How Can They Be Singular?



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. You will never 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.”

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

Posted on Tuesday, June 2, 2015, at 1:04 pm

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15 Comments on How Can They Be Singular?

15 responses to “How Can They Be Singular?”

  1. wrdlvr says:

    What’s REALLY egregious is when someone just got thru referring to either a male or female (i.e. “she” or “he”) and then proceeds to use “they” in the dependent clause. ARRRRGH!

  2. Ellen M. says:

    I am a longtime reader of the Grammar Book blog. It has been immensely helpful and enlightening especially throughout my career in marketing and nonprofit development; however, I felt a large knot in my stomach while reading the most recent post regarding the use of “they.” As a member of the LGBT community and a grammar enthusiast, I am often faced with the limits of our current grammar structure. Many grammar enthusiasts will not accept new words or pronouns no matter how closely they match an individual’s felt sense of self. However, I think it is important to note the singular use of “they” as a gender neutral pronoun that already exists and is easily incorporated into everyday language. I was disappointed that this point failed to make it into your blog post, even cursorily. I hope that future posts might attempt to include this perspective.

    Thank you for your time.

  3. Fred B. says:

    The singular they issue troubles every serious writer. As I was reading the log, I thought for sure you were lobbying for its approval.

    We bear no responsibility for the failure of the English language to provide us with a gender-neutral third person singular pronoun, and now we must write around it.

    I love these newsletters.

  4. Sej H. says:

    In the following “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.”

    Is the opening word “Even” necessary here? I think not, but please tell me, particularly if it enhances the sentence in some way.

  5. Hilton E. says:

    Kindly note an error in your web page (https://www.grammarbook.com/grammar/pronoun.asp).

    “Many writers abhor the he or she solution. Following are more examples of why rewriting is a better idea than using he or she or him or her to make sentences grammatical.

    Incorrect: No one realizes when their time is up.
    Correct but awkward: No one realizes when his or her time is up.
    Rewritten: None realize when their time is up”.

    The last example is incorrect. ‘None’ means ‘no one’ or ‘not one’. As such, ‘none’ is singular, as in ‘none is . . .’ As such, that sentence should read “None realises when his or her time is up”. It’s unwieldy, of course, but technically correct.

    • Please see our note under Rule 6 of Subject-Verb Agreement, which reads:

      NOTE

      In recent years, the SAT testing service has considered none to be strictly singular. However, according to Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage: “Clearly none has been both singular and plural since Old English and still is. The notion that it is singular only is a myth of unknown origin that appears to have arisen in the 19th century. If in context it seems like a singular to you, use a singular verb; if it seems like a plural, use a plural verb. Both are acceptable beyond serious criticism.” When none is clearly intended to mean “not one,” it is followed by a singular verb.

      As you can see, your pronouncement on the definition of the word “none” is incorrect.

      • Hilton E. says:

        With respect, your argument is flawed on two counts.

        Firstly, Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage does not make use of proper English. You are referring to so-called ‘American English’ which is a bastardised form of true English.

        Secondly, “Clearly none has been both singular and plural since . . .” is also grammatically incorrect. In that example the word ‘both’ is superfluous and hence unnecessary.

        • As we note on the home page of GrammarBook.com and in the introduction to The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation, we represent American English rules.

          Instead of Merriam-Webster, perhaps you would prefer to cite the OED, which lists the first appearance of the plural none, meaning “no persons,” in 888 A.D.

  6. Sarah says:

    I’m getting very confused about the following sentence:

    One of our number were usually invited to the gathering

    Is were correct here? ‘Our’ is plural, as is ‘number’ in this context but ‘one’ is singular?
    One grammar tool wants to change ‘number’ to ‘numbers’ which isn’t correct here. Word says that ‘was’ is incorrect as it’s passive voice.
    Im sure this is simple and I’ve just complicated it but I would be very grateful for some help please!
    Thank you!
    Ps: I am based in England

  7. Mnr says:

    I need clarification on the following: Can “they” replace an unknown singular gender? In this sentence “the person is driving while they are making call,” am I referring that the person driving is also making a call at the same time or referring the call to another or different persons?

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