you.

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        • Each student will be assigned a desk when they register.

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In each of the cases above, a singular noun – “driver,” “neighbour,” “student” – is followed by the plural pronoun “they.”

 

Fifty years ago, writers would have used the masculine pronoun “he” in these cases. The theory was that “he” was neutral and stood for both male and female individuals. But once the feminist movement took hold, this argument was no longer acceptable (even more-so now with transgender discussions throwing out binary genders entirely). As writers searched for a truly gender-neutral solution, “they” was a natural choice.

 

Nevertheless, until now virtually every style guide has called this usage an error.

 

Instead, the guidelines prescribe three possible fixes:

 

  1. Use “he or she,” “him or her,” or“ his or her” as appropriate.

  2. Make everything plural.

  3. Restructure the sentence entirely.

 

Almost everyone agrees that the “he or she” fix is too clumsy. And the Associated Press is still advocating that writers try fixes 2 or 3 before giving in to “they.” But in the case that neither of those options makes sense or sounds natural, then, says AP, go ahead with “they.”

 

It's exciting to see language changing in this way! So go ahead, use "they" when you mean "he or she," and know that although some stickler might still have problems with it, it's becoming more and more acceptable.

 

Just be sure to use the plural verb, though. You’re not to say “they is.” Stick with “they are” even though the antecedent is a singular noun.

 

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