Have you ever heard a native English speaker use the word 'they' (and they’s grammatical variants) as a singular pronoun? Consider the following examples:
Someone left their car keys at the restaurant. They surely have to come back for them.
Everyone should try their best to do what's right.
A citizen has the right to vote for who governs them.
You may have learned that forming sentences such as the ones above are grammatically incorrect. In each of the sentences above, the subject is singular (‘someone’, ‘everyone’, ‘a citizen’). ‘They’ is the third person plural pronoun, referring to more than one person, so using a singular subject with a form of the plural ‘they’ may seem incorrect. Then why do some native speakers form sentences in this way? Are those native speakers grammatically incorrect?
The reality is that the jury is still out, meaning that there is no “final decision” on whether using the singular they is correct or incorrect. Why is that? And should I use it if some native speakers do? Well, read on to find out!
Why does the singular they even exist in the first place?
Singular ‘they’ exists in English as a pronoun to fulfill a variety of functions. One of them is to serve as a gender neutral pronoun. English is lacking in pronouns when it comes to being gender neutral in the third person singular.
For third person singular pronouns, we have 'he', 'she', and 'it'. 'He' and 'she' are obviously assigned the masculine and feminine genders respectively. 'It' cannot serve as a gender neutral pronoun for people because we refer to objects and non-humans as 'it'. 'It' is not an acceptable pronoun to refer to human beings.
So, when speaking about a person, any person, in general, what pronoun should we use? When speaking about an unknown person, what pronoun should we use?
In the past, the pronoun 'he' has been used in these situations. However, this is not a perfect solution for the modern world for obvious reasons, as it assumes a male identity as the default human identity. In addition, it can get confusing to figure out if a person is referring to a male or referring to another person in general. For example, in the sentence, “Every time I see a friend at a party, I give him a hug,” it seems like the person speaking only has male friends. Perhaps the person is referring to both male and female friends, but that is not clear because the male pronoun 'him' is used.
Another solution to the gender neutral pronoun problem is the use of 'he or she', 's/he', 'he/she', or any similar notation. This solution clears up any confusion presented in the masculine-as-default usage. If a person says, “ Every time I see a friend at a party, I give him orher a hug,” it is now clear that the person is referring to friends in general, not just male friends. However, always saying “he or she”,“his or her” or “him or her” can get tiresome while speaking and clunky in writing. Also, how do you pronounce “s/he”? I don't have any idea (and I'm a native speaker!). This notation is used in writing only.
One common solution to the gender neutral pronoun problem is using the pronoun 'they' and all of its forms. 'They' is gender neutral, meaning that it does not refer to male or female – just a person! It is known most commonly as a plural pronoun, but prominent English writers as far back as the 14th century used singular they.
"And whoso fyndeth hym out of swich blame, They wol come up . . ." —Chaucer, The Pardoner's Prologue (c. 1395) [old English using old English spelling]
“ 'Tis meet that some more audience than a mother, since nature makes them partial, should o'erhear the speech.”— Shakespeare,Hamlet (1599)
"I would have every body marry if they can do it properly."— Austen, Mansfield Park (1814)
(All uses of singular they above are quoted from the original work and in Merriam- Webster's Concise Dictionary of English Usage.)
So classic English language authors like Geoffrey Chaucer, William Shakespeare and Jane Austen have used singular they in their writings. But that doesn't mean that it's grammatically correct now does it?
Well, that's where the issue becomes unclear. Different parts of the English speaking world use singular they with varying frequency, and different English speakers (even speakers from the same region) can view singular they as grammatically correct or incorrect. It's really up to the individual person to decide the grammaticality of singular they.
Why should I use singular they?
Using singular they can be beneficial for the following reasons:
It is not technically grammatically incorrect, so if you use it you are not speaking or writing bad English!
It solves the gender neutral pronoun problem without misconceptions about gender or awkward or clunky terms.
It respects people who do not identify with the gender categories of male and female.
It respects everyone because it doesn't use one gender as the default.
What are the downsides to using singular they?
If you decide to use singular they, you may come across people who will try to correct you and who will tell you singular they is grammatically incorrect (this happens to native speakers who use singular they as well!). However, if you are well-informed on why you use singular they, you can explain it to the person who is trying to correct you.
And how exactly do I use singular they?
Singular they is used most commonly in informal situations. It is likely that few people would question your use of singular they if you are speaking or writing in an informal context. However, in more formal contexts, such as writing a research paper or giving a speech at a conference, singular they is not as common. In formal situations, using 'he or she', even though it is a longer term, is more common and sounds more formal.
If you are referring to a person of unknown gender (“someone left their car keys at the restaurant”), a person of any gender (“a citizen has the right to vote for who governs them”), or when you are referring to a person or people in general (“everyone should try their best to do what's right”), singular they is generally accepted as appropriate.
When you are referring to people in general of a specific gender, you can use singular they or the specific gendered pronoun. For example:
“If you see a pregnant woman get on a bus, you should give up your seat for her.”
“If you see a pregnant woman get on a bus, you should give up your seat for them.”
Both sentences could be correct, though for most English speakers, the first sentence seems like a better choice because the sentence is specifically referring to women in general, so the 'her' pronoun seems most appropriate.
The bottom line
Please know that native English speakers disagree (sometimes passionately) about the grammaticality of singular they. This means that there is no absolutely correct way to refer to someone in the third person singular, in a gender-neutral sense. It depends on personal preference and on formal or informal context. You have the choice to use singular they or not. After reading this article, hopefully you will be able to explain why you choose to use it or not to anyone who asks!
More readings on singular they:
Johnson: Singular They, by R.L.G. in The Economist
If someone tells you singular 'they' is wrong, please do tell them to get stuffed, by Tom Chivers in The Telegraph
A Linguist on the Story of Gendered Pronouns, but Gretchen McCulloch in The Toast
Hero image by Sharon Flynn (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)