Everything you ever wanted to know about singular “they”

Some people don’t like the singular, gender-neutral use of “they” (along with “them”, “their” etc.):

  • They hung up without saying anything.
  • Who finished their work first?
  • If anyone forgets their hat, you’ll have to leave them out of the photo.
  • Nobody who cares about their future can ignore this.

The objection is:

“They” and its cousins are plural and can’t be singular. The first two of the sentences above are about a single person, so they’re just wrong. The other two may be about several people, but “anyone” and “nobody” are still singular words (we say “anybody is”, not “anybody are”), so they’re still ungrammatical. While the traditional generic “he” can seem odd or sexist, and “he or she” can be clumsy, that doesn’t mean we should break the logical rule that separates singular from plural.

If you’re inclined to agree, I’d like to try to convince you otherwise. It’s fine to dislike singular “they”, but maybe you needn’t worry about it so much.

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Pronouns are a mess, but they’re a familiar mess

Here’s a simple, irrefutable proof that a pronoun can be both singular and plural: “you”.

We gave up on the distinction between singular “thou” and plural “you” centuries ago, and it hasn’t done us any harm. This means the so-called logical objection to singular “they” is wrong.

In fact, logic is a poor guide to English pronouns, which are an inconsistent mess:

  • Most have different subject and object forms – “I” and “me”, “he” and “him”, “she” and “her”, “we” and “us”, “they” and “them” – but “you” is both subject and object.
  • Third-person singular pronouns vary by gender – “he” and “she”, “him” and “her” – but other pronouns don’t.
  • Reflexive pronouns are irregular: “myself”, “yourself”, “herself” and “ourselves” are formed from the possessive “my”, “your”, “her” and “our” – but then instead of “hisself” and “theirselves”, we have “himself” and “themselves”.

Our pronouns are deeply illogical, but we don’t notice this because we’re so familiar with them.

And there’s another oddity. “We”, “us” and “our” can be, and often are, singular:

“Each one of us will have our own special triumphs or tragedies to look back on.”

Here, “each one of us” is singular, but the following possessive is “our”. This is natural and clear – and grammatical (spoken by someone with unimpeachable command of the Queen’s English).

We’ve all come across this sort of thing many, many times, but we haven’t been trained to find it illogical, so we don’t. We don’t even notice it. Google “singular we” and you’ll find pretty much nothing; Google “singular they” and you’ll tumble into a vortex of angry pedantry.

This shows that dislike of singular “they” isn’t a natural, logical reaction to a real grammatical mistake; it’s an artificial constraint that takes effort to internalise.

A third-person version of that sentence would be:

“Each one of them will have their own special triumphs or tragedies to look back on.”

Equally natural and clear – and grammatical.

“You” can be singular as well as plural, which everyone accepts. “We” can be singular as well as plural, which no one notices. “They” can also be singular as well as plural, and the only problem is the people who believe it’s a problem.

Let’s meet a couple of them.

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Forgive the critics, for they know not what they do

Simon Heffer, in Simply English, condemns singular “they” as “illiterate” and “unacceptable”. But he acknowledges the problems with generic “he” (which he still favours) and “he or she”, and suggests things may be changing:

Perhaps the next development in our grammar will be to rectify this deficiency; though progressives would argue that it has already happened, and we pedants should overcome our resistance to they, them and their.

The change has already happened, and I can prove it. Pedants like Heffer are already overcoming their resistance. Because at other points in the book, he writes:

When someone says ‘he is the most immoral man I have ever met’ they are using the language wrongly…

It used to describe a hammering on a door to wake someone or alert them

When someone says ‘it was a quality garment’ they imply it was of high quality…

We all make mistakes. But I haven’t seen Heffer make any indisputable pronoun blunders like “you must each make their own choice” or “she lived by themselves”. He’s just doing what most of us do. This means his slips are slips of censorship, not of grammar. It means singular “they” is a natural part of his language, whether or not he likes it – or knows it.

He wrote those lines and read them over, and he thought they were fine. This shows that his opinion doesn’t accurately represent his usage or his reactions to usage.

Mary Norris, in Between You & Me, agrees singular “they” is “just wrong” and “ungrammatical”. She quotes David Marsh using the “you” analogy to prove pronouns can be both singular and plural, but she doesn’t try to answer that argument.

