How Can They Be Singular?



The title of our first newsletter this month was How Did They Get In Here? That article looked at careless mismatches of the normally plural pronoun they with a singular antecedent. We suggested simple fixes. But there is more depth to this topic, and in today’s newsletter we’ll explore the singular they a little further. In two weeks we’ll wind up, at least for the time being, our discussion of the singular they, including modern arguments for its use.

Which of the following sentences is incorrect: A) It’s enough to drive anyone out of his senses. B) It’s enough to drive anyone out of his or her senses. C) It’s enough to drive anyone out of their senses.

Those who consider themselves “old school” would likely consider C incorrect: their is plural but its antecedent, anyone, is singular. Most traditionalists would consider B the best sentence (despite the clunky his or her), although they would reluctantly accept A also.

We consider ourselves traditionalists too. But after looking long and hard at the overwhelming evidence, we cannot in good conscience say that C is incorrect.

“It’s enough to drive anyone out of their senses” was written by the celebrated playwright and critic George Bernard Shaw. But Shaw was no outlier when it came to the so-called “singular they.”

Oscar Wilde: “Experience is the name everybody gives to their mistakes.” Henry Fielding: “Every Body fell a laughing, as how could they help it?” Shakespeare: “God send everyone their heart’s desire.” The King James Bible: “In lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than themselves.”

Even despite these eminent writers’ words, we know that many of you are adamant that the plural pronoun they and its variants should never be used with singular antecedents. Perhaps you will reconsider after hearing from the language scholars.

• From A Dictionary of Contemporary American Usage (1957) by Bergen Evans and Cornelia Evans: “The use of they in speaking of a single individual is not a modern deviation from classical English. It is found in the works of many great writers.”

• British editor Tom Freeman: “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.”

The American Heritage Dictionary: “Writers who choose to use they with a singular antecedent should rest assured that they are in good company—even if a fair number of traditionalists still wince at the usage.”

• The irascible Tom Chivers, writing in London’s daily Telegraph: “If someone tells you that singular ‘they’ is wrong, you can firmly tell them to go to hell.”

So do we recommend the singular they? In fact we loathe it except for specific uses we’ll discuss in Singular They Part III. Thus, you will rarely see the singular they in our blog posts. We stand with the English scholar Paul Brians, who says in Common Errors in English Usage: “It is wise to shun this popular pattern in formal writing.” And we admire the passion of the writer Jen Doll: “Every time I see a singular they, my inner grammatical spirit aches … The singular they is ear-hurting, eye-burning, soul-ravaging, mind-numbing syntactic folly.” But we assume both writers were referring to those who carelessly or lazily use they with a singular antecedent.

Yes. The singular they might not be incorrect, but “not incorrect” is no one’s idea of an impressive credential.

Posted on Tuesday, July 30, 2019, at 11:00 pm

If you wish to respond to another reader's question or comment, please click its corresponding "REPLY" button. If the article or the existing discussions do not address a thought or question you have on the subject, please use the "Comment" box at the bottom of this page.

12 Comments on How Can They Be Singular?

12 responses to “How Can They Be Singular?”

  1. We mentioned in the opening paragraph that this was installment two of three about the singular they, and that the third article would include “modern arguments for its use.” Even so, several readers felt strongly enough to write in addressing gender issues, which had not yet been covered. We have printed representative comments below. Please be assured that we too are sensitive to this lack of a gender-neutral pronoun in English, and we will speak more to the issue in “Singular They Part III.”

    Elise Matatall writes:
    I found myself wholeheartedly disappointed to get to the bottom of this article and see you completely invalidate everything written before it. The most “impressive credential” is that people use they/them pronouns to identify themselves. Using singular they is more inclusive of gender in general and gender nonconforming or non-binary individuals in particular.

    Anastasia A. writes:
    Let me start by saying I love your grammatical blogs. This one, however, puzzled me. I was surprised to see there was no reference to the evolving concept of gender, enforced or chosen. Many people no longer accept an assigned gender especially because of strict gender roles and discrimination. As language is always evolving, always changing, I’m disappointed this was not part of your examination of singular “they.” I see both men and women wearing “they, them, theirs” buttons to identify their chosen pronouns. In this era of horrific gender stereotypes, I would absolutely expect, and insist, that language continue to evolve or at least be flexible enough to meet human needs.

