What is the singular they?
You may have learned in English classes that pronouns need to match the nouns they refer to. So, for instance, you use she to refer to an individual girl or woman, he to refer to an individual boy or man, and it to refer to an inanimate object. There is also the singular they.
You may have learned that you should only use they to refer to a group of two or more. However, people often use they to refer to one person at a time. This usage is known as the “singular they.”
When might a person use the singular they?
Sometimes, people use the singular they to refer back to what are called “indefinite pronouns” – anyone, anybody, everyone, everybody, no one, nobody, someone, and somebody. Some people argue that because each of these takes a singular verb (you’d say “everybody is,” not “everybody are”), each of these is singular. Linguists like Geoff Pullum disagree with this argument. But the (less informed) people who believe it say that indefinite pronouns should be used with the singular pronouns he and she. In common usage, people often use the singular they. Look at the below sentences for examples.
Mrs. Caldwell told everyone on the boys’ basketball team to do his best.
Mrs. Caldwell told everyone on the boys’ basketball team to do their best.
I didn’t want to tell anybody because I didn’t know whether he or she would approve.
I didn’t want to tell anybody because I didn’t know whether they would approve.
Some think that when you use an interrogative pronoun, like who or whom to refer to an individual, you should pair the interrogative pronoun with a singular pronoun, he and/or she. People often use the singular they instead.
Whoever has the green sedan left his or her lights on.
Whoever has the green sedan left their lights on.
Finally, some people identify as neither male or female and feel more comfortable when people refer to them as they instead of he or she.
Riley invited their friends to a party.
What are the origins of the singular they?
As discussed on the Motivated Grammar blog, the singular they first appears in the work of Geoffrey Chaucer, fourteenth-century “father of English literature” (link to Five Contributions of Geoffrey Chaucer). Since then it has appeared regularly in English-language texts, including in the work of respected writers such as Shakespeare and Jane Austen.
Is it illogical to use the singular they?
As mentioned previously on this blog, there was a belief in the Enlightenment era that language was supposed to follow the same rules as mathematical logic. Now, linguists recognize that this is untrue and even impossible.
The singular they makes linguistic sense for many reasons. A major one is that English has a gap. Unlike some other languages, it has no gender-neutral third-person singular pronoun – that they can naturally fill. (There have been some attempts at creating new gender-neutral third-person singular pronouns, but they’re unlikely to catch on.)
For what it’s worth, you was once an exclusively plural pronoun, and it is now used as a singular pronoun in every standard variety of English. No one today would say it’s illogical to use you to refer to an individual. Like so many things in language, perceptions of what is and what isn’t logical depend on common usage. And the singular they is steadily making its way into the mainstream.
So Should You Use the Singular They?
Again according to Motivated Grammar, there have been some prescriptivists advocating the use of the singular they since the turn of the twentieth century. Nowadays newspapers and style guides are all beginning to accept it, too.
Granted, the singular they can occasionally lead to some awkward constructions, like “Tell the patient they need to dress themselves.” There’s no real norm yet for how to handle this issue, so if possible, rewrite the sentence to avoid the problem.
Otherwise, though, unless an editor has forbidden it, you can probably use the singular they.
Of course, if you don’t like the singular they, you don’t have to use it. In most cases, it’s grammatically acceptable to use he or she. Although it’s important to respect personal pronoun preferences. However, you should be aware that when other people do use the singular they, it is a perfectly valid choice.