Norris likes generic “he”, but she accepts many readers react badly to it. She despairs:

It’s not fair. … If we didn’t make such a fuss… the masculine pronoun would just blend in and disappear

And yet, elsewhere, she writes:

Nobody wanted to think they were not essential.

Here, the singular “they” works well: so well it just blended in and disappeared.

But I can sympathise with her despair. Her feelings about generic “he” – that it would be fine, most of the time, if only some people didn’t dislike it – are like my feelings about singular “they”. It just happens that my preference is the one now in the lead.

So how did it come to this? How did the old, established order fall apart?

Well, that’s not quite what happened.

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Singular “they” is ancient history

It’s not new. It’s not a creation of modern political correctness, although its use and acceptance have shot up over the last half-century.

Singular “they” is over 600 years old, going back into Middle English. Great writers have used it, including Chaucer, Shakespeare, Swift, Fielding, Austen, Defoe, Byron, Thackeray and Shaw. It appears in the King James Bible of 1611 and in formal prose century after century.

Here are some early examples (mostly from the Oxford English Dictionary and Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage):

Wycliffe’s Bible, 1382: “Eche on in þer craft ys wijs.” (Each one is wise in their craft.)

Rolls of Parliament, 1463–65: “Inheritementes, of which any of the seid persones… was seised by theym self, or joyntly with other.”

William Roye (translation of Martin Luther), 1529: “So that yf the one shulde withdrawe them selves from the other deniyng them their bodyes to vse accordinge to naturall vsage permitted vnto mariage it is vndoubted that they shulde so defraude them and do them wronge.”

Thomas More, 1533: “Neyther Tyndale there nor thys preacher here hath by theyr maner of expounynge… wonne them self mych wurshyp”

John Whitgift, 1574: “None is admitted to anye degree here in Cambridge, but the same is first presented… by some one of that facultie, who giueth his fidelitie for them.”

Singular “they” has always been an option for writers. But during the 17th and 18th centuries, grammarians decided to get angry about this, and launched a coup on behalf of generic “he”.

The earliest relevant comment I know of is from Joshua Poole in 1646 (via Ann Bodine and Laura Paterson):

The Relative agrees with the Antecedent in gender, number and person… The Relative shall agree in gender with the Antecedent of the more worthy gender… The Masculine gender is more worthy than the feminine.

What a nice man.

Sexism gave birth to the rule that favours generic “he”, although its modern supporters may intend no sexism. Indeed, then as now, its supporters included women.

A woman was the first writer (as far as I know) to hold up an example of generic “he” as correct. Ann Fisher in 1745:

The masculine Person answers to the general Name, which comprehends both Male and Female; as Any Person, who knows what he says.

This still wasn’t quite an explicit condemnation of singular “they”. However, a certain breed of grammarian cannot abide there being two acceptable options. If one answer is right, the other must be wrong, and variation must be obliterated.

That point was reached by 1788, when Charles Coote said that “None who heard him felt themselves hurt” was wrong, and should be “None who heard him felt himself hurt” (via Fredericus Theodorus Visser).

He was echoed by Lindley Murray in 1795, whose bestselling grammar book helped the invented rule catch on – particularly among publishers and schoolteachers. But, despite the censure, writers kept using singular “they”:

Sydney Smith, 1810: “every human being must do something with their existence”

John Ruskin, 1857: “when perspective was first discovered, every body amused themselves with it.”

Walter Bagehot, 1858: “Nobody in their senses would describe Gray’s ‘Elegy’ as the delineation of a ‘great action’.”

By the late 19th century, even some of the grammarians were pushing back against the rule and its dodgy logic. Here’s Alexander Bain in 1879 (via Anne Curzan):

But when both Genders are implied, it is allowable to use the Plural: ‘let each esteem other better than themselves’.

Grammarians frequently call this construction an error: not reflecting that it is equally an error to apply ‘his’ to feminine subjects. … No doubt there are more instances of the employment of ‘his’, but it must by no means be maintained that this form is exclusively right.

Acceptance of singular “they” grew further in the 20th century, as society came to accept that the masculine gender is not more worthy than the feminine.

