Singular they is the use in English of the pronoun they or its inflected or derivative forms, them, their, theirs, and themselves (or themself), as an epicene (gender-neutral) singular pronoun. It typically occurs with an unspecified antecedent, as in sentences such as:
The singular they emerged by the 14th century, about a century after the plural they. It has been commonly employed in everyday English ever since then and has gained currency in official contexts. Singular they has been criticised since the mid-18th century by prescriptive commentators who consider it an error. Its continued use in modern standard English has become more common and formally accepted with the move toward gender-neutral language. Though some early 21st century style guides described it as colloquial and less appropriate in formal writing, by 2020 most style guides accepted the singular they as a personal pronoun.
In the early 21st century, use of singular they with known individuals emerged for people who do not identify as male or female, as in, for example, "This is my friend, Jay. I met them at work." They in this context was named Word of the Year for 2015 by the American Dialect Society, and for 2019 by Merriam-Webster. In 2020, the American Dialect Society also selected it as Word of the Decade for the 2010s.
The "singular they" permits a singular antecedent, but is used with the same verb forms as plural they, and has the same inflected forms as plural they (i.e. them, their, and theirs), except that in the reflexive form, themself is sometimes used instead of themselves.
|He||He is my son.||When my son cries, I hug him.||My son tells me his age.||If I lose my phone, my son lends me his.||My son dresses himself.|
|She||She is my daughter.||When my daughter cries, I hug her.||My daughter tells me her age.||If I lose my phone, my daughter lends me hers.||My daughter dresses herself.|
|Plural they||They are my children.||When my children cry, I hug them.||My children tell me their ages.||If I lose my phone, my children lend me theirs.||My children dress themselves.|
|They are a child.||When a child cries, I hug them.||A child tells me their age.||If I lose my phone, a child lends me theirs.||A child dresses themself [or themselves].|
|Generic he||He is a child.||When a child cries, I hug him.||A child tells me his age.||If I lose my phone, a child lends me his.||A child dresses himself.|
|It||It is a child.||When a child cries, I hug it.||A child tells me its age.||If I lose my phone, a child lends me its.||A child dresses itself.|
Themself is attested from the 14th to 16th centuries. Its use has been increasing since the 1970s or 1980s, though it is sometimes still classified as "a minority form". In 2002, Payne and Huddleston, in The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, called its use in standard dialect "rare and acceptable only to a minority of speakers" but "likely to increase with the growing acceptance of they as a singular pronoun". It is useful when referring to a single person of indeterminate gender, where the plural form themselves might seem incongruous, as in:
The Canadian government recommends themselves as the reflexive form of singular they for use in Canadian federal legislative texts and advises against using themself, but themself is also found:
They with a singular antecedent goes back to the Middle English of the 14th century (slightly younger than they with a plural antecedent, which was borrowed from Old Norse in the 13th century), and has remained in use for centuries in spite of its proscription by traditional grammarians beginning in the mid 18th century.
Informal spoken English exhibits universal use of the singular they. An examination by Jürgen Gerner of the British National Corpus published in 1998 found that British speakers, regardless of social status, age, sex, or region, used the singular they more often than the gender-neutral he or other options.
Singular they is found in the writings of many respected authors. Here are some examples, arranged chronologically:
Alongside they, it has historically been acceptable to use the pronoun he to refer to an indefinite person of any gender, as in the following:
This formulation is still sometimes used but has lost acceptability in the eyes of the public.
The earliest known explicit recommendation by a grammarian to use the generic he rather than they in formal English is Ann Fisher's mid-18th century A New Grammar assertion that "The Masculine Person answers to the general Name, which comprehends both Male and Female; as, any Person who knows what he says." (Ann Fisher as quoted by Ostade)
Nineteenth-century grammarians insisted on he as a gender-neutral pronoun on the grounds of number agreement, while rejecting "he or she" as clumsy, and this was widely adopted: e.g. in 1850, the British Parliament passed an act which provided that, when used in acts of Parliament "words importing the masculine gender shall be deemed and taken to include females". Baskervill and Sewell mention the common use of the singular they in their An English Grammar for the Use of High School, Academy and College Class of 1895, but prefer the generic he on the basis of number agreement.
