How do I use singular they?

Singular they has two uses: specific and generic (“Pronouns”). 

Specific Use

The MLA advises writers to always follow the personal pronouns of individuals they write about. Thus, if a person’s pronoun is they, the following sentences are correct:

Jules is writing their research paper on Jane Austen’s Persuasion.

Ari read the instructions to themselves [or themself] before beginning the test.

This use of singular they is widely accepted. In September 2019, Merriam-Webster’s even added a new definition to the entry for they in its online dictionary, stating that they can refer to a “single person whose gender identity is nonbinary” (“They,” def. 3d).

Generic Use

They is also used “as a generic third-person singular pronoun to refer to a person whose gender is unknown or irrelevant to the context,” as the seventh edition of the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association attests (120). This use of singular they, until very recently discouraged in academic writing and other formal contexts, allows writers to omit gendered pronouns from a sentence like the following:

Each taxpayer must file his or her tax return before 15 April.

Instead, writers may substitute singular they:

Each taxpayer must file their tax return before 15 April.

Because it lacks grammatical agreement, this use of singular they has been considered a less desirable option than revising to use the plural or rephrasing without pronouns. But it has emerged as a tool for making language more inclusive (see “Guidelines”), and the MLA encourages writers to accept its use to avoid making or enabling assumptions about gender.

The following principles and examples show some techniques that can help writers avoid the unnecessary and discriminatory use of gendered pronouns. For generic uses, writers should not use he or she alone or alternate he and she.

References to a Hypothetical Person

Original

When a celebrity joins Twitter he or she gains tens of thousands of followers within minutes.

Revised, Singular They

When a celebrity joins Twitter they gain tens of thousands of followers within minutes.

Revised, No Pronoun

A celebrity who joins Twitter gains tens of thousands of followers within minutes.

Revised, Plural Subject and Pronoun

When celebrities join Twitter they gain tens of thousands of followers within minutes.

References to an Anonymous Person

Original

The anonymous reviewer recommends in his or her report that the essay be published after minor revisions.

Revised, Singular They

The anonymous reviewer recommends in their report that the essay be published after minor revisions.

Revised, No Pronoun

The anonymous reviewer’s report recommends that the essay be published after minor revisions.

References to a Person Whose Gender Is Unknown or Irrelevant

Original

I am impressed by the résumé of T. C. Blake, a candidate for the Web developer job, and will schedule an interview with her.

Revised, Singular They

I am impressed by the résumé of T. C. Blake, a candidate for the Web developer job, and will schedule an interview with them.

Revised, No Pronoun

I am impressed by the résumé of T. C. Blake and will schedule an interview with this candidate for the Web developer job.

References to Generic Subjects That Are Grammatically Singular but Plural in Sense

Original

Everyone wants to do well on his or her midterm.

Revised, Singular They

Everyone wants to do well on their midterm.

Revised, No Pronoun

Everyone wants to do well on the midterm.

Works Cited

“Guidelines for Inclusive Language.” Linguistic Society of America, 2016, www.linguisticsociety.org/resource/guidelines-inclusive-language.

“Pronouns.” The Chicago Manual of Style Online, U of Chicago, 2017, www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/qanda/data/faq/topics/Pronouns.html.

 Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association. 7th ed., American Psychological Association, 2020.

 “They.” Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 2020, www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/they.

 

Published 4 March 2020

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