Let’s look at the data.

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Usage data shows it’s in the ascendant

I searched Google Books for “everyone has their own” and “everyone has his own” (and likewise with “everybody”).

The result: in both UK and US books, there has been a big rise in singular “their” since the 1970s. It overtook generic “his” in the early 1990s. And this is in published, edited books – where change in usage conventions is slower than in speech or many other kinds of writing.

A broader and more recent picture comes from the Corpus of Contemporary American Usage, which covers a range of media.

Here, I found singular “their” well ahead of generic “his” (and “his or her”) in the early 1990s, and it has increased its lead since then:

coca chart

Now, maybe a sentence like “Make sure everyone has their own laptop” works better than one like “Make sure the new temp has their own laptop”. One view is that “everyone” and similar words imply plurality, so “they” fits better – unlike the second sentence, with one particular person (of unknown gender). Personally, I find both fine, but maybe this view is reflected in usage.

But it’s hard to search for examples of the second kind and get enough data to be meaningful. So all I can say is that, in at least some kinds of sentence, singular “they” now dominates.

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Research finds it gets a good reaction

But maybe all these people using singular “they” are misjudging. Maybe we should still avoid it because it makes a lot of people react badly.

How could we find out?

An opinion survey wouldn’t work. Many people have been told singular “they” is wrong, and will say so if asked, but the rest of the time they’ll be happily unaware of it.

We need to test whether singular “they” is hard to process in a sentence: does it briefly confuse or distract a significant number of readers?

The evidence says no.

Psychologists Julie Foertsch and Morton Ann Gernsbacher ran a study in 1997, timing how long people took to read sentences that used singular “they” or generic “he” or “she”. The first sentence was:

A truck driver should never drive when sleepy, even if he/she/they may be struggling to make a delivery on time, because many accidents are caused by drivers who fall asleep at the wheel.

Here, with a stereotypically male role, the “they” version was as quick to read as the “he” version; the “she” version was slower.

The second sentence was about a nurse. With this stereotypically female role, the “they” version was as quick to read as the “she” version; the “he” version was slower.

The third sentence was about a runner. With this role that has no strong connotations of gender, the three versions were equally quick to read.

The fourth was:

Anybody who litters should be fined $50, even if he/she/they cannot see a trashcan nearby, because littering is an irresponsible form of vandalism and should be punished.

Here, again with no gender connotations but this time with the indefinite antecedent “anybody”, the “they” version was quickest to read.

But a second experiment used altered sentences that specified a particular person: “That truck driver shouldn’t drive when sleepy, even if he/she/they may be…” This time, the “they” versions took longer to read. Describing a specific person of known gender in a gender-neutral way seems to jolt readers a bit. Perhaps it looks like concealment?

But, those situations aside, Foertsch and Gernsbacher concluded: “singular they is a cognitively efficient substitute for generic he or she, particularly when the antecedent is nonreferential”.

What about generic “he”? They mention some studies on whether it comes across as smoothly as its supporters think.

It doesn’t.

One of these studies, by Donald MacKay and David Fulkerson in1979, found that sentences such as “A lawyer must frequently argue his case out of court” immediately bias the reader towards a male-specific interpretation: “generic he is not neutral but perceptually polarizes an otherwise neutral antecedent”. Readers assume the person referred to is probably male.

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Usage guides say it’s here to stay

The big usage guides agree: singular “they” is now a permanent, mainstream feature of English. Garner’s Modern American Usage and The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage (edited by Robert Burchfield) both call the shift towards it “irreversible”. Burchfield says “such constructions are hardly noticed any more or are not widely felt to lie in a prohibited zone”. Garner seems less than enthusiastic, but he accepts that singular “they” is “the most convenient solution to the single biggest problem in sexist language”.

The Cambridge Guide to English Usage (edited by Pam Peters) says it has become “unremarkable – an element of common usage”. While some people still dislike it, “that kind of response… is no longer shared by the English-speaking population at large”.

The American Heritage Dictionary says: “The practice is so widespread both in print and in speech that it generally passes unnoticed,” although “a fair number of traditionalists still wince at the usage”.

