The idea of a singular they might sound strange—after all, who could “they” possibly refer to, if not two or more people?

But if you think about it, the singular they has actually been around for quite a while. Take, for example, the statement, “Whoever the donor is, they don’t want to reveal their name.”

However, such uses of they were largely frowned upon in formal writing, with the major style guides preferring his when the gender of the subject is unknown.

But now that the rules have changed and most of the major style guides are accepting they as a singular (and gender-neutral) subject pronoun, it’s important to understand the singular they and how you should use it.

Singular Subject Pronouns

A subject pronoun takes the place of a noun as the subject of a sentence. In other words, it helps describe who or what is doing the action.

Subject pronouns can be singular or plural, and masculine, feminine, or neutral.

These are the singular subject pronouns:

  • I (first person)
  • You (second person)
  • He (third person, masculine)
  • She (third person, feminine)
  • It (third person, refers to objects or ideas)
  • They (third person, gender neutral)

These are the plural subject pronouns:

  • We (first person)
  • You (second person)
  • They (third person, gender neutral)

Until recently, in formal writing, they was acceptable only as a plural subject pronoun to refer to more than one person.

However, as of 2019, most of the major style guides—including Chicago, MLA, AP, and APA—also recognize they as a singular, gender-neutral subject pronoun.

What Is the Singular They?

The singular they has long been used to describe a subject whose gender is unknown, especially in informal writing.

For example, “Anyone who says otherwise doesn’t know what they are talking about” could have passed in informal writing, but as far as many grammar purists were concerned, in formal writing the sentence should be rewritten as, “Anyone who says otherwise doesn’t know what he (or he or she) is talking about.”

However, they as a singular subject pronoun has recently become accepted by the major style guides as a gender-neutral subject pronoun, even in formal writing.

Gender-Neutral Pronouns

A non-binary subject pronoun can be used to refer to individuals who don’t identify with the gender binary (which views gender as only male or female).

So, if you’d prefer not to be called “he” or “she,” you can ask to be called by the singular subject pronoun “they” (that is, when your actual name isn’t required).

Likewise, the possessive pronoun their can also be gender-neutral if the subject prefers non-binary pronouns (i.e., Sam ate their lunch).

The sentence “they ate their food,” then, can refer to a group of people eating their food, or to one individual person eating their food.

Examples of the Singular They

Below are several examples of they used as a singular subject pronoun. You’ll notice that if you were looking at some of these on their own, more context would be needed to conclude whether the subject was singular or plural.

  • Whoever the suspect is, they haven’t come forward yet.
  • They don’t want their name revealed.
  • They are going to the lake with their parents next week.
  • Someone keeps trying to call me. I don’t know what they want.
  • Have they talked to their doctor yet?

Using They as a Singular Pronoun

In formal and informal writing, they can be used as a singular subject pronoun. It’s also a gender-neutral choice, and doesn’t exclude those who don’t identify with the gender binary.

Learn how to use the singular they to make your writing more effective and inclusive to all by studying the examples above.

Did you find this article helpful? Let us know in the comments below!

 

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Kaelyn Barron

As a blog writer for TCK Publishing, Kaelyn loves crafting fun and helpful content for writers, readers, and creative minds alike. She has a degree in International Affairs with a minor in Italian Studies, but her true passion has always been writing. Working from home allows her to do even more of the things she loves, like traveling, cooking, and spending time with her family.