Baskervill gives a number of examples of recognized authors using the singular they, including:
It has been argued that the real motivation for promoting the "generic" he was an androcentric world view, with the default sex of humans being male - and the default gender therefore being masculine. There is some evidence for this: Wilson wrote in 1560:
And Poole wrote in 1646:
In spite of continuous attempts on the part of educationalists to proscribe singular they in favour of he, this advice was ignored; even writers of the period continued to use they (though the proscription may have been observed more by American writers). Use of the purportedly gender-neutral he remained acceptable until at least the 1960s, though some uses of he were later criticized as being awkward or silly, for instance when referring to:
He is still sometimes found in contemporary writing when referring to a generic or indeterminate antecedent. In some cases it is clear from the situation that the persons potentially referred to are likely to be male, as in:
In some cases the antecedent may refer to persons who are only probably male or to occupations traditionally thought of as male:
In other situations, the antecedent may refer to:
In 2010, Choy and Clark still recommend the use of generic he "in formal speech or writing":
From the earliest times until about the 1960s it was unquestionably acceptable to use the pronoun he (and him, himself, his) with indefinite reference to denote a person of either sex, especially after indefinite pronouns and determiners such as anybody, ... every, etc., after gender-neutral nouns such as person ... [but] alternative devices are now usually resorted to. When a gender-neutral pronoun or determiner ... is needed, the options usually adopted are the plural forms they, their, themselves, etc., or he or she (his or her, etc.)
In 2016, Garner's Modern English calls the generic use of masculine pronouns "the traditional view, now widely assailed as sexist".
The earliest known attempt to create gender-neutral pronouns dates back to 1792, when Scottish economist James Anderson advocated for an indeterminate pronoun "ou".
In the second half of the 20th century, people expressed more widespread concern at the use of male-oriented language. This included criticism of the use of man as a generic term to include men and women and of the use of he to refer to any human, regardless of sex (social gender).
It was argued that he could not sensibly be used as a generic pronoun understood to include men and women. William Safire in his On Language column in The New York Times approved of the use of generic he, mentioning the mnemonic phrase "the male embraces the female". C. Badendyck from Brooklyn wrote to the New York Times in a reply:
The average American needs the small routines of getting ready for work. As he shaves or blow-dries his hair or pulls on his panty-hose, he is easing himself by small stages into the demands of the day.
By 1980, the movement toward gender-neutral language had gained wide support, and many organizations, including most publishers, had issued guidelines on the use of gender-neutral language, but stopped short of recommending they to be third-person singular with a non-indeterminate, singular antecedent.
The use of masculine generic nouns and pronouns in written and spoken language has decreased since the 1970s. In a corpus of spontaneous speech collected in Australia in the 1990s, singular they had become the most frequently used generic pronoun (rather than generic he or he or she). Similarly, a study from 2002 looking at a corpus of American and British newspapers showed a preference for they to be used as a singular epicene pronoun.
The increased use of singular they may owe in part to an increasing desire for gender-neutral language. A solution in formal writing has often been to write "he or she", or something similar, but this is often considered awkward or overly politically correct, particularly when used excessively. In 2016, the journal American Speech published a study by Darren K. LaScotte investigating the pronouns used by native English speakers in informal written responses to questions concerning a subject of unspecified gender, finding that 68% of study participants chose singular they to refer to such an antecedent. Some participants noted that they found constructions such as "he or she" inadequate as they do not include people who do not identify as either male or female.
They in this context was named Word of the Year for 2019 by Merriam-Webster and for 2015 by the American Dialect Society. On January 4, 2020, the American Dialect Society announced they had crowned they, again in this context, Word of the Decade for the 2010s.