Bear in mind, though, that this wincing may be more hypothetical than real – think back to Heffer and Norris. People’s beliefs about correct English may not determine their own usage or reactions.

Collins Dictionary says it “has become acceptable in all but the most formal contexts”, while Merriam-Webster says it is well established “even in literary and formal contexts”.

On formality, Anne Curzan says the situation is circular:

Singular they often does feel more informal because it is characteristic of spoken language and informal written language, not formal written language. … One of the only ways for singular they to become recognized as both formal and informal is to allow its use in formal edited prose (as some editors are starting to do). The circularity becomes apparent.

But I think the circle is crumbling: singular “they” is being used in formal writing like academic papers:

British Medical Journal, 2009: “Just how, therefore, are we going to be sure that someone does not have a haemoglobinopathy that is causing them to be diagnosed with diabetes (or not) inappropriately?”

English Historical Review, 2015: “Not everyone sought registration of their grants”

PLoS One, 2015: “the Yamana developed cooperative behaviour supported by an indirect reciprocity mechanism: whenever someone found an extraordinary confluence of resources, such as a beached whale, they would use smoke signals to announce their find”

The rule against singular “they” is losing ground. Its jurisdiction is a dwindling patch at the top of the formality spectrum, with enforcement ever more dependent on individual whim. And, as Mark Allen and Ben Zimmer report, singular “they” is increasingly accepted even by copyeditors. Which brings me to…

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My advice: use it as you like

You should do whatever you want.

If you want to use singular “they”, go ahead. It’s 100% grammatical, and in practice few people will object.

If you’re writing for a client who dislikes it, you should probably avoid it, but otherwise don’t underestimate how widely accepted it is.

If you dislike it yourself, that’s OK. You don’t have to use it and you don’t need a reason. The standard reasons – logic, history, convention, effectiveness – don’t work anyway.

I’ve never been against it myself, but there are other supposed “rules” of English that I’ve disowned after weighing the arguments and evidence. And yet… I still tend to follow some of them. These things run deep, and that vague sense of wrongness can linger. I know the feeling.

Try pushing against that feeling of dislike; you may be able to cure yourself of it. But if not, you can stick to avoiding singular “they”. Bryan Garner offers nine techniques for avoidance, if you really think it’s worth the effort.

But whatever you do, please don’t force your dislike onto anyone else. It won’t help them.

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Comments

  • Andriy Karamazov  On April 21, 2015 at 8:25 am

    I study English linguistics at the University of Vienna and here it is almost a must to use this gender neutral they. It was very unusual for me right after coming to this uni, but I liked it with time.

  • Clare Lynch  On April 21, 2015 at 8:53 am

    More good sense from my favourite blogger. Only yesterday, someone pulled me up on a “pronoun-antecedent agreement error” for using “them” instead of “him or her”. I have, on occasion, replaced generic “he” with generic “she”, which can be found in the more progressive academic writing, but on a blog elicits comments like “how did you know it was a woman?”. Quite good fun to expose the bias though.

  • J N  On April 21, 2015 at 11:07 am

    I’m all in favour of they/them for a non-specific antecedent for the reasons you listed, but I greatly dislike its use in a case you didn’t talk about: to refer to a single, specific person.

    I’m a native speaker of English, and in my entire life I’ve found a sentence using singular generic ‘they’ ambiguous or hard to understand only a couple of times. I routinely, though, have to read sentences with specific singular ‘they’ multiple times, revising the plural image that came into my head when I read it the first time.

    I’ve thankfully only heard this usage in communities where a lot of people identify as transgendered, and I hope it stays there and doesn’t take root more widely. If it does spread, I can easily imagine having to go through the same contortions to specify that I’m talking about a group of people that I already do when I need to be very clear whether ‘you’ is singular or plural. (talking to a friend, I might mean him or I might mean him and his wife and their daughters — I end up saying ‘all of you’ or the like to make it clear that the other people are included)

  • Norbert Haupt  On April 21, 2015 at 2:45 pm

    I love this essay, and I will need to bookmark it. English is my third language (
    German, Latin, English, French, Spanish, Japanese – in that order). English and Japanese don’t have gender-specific nouns, and that throws us “second languagers” off the trail. We always want to say “he or she” because “they” just doesn’t feel right, being colored by German, French and Spanish, where these situations just don’t arise. I love this about languages. Languages direct your thinking, sometimes subtly, and sometimes brutally.

