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The Singular "They"

Published on Feb 03, 2016

A brief explanation of the controversy over the singular "they" and how to decide whether to use it.


The Singular "They"

Avoid it or use it?
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"They" and "their" are plural pronouns. But in conversation, we often use them as singular pronouns.

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For example, if my office is planning the agenda for a candidate we will interview for a new position, I might say,

"After the interview, I will drive the candidate back to their hotel."

Since we don't know yet whether the candidate we interview will be male or female, I can't use "his" or "her," so I use "their."

However, in formal writing, using a plural pronoun to refer to a singular subject is often considered a grammatical error.

A pronoun and its antecedent must be either both singular or both plural.

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English doesn’t have a singular personal pronoun that is gender-neutral. The only universally accepted singular personal pronouns in English are "he" and "she" (subjective), "him" and "her" (objective), and "his" and "her" (possessive).

During much of the 20th century, most teachers would have advised me to use "his" in talking about the candidate. Masculine pronouns, they would have argued, can refer to people of both genders. Today, however, many readers would consider this usage inaccurate, biased, and confusing.

Also, some people don’t identify as either "he" or "she," so even "his or her" may not be inclusive of all potential candidates. Plus, writing "his or her" might make my sentence cumbersome.

The best solution is dependent on the following, in order of importance:
1. The audience for the writing (that is, your reader)
2. The context of the writing
3. What you think

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SOLUTION 1: For Most Formal Contexts

If your reader is likely to be a stickler for traditional grammar, avoid using the singular “they.” Rephrase the sentence so both the noun and pronoun are plural:

"After the interviews, I will drive the candidates back to their hotels."

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SOLUTION 2: For Casual or Progressive Contexts

If your reader is likely to have progressive views on grammar, if your context is casual, or if you feel strongly that using the singular "they" is the best way to communicate your idea, go ahead and use the singular "they."

For each piece of writing, make an informed, intentional choice that reflects your understanding of your reader, your purpose, and your own voice as a writer.

Language is developed by those who use it.

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