The singular antecedent can be a pronoun such as someone, anybody, or everybody, or an interrogative pronoun such as who:
Although the pronouns everybody, everyone, nobody, and no one are singular in form and are used with a singular verb, these pronouns have an "implied plurality" that is somewhat similar to the implied plurality of collective or group nouns such as crowd or team,[b] and in some sentences where the antecedent is one of these "implied plural" pronouns, the word they cannot be replaced by generic he, suggesting a "notional plural" rather than a "bound variable" interpretation . This is in contrast to sentences that involve multiple pairwise relationships and singular they, such as:
There are examples where the antecedent pronoun (such as everyone) may refer to a collective, with no necessary implication of pairwise relationships. These are examples of plural they:
Which are apparent because they do not work with a generic he or he or she:
In addition, for these "notional plural" cases, it would not be appropriate to use themself instead of themselves as in:
The singular antecedent can also be a noun such as person, patient, or student:
A known individual may also be referred to as they if the individual is non-binary or genderqueer and considers they an appropriate pronoun. Several social media applications permit account holders to choose to identify their gender using one of a variety of non-binary or genderqueer options, such as gender fluid, agender, or bigender, and to designate a pronoun, including they/them, which they wish to be used when referring to them. Though "singular they" has long been used with antecedents such as everybody or generic persons of unknown gender, this use, which may be chosen by an individual, is recent. The earliest recorded usage of this sense documented by the Oxford English Dictionary is in a tweet from 2009; the journal American Speech documents an example from 2008 in an article in the journal Women's Studies Quarterly. As of 2020, singular they is the most popular pronoun used by non-binary people. Approximately 80% consider it appropriate for themselves.
The singular they in the meaning "gender-neutral singular pronoun for a known person, as a non-binary identifier" was chosen by the American Dialect Society as their "Word of the Year" for 2015. In 2016, the American Dialect Society wrote:
"While editors have increasingly moved to accepting singular they when used in a generic fashion, voters in the Word of the Year proceedings singled out its newer usage as an identifier for someone who may identify as non-binary in gender terms."
The vote followed the previous year's approval of this use by The Washington Post style guide, when Bill Walsh, the Posts copy editor, said that the singular they is "the only sensible solution to English's lack of a gender-neutral third-person singular personal pronoun".
The first non-binary main character on North American television appeared on the Showtime drama series Billions in 2017, with Asia Kate Dillon playing Taylor Mason. Both actor and character use singular they.
Though both generic he and generic they have long histories of use, and both are still used, both are also systematically avoided by particular groups.
Style guides that avoid expressing a preference for either approach sometimes recommend recasting a problem sentence, for instance replacing generic expressions with plurals to avoid the criticisms of either party.
Garner's Modern American Usage (2nd ed., 2003) recommends cautious use of singular they, and avoidance where possible because its use is stigmatized.
Garner suggests that use of singular they is more acceptable in British English:
and apparently regrets the resistance by the American language community:
He regards the trend toward using singular they with antecedents like everybody, anyone and somebody as inevitable:
In the 14th edition (1993) of The Chicago Manual of Style, the University of Chicago Press explicitly recommended using singular they and their, noting a "revival" of this usage and citing "its venerable use by such writers as Addison, Austen, Chesterfield, Fielding, Ruskin, Scott, and Shakespeare." From the 15th edition (2003), this was changed. In Chapter 5 of the 17th edition (2017), now written by Bryan A. Garner, the recommendations are:
Normally, a singular antecedent requires a singular pronoun. But because he is no longer universally accepted as a generic pronoun referring to a person of unspecified gender, people commonly (in speech and in informal writing) substitute the third-person-plural pronouns they, them, their, and themselves (or the nonstandard singular themself). While this usage is accepted in those spheres, it is only lately showing signs of gaining acceptance in formal writing, where Chicago recommends avoiding its use. When referring specifically to a person who does not identify with a gender-specific pronoun, however, they and its forms are often preferred.
According to The American Heritage Book of English Usage and its usage panel of selected writers, journalism professors, linguists, and other experts, many Americans avoid use of they to refer to a singular antecedent out of respect for a "traditional" grammatical rule, despite use of singular they by modern writers of note and mainstream publications:
Most of the Usage Panel rejects the use of they with singular antecedents as ungrammatical, even in informal speech. Eighty-two percent find the sentence The typical student in the program takes about six years to complete their course work unacceptable ... panel members seem to make a distinction between singular nouns, such as the typical student and a person, and pronouns that are grammatically singular but semantically plural, such as anyone, everyone and no one. Sixty-four percent of panel members accept the sentence No one is willing to work for those wages anymore, are they?
For instance, rather than writing "I don't know who wrote this note, but he or she has good handwriting," you might write something like "I don't know who wrote this note, but they have good handwriting."