  • John Roth  On April 21, 2015 at 11:40 pm

    You, as well as most of the other commenters on “singular they” are missing the elephant in the room. As far as I can tell, your second, third and fourth examples are perfectly legitimate notional plurals; that is, the situation being described has multiple people. The first doesn’t have enough context to tell.

    The same is true for most of your other examples. In of the advocacy literature on the historical usage of “singular they,” almost all of the examples are notional plurals, not singular.

    The issue here is that pronouns seem to use the notional antecedent, not the grammatical antecedent. While you recruit MWDEU to your cause, I suggest you reread the article on they, their, them. The final sentence is the payoff: “Notional agreement is in control, and its dictates must be followed.” MWCDEU 2002, p 736.

    • Tom Freeman  On April 22, 2015 at 3:24 pm

      You’re right that notional agreement is a factor here.
      But while I didn’t name the elephant, I did point to it a couple of times. I laid the ground in the opening objection (“the other two may be about several people, but ‘anyone’ and ‘nobody’ are still singular words”) and came at it from another angle after the COCA chart (“One view is that ‘everyone’ and similar words imply plurality, so ‘they’ fits better”).
      And MWDEU isn’t that clear-cut. It says “indefinite pronouns are usually plural in implication” – usually – and some of its examples cover only a single person, e.g. “Who makes you their confidant?”
      Notional agreement doubtless sways people towards following “anyone” etc. with “they”, but the phenomenon goes wider than that.

  • matslj  On April 22, 2015 at 9:22 am

    Reblogged this on Views on grammar and commented:
    Yet another extensive post on singular ‘they’.

  • Josep-Anton Monfort  On June 2, 2015 at 11:02 am

    This is not a comment on this specific post. Sorry but I couldn’t find your email. After reading Kamm’s “Accident will Happen…” I found your blog and find it really interesting. I would love to get your posts via email and this is why I dare to suggest your adding to your blog the free and simple to install Jetpack pluguin (https://wordpress.org/plugins/jetpack/). It will allow your readers so subscribe and ando brings a search facility that would greatly improve your wonderful pile of good and sound information and comments. Just suggestions… Thanks a lot for your work.

  • cyafacultymanual  On June 14, 2015 at 12:29 pm

    I think the key is to accept his/her is way to clunky, so the royal “We” has decided to change the guidelines.

    The prescriptive/descriptive debate has always been around… go with the flow or hold onto Strunk and White like a grammatical life raft…

  • cyafacultymanual  On June 14, 2015 at 12:32 pm

    *too* clunky… early weekend posting is not a good idea…

    But that’s another rule that I predict will fall by the wayside- along with: to/two/too; along with there/their/they’re, and your/you’re.

  • Paul Wood  On June 22, 2015 at 4:26 am

    I make a please for ‘he’ to mean ‘he or she’ a phrase I hate. http://pvewood.blogspot.ro/2014/02/what-frequently-used-phrase-or-word-do.html

  • Paul Wood  On June 22, 2015 at 4:26 am

    I make a plea for ‘he’ to mean ‘he or she’ a phrase I hate. http://pvewood.blogspot.ro/2014/02/what-frequently-used-phrase-or-word-do.html

    • J N  On June 22, 2015 at 9:26 am

      How do you expect me, a ‘she’, to know whether you mean to include me or not in any particular sentence? Why give me this extra burden you don’t give your ‘he’ readers? This is what singular ‘they’ does really well if you don’t like ‘he or she’.

  • Paul Wood  On June 22, 2015 at 11:24 am

    You’d change “He who pays the piper calls the tune” to “he or she who….”?

    I like to write like good writers wrote a hundred years ago.

    • J N  On June 22, 2015 at 11:51 am

      To address your strawman, I don’t want to revise historical texts.

      It’s your choice, of course, bar any disagreements with editors, whether to create unnecessary ambiguity about whether women are included in your writing.

    • Clare Lynch  On June 22, 2015 at 11:56 am

      What’s wrong with “Whoever pays the piper”?

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