What to Do with the Singular They

As far as pronouns go, the singular “they” is quite controversial. It is also widely misunderstood, so it’s worth looking at how it is used and whether it is standard English. In addition, we will offer a few tips on when you should use (or recommend use of) the singular “they” as a proofreader.

What Is the Singular “They”?

Traditionally, “they” is a plural third-person pronoun that refers to a group of people or things:

When the family arrived, they were happy to be on holiday.

However, in recent years it has also gained use as a generic third-person pronoun. This is because English does not have a dedicated gender-neutral third-person pronoun.

This lack of a gender-neutral option long meant that authors used “he” when referring to an unspecified individual or in situations where gender was unknown. For instance:

When someone works hard, he should be rewarded.

But this excludes anyone who isn’t a “he.” As such, over time, there has been a shift toward more inclusive options, including use of “they” as a singular pronoun:

When someone works hard, they should be rewarded.

We see similar singular uses for words related to “they,” such as “them” or “their”:

Someone left their umbrella here, but I will take it to reception for them.

More recently, we’ve also seen use of “they” adopted by non-binary people. And the singular “they” is becoming more widespread as more people grow accustomed to its use.

Is It Standard English?

The short answer is “yes.” Most dictionaries and style guides now recognize the singular “they” as a non-gendered third-person pronoun. Some style guides, such as APA style, even recommend it over using “he” or “she” alone as a generic third-person singular pronoun.

However, some people still dislike the singular “they” or consider it ungrammatical. And personal preference is still a factor. Thus, if your client’s style sheet recommends a different pronoun, you should follow the guidance therein unless there is a reason not to.

What Are the Alternatives?

It is polite to use a person’s favored pronoun, so if someone identifies as a “they” rather than a “he” or a “she,” you should use “they” when referring to them. Anything else would be rude!

In situations where a person’s gender is unspecified, though, your options include:

  • He or she – This option is more inclusive, but it can sound inelegant if repeated too often.
  • (S)he or S/he – As above, although this form is often considered informal.
  • Alternating “He” and “She” – A good option for maintaining gender balance without repeating both terms, but it can become confusing unless handled carefully.
  • One – This is gender-neutral (e.g., One should work hard), but it may sound overly formal.
  • It – “It” is gender neutral (e.g., A child learns from its parents), but it can be depersonalizing.

None of these is perfect, though, which may be why “they” is catching on!

Should You Use the Singular “They” When Editing a Document?

This may come down to your client’s style sheet. If it specifies an approach to third-person singular pronouns, use this when checking a document. The only reason you would diverge from the specified style would be to avoid issues of clarity.

If your client does not have a style sheet or it doesn’t mention singular third-person pronouns, though, you may need to make a decision. This can be important when:

  1. The pronoun use in a document is unclear or inconsistent
  2. The use of gendered pronouns in a document feels inappropriate or exclusionary

Typically, you would only make direct changes here if there was a clear option available (e.g., if there was some inconsistency but one approach to pronouns predominated). In other cases, you will be better off leaving a comment for the client recommending a solution.

Should this include the singular “they”? It is widely accepted now, so you can recommend it to clients if it would solve a problem with pronoun use. But remember that some people consider it non-standard, so “he or she” (or “she or he”) may work better in very formal writing.

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