William Strunk Jr. & E. B. White, the original authors of The Elements of Style, found use of they with a singular antecedent unacceptable and advised use of the singular pronoun (he). In the 3rd edition (1979), the recommendation was still:
They. Not to be used when the antecedent is a distributive expression, such as each, each one. everybody, every one, many a man. Use the singular pronoun. ... A similar fault is the use of the plural pronoun with the antecedent anybody, anyone, somebody, someone ....
The assessment, in 1979, was:
The use of he as pronoun for nouns embracing both genders is a simple, practical convention rooted in the beginnings of the English language. He has lost all suggestion of maleness in these circumstances. ... It has no pejorative connotation; it is never incorrect.
In the 4th edition (2000), use of singular they was still proscribed against, but use of generic he was no longer recommended.
Joseph M. Williams, who wrote a number of books on writing with "clarity and grace", discusses the advantages and disadvantages of various solutions when faced with the problem of referring to an antecedent such as someone, everyone, no one or a noun that does not indicate gender and suggests that this will continue to be a problem for some time. He "suspect[s] that eventually we will accept the plural they as a correct singular" but states that currently "formal usage requires a singular pronoun".
According to The Little, Brown Handbook, most experts - and some teachers and employers - find use of singular they unacceptable:
Although some experts accept they, them, and their with singular indefinite words, most do not, and many teachers and employers regard the plural as incorrect. To be safe, work for agreement between singular indefinite words and the pronouns that refer to them ....
It recommends using he or she or avoiding the problem by rewriting the sentence to use a plural or omit the pronoun.
The Purdue Online Writing Lab (OWL) states that "grammar shifts and changes over time", that the use of singular they is acceptable, and that singular "they" as a replacement for "he" or "she" is more inclusive:
When individuals whose gender is neither male nor female (e.g. nonbinary, agender, genderfluid, etc.) use the singular they to refer to themselves, they are using the language to express their identities. Adopting this language is one way writers can be inclusive of a range of people and identities.-- Purdue Writing Lab
The Washington Post's stylebook, as of 2015, recommends trying to "write around the problem, perhaps by changing singulars to plurals, before using the singular they as a last resort" and specifically permits use of they for a "gender-nonconforming person".
The Associated Press Stylebook, as of 2017, recommends: "They/them/their is acceptable in limited cases as a singular and-or gender-neutral pronoun, when alternative wording is overly awkward or clumsy. However, rewording usually is possible and always is preferable."
In The Handbook of Nonsexist Writing, Casey Miller and Kate Swift accept or recommend singular uses of they in cases where there is an element of semantic plurality expressed by a word such as "everyone" or where an indeterminate person is referred to, citing examples of such usage in formal speech. They also suggest rewriting sentences to use a plural they, eliminating pronouns, or recasting sentences to use "one" or (for babies) "it".
In the first edition of A Dictionary of Modern English Usage (published in 1926) use of the generic he is recommended. It is stated that singular they is disapproved of by grammarians. Numerous examples of its use by eminent writers in the past are given, but it is stated that "few good modern writers would flout [grammarians] so conspicuously as Fielding and Thackeray", whose sentences are described as having an "old-fashioned sound".
The second edition, Fowler's Modern English Usage (edited by Sir Ernest Gowers and published in 1965) continues to recommend use of the generic he; use of the singular they is called "the popular solution", which "sets the literary man's teeth on edge". It is stated that singular they is disapproved of by grammarians but common in colloquial speech. Numerous examples of its use by eminent writers are given, but it is stated that "few good modern writers would flout [grammarians] so conspicuously as Fielding and Thackeray".
According to the third edition, The New Fowler's Modern English Usage (edited by Burchfield and published in 1996) singular they has not only been widely used by good writers for centuries, but is now generally accepted, except by some conservative grammarians, including the Fowler of 1926, who, it is argued, ignored the evidence:
Over the centuries, writers of standing have used they, their, and them with anaphoric reference to a singular noun or pronoun, and the practice has continued in the 20C. to the point that, traditional grammarians aside, such constructions are hardly noticed any more or are not widely felt to lie in a prohibited zone. Fowler (1926) disliked the practice ... and gave a number of unattributed "faulty' examples ... The evidence presented in the OED points in another direction altogether.
The Complete Plain Words was originally written in 1948 by Ernest Gowers, a civil servant, in an attempt by the British civil service to improve "official English". A second edition, edited by Sir Bruce Fraser, was published in 1973. It refers to they or them as the "equivalent of a singular pronoun of common sex" as "common in speech and not unknown in serious writing " but "stigmatized by grammarians as usage grammatically indefensible. The book's advice for "official writers" (civil servants) is to avoid its use and not to be tempted by its "greater convenience", though "necessity may eventually force it into the category of accepted idiom".
A new edition of Plain Words, revised and updated by Gowers's great granddaughter, Rebecca Gowers, was published in 2014. It notes that singular they and them have become much more widespread since Gowers' original comments, but still finds it "safer" to treat a sentence like 'The reader may toss their book aside' as incorrect "in formal English", while rejecting even more strongly sentences like
The Times Style and Usage Guide (first published in 2003 by The Times of London) recommends avoiding sentences like
by using a plural construction:
For those listening or reading, it has become unremarkable - an element of common usage.
It expresses several preferences.
The Economist Style Guide refers to the use of they in sentences like
as "scrambled syntax that people adopt because they cannot bring themselves to use a singular pronoun".
New Hart's Rules (Oxford University Press, 2012) is aimed at those engaged in copy editing, and the emphasis is on the formal elements of presentation including punctuation and typeface, rather than on linguistic style, although - like The Chicago Manual of Style - it makes occasional forays into matters of usage. It advises against use of the purportedly gender-neutral he, and suggests cautious use of they where he or she presents problems.
... it is now regarded ... as old-fashioned or sexist to use he in reference to a person of unspecified sex, as in every child needs to know that he is loved. The alternative he or she is often preferred, and in formal contexts probably the best solution, but can become tiresome or long-winded when used frequently. Use of they in this sense (everyone needs to feel that they matter) is becoming generally accepted both in speech and in writing, especially where it occurs after an indefinite pronoun such as everyone or someone, but should not be imposed by an editor if an author has used he or she consistently.
The 2011 edition of the New International Version Bible uses singular they instead of the traditional he when translating pronouns that apply to both genders in the original Greek or Hebrew. This decision was based on research by a commission that studied modern English usage and determined that singular they (them/their) was by far the most common way that English-language speakers and writers today refer back to singular antecedents such as whoever, anyone, somebody, a person, no one, and the like."
The British edition of The Handbook of Nonsexist Writing, modified in some respects from the original US edition to conform to differences in culture and vocabulary, preserved the same recommendations, allowing singular they with semantically plural terms like "everyone" and indeterminate ones like "person", but recommending a rewrite to avoid.
The Australian Federation Press Style Guide for Use in Preparation of Book Manuscripts recommends "gender-neutral language should be used", stating that use of they and their as singular pronouns is acceptable.
The pronoun they is commonly used as a 3rd person singular pronoun that is neutral between masculine and feminine ... At one time restricted to informal usage. it is now increasingly accepted in formal usage, especially in [American English].
The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language discusses the prescriptivist argument that they is a plural pronoun and that the use of they with a singular "antecedent" therefore violates the rule of agreement between antecedent and pronoun, but takes the view that they, though primarily plural, can also be singular in a secondary extended sense, comparable to the purportedly extended sense of he to include female gender.
Use of singular they is stated to be "particularly common", even "stylistically neutral" with antecedents such as everyone, someone, and no one, but more restricted when referring to common nouns as antecedents, as in
Use of the pronoun themself is described as being "rare" and "acceptable only to a minority of speakers", while use of the morphologically plural themselves is considered problematic when referring to someone rather than everyone (since only the latter implies a plural set).
There are also issues of grammatical acceptability when reflexive pronouns refer to singular noun phrases joined by or, the following all being problematic:
On the motivation for using singular they, A Student's Introduction to English Grammar states:
this avoidance of he can't be dismissed just as a matter of political correctness. The real problem with using he is that it unquestionably colours the interpretation, sometimes inappropriately ... he doesn't have a genuinely sex-neutral sense.
The alternative he or she can be "far too cumbersome", as in:
or even "flatly ungrammatical", as in
"Among younger speakers", use of singular they even with definite noun-phrase antecedents finds increasing acceptance, "sidestepping any presumption about the sex of the person referred to", as in:
Notional agreement is the idea that some uses of they might refer to a grammatically singular antecedent seen as semantically plural:
According to notional agreement, in the Shakespeare quotation a mother is syntactically singular, but stands for all mothers; and in the Shaw quotation no man is syntactically singular (taking the singular form goes), but is semantically plural (all go [to kill] not to be killed), hence idiomatically requiring they. Such use, which goes back a long way, includes examples where the sex is known, as in the above examples.
Distributive constructions apply a single idea to multiple members of a group. They are typically marked in English by words like each, every and any. The simplest examples are applied to groups of two, and use words like either and or - "Would you like tea or coffee?". Since distributive constructions apply an idea relevant to each individual in the group, rather than to the group as a whole, they are most often conceived of as singular, and a singular pronoun is used:
The singular they, which uses the same verb form that plurals do, is typically used to refer to an indeterminate antecedent, for example:
In some sentences, typically those including words like every or any, the morphologically singular antecedent does not refer to a single entity but is "anaphorically linked" to the associated pronoun to indicate a set of pairwise relationships, as in the sentence:
Linguists like Steven Pinker and Rodney Huddleston explain sentences like this (and others) in terms of bound variables, a term borrowed from logic. Pinker prefers the terms quantifier and bound variable to antecedent and pronoun. He suggests that pronouns used as "variables" in this way are more appropriately regarded as homonyms of the equivalent referential pronouns.
The following shows different types of anaphoric reference, using various pronouns, including they:
A study of whether "singular they" is more "difficult" to understand than gendered pronouns ("In Search of Gender Neutrality: Is Singular They a Cognitively Efficient Substitute for Generic He?" by Foertsch and Gernsbacher) found that "singular they is a cognitively efficient substitute for generic he or she, particularly when the antecedent is nonreferential" (e.g. anybody, a nurse, or a truck driver) rather than referring to a specific person (e.g. a runner I knew or my nurse). Clauses with singular they were read "just as quickly as clauses containing a gendered pronoun that matched the stereotype of the antecedent" (e.g. she for a nurse and he for a truck driver) and "much more quickly than clauses containing a gendered pronoun that went against the gender stereotype of the antecedent".
On the other hand, when the pronoun they was used to refer to known individuals ("referential antecedents, for which the gender was presumably known", e.g. my nurse, that truck driver, a runner I knew), reading was slowed when compared with use of a gendered pronoun consistent with the "stereotypic gender" (e.g. he for a specific truck driver).
The study concluded that "the increased use of singular they is not problematic for the majority of readers".
The singular and plural use of they can be compared with the pronoun you, which had been both a plural and polite singular, but by about 1700 replaced thou for singular referents. For "you", the singular reflexive pronoun ("yourself") is different from its plural reflexive pronoun ("yourselves"); with "they" one can hear either "themself" or "themselves" for the singular reflexive pronoun.
Singular "they" has also been compared to "royal we" (also termed "editorial we"), when a single person uses first-person plural in place of first-person singular pronouns. Similar to singular "you", its singular reflexive pronoun ("ourself") is different from the plural reflexive pronoun ("ourselves").
While the pronoun it, which is used for inanimate objects, can be used for infants of unspecified gender, it tends to be dehumanizing, and is therefore more likely in a clinical context. In a more personal context, the use of it to refer to a person might indicate antipathy or other negative emotions.
It can also be used for non-human animals of unspecified sex, though they is common for pets and other domesticated animals of unspecified sex, especially when referred to by a proper name (e.g. Rags, Snuggles). Normally, vertebrate birds and mammals with a known sex are referred to by their respective male or female pronoun (he and she; him and her).
It is uncommon to use singular they instead of it for something other than a life form.
Like singular you, singular they is treated as a grammatical plural and* takes a plural verb.
Sources of original examples
Use themselves as the reflexive/intensive pronoun to refer to an indefinite gender-neutral noun or pronoun that is the subject of the sentence and avoid themself.
... our pronoun they was originally borrowed into English from the Scandinavian language family ... and since then has been doing useful service in English as the morphosyntactically plural but singular-antecedent-permitting gender-neutral pronoun known to linguists as singular they.