    Ben Jolivet writes:
    What do you use instead? The singular “they” isn’t just a style choice; it is an indication that making assumptions about someone’s gender is retrograde and based on binaries that hurt people. Formal writing should be clear, not exclusive. Whether you loathe how it sounds or not, it’s worth considering the impact the choice has on audiences. And the use of “he” or “him” to indicate a collection group is equally hurtful to a lot of folks.

    Patrice Sayre writes:
    There are a number of trans or non-binary people using “they” as a singular pronoun to refer to themselves. This puts an entirely new spin on this discussion.

    Jane writes:
    Use of “they” and “their” is becoming preferred in some circles, in order to avoid gender assumptions. I’d appreciate hearing your discussion of this use.

    Jan E. Falcona writes:
    Thanks for this topic, because it’s interested me for years in my job as a technical writer. We’ve always needed a gender-neutral pronoun in English, and “they” is used informally that way all the time. But in addition, more people are declaring their gender as non-binary. These folks expressly request being referred to as “they” rather than “he” or “she.” So to me, the evidence is overwhelming that we need a gender-neutral pronoun, and “they” is the closest thing we’ve got. I say, let’s roll with “they” and make life easier. Thanks!

    Karla writes:
    There are people who identify as a non-binary gender who prefer to use the pronouns they/them to refer to themselves. It is not up to me or any other hardcore grammarians (my people!) to override this.

    Bruce Hayes writes:
    And yet “his or her” is offensive.
    There are people who identify as “they”. Not using their preferred pronoun is inconsiderate at least, and more likely should be considered as discriminatory – even insulting.
    Language must evolve so if the new “they” causes someone to wince, he or she, should use the more correct, he, she, or they. Let’s respect the LGBTQ+ community please.

  2. lovelanewest says:

    I’m looking forward to what you have to say about modern uses of “they!”

  3. Terry G Davis says:

    Too many are the slaves of rigidly applying the “laws” of Latin to Modern English, generally they apply, but not in a way that stops a living language growing and adapting. With this in mind I believe the euphony of the expression needs to be taken into account, which is why I have no problem with “No one in their…,” in fact I prefer it.

  4. Dinah says:

    Last week I wrote my first singular “they” and then cried myself to sleep. “He” and “she” are in identity crises; is it any wonder we are stuck with “they” ?

  5. Shannon S. Brown says:

    Hooray for Jen Doll – I will NEVER accept “they” as a singular pronoun!

  6. karen Stevens says:

    If you look at statement A, it seems to me that there is an incongruity in it. The problem is that the word “anyone” is not qualified. In order to use “his senses,” then anyone should be qualified by “who is male.” Otherwise statement A should replace “his” with “their.”

  7. Mariam Worsham says:

    Thank you for addressing this! I loathe this as well. I teach business English, and I am seeing the use of “they” as singular more and more.

  8. Ethan says:

    This seemed like the best way to contact the site otherwise I would have done otherwise but in “Capitalization Rules” rule 2, it was stated herculean was a word coming from “the ancient-Greek hero Hercules.” There is a problem here. You said Greek hero when Hercules is Roman. Heracles is the Greek hero.

    P.S. I’m no grammar expert but shouldn’t there be a comma before Hercules?

    • Thank you for pointing out the distinction between Hercules and Heracles. We will fix the error. Our post Commas with Appositives explains why there is not a comma before Hercules. When an appositive is essential to the meaning of the noun it belongs to, don’t use commas. Since there are other heroes, the appositive Hercules is essential.

  9. Margaret says:

    Thank you for this article. It really helps to know how “they” should be used in formal writing.

  10. Santu Mullur says:

    I am voting “yes” for the use of singular they. It is justifiable because in this instance “they” represents “his or her.”

  11. Helaine says:

    In a way I agree with you and in a way I don’t regarding singular they. When a person writes “anyone out of their senses,” I would assume that person is addressing a body of people, not just one person. So “they” would not be addressing just one person, but every person in a group.

Leave a Comment or Question:

Please ensure that your question or comment relates to the topic of the blog post. Unrelated comments may be deleted. If necessary, use the "Search" box on the right side of the page to find a post closely related to your question or comment.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *