Why it's okay to use "they" as a singular pronoun

2 min read

Pronouns have become a hot topic in both linguistic and cultural circles. Masculine pronouns used to be the default for any mixed-gender plural usage, but that doesn’t seem so PC anymore. And what about folks who identify with a gender-neutral pronoun? You can see where it gets tricky.

In comes “they.” Old-fashioned grammarians might hold onto the edict that “they” isn’t appropriate when referring to a singular noun, but we’re here to tell you that it’s A-OK to use “they” anytime you need a gender-neutral pronoun.

The argument about “they”

You have some options when it comes to pronoun choice. "He" and "she" have long been the favorites for referring to individual people, while "they" has long been held as a plural pronoun to reference groups of people or things.

However, this hasn't always been the case.  In fact the Oxford English Dictionary has evidence of a singular “they/their/them” in use as early as 1375 in a medieval romance, William and the Werewolf.

You thought you were hip and modern with your use of “they/their/them,” didn’t you?

The singular pronouns “they/their/them,” although not common, were used until the 18th century. That was when grammar scholars started to argue about whether or not “they/their/them” were able to describe a singular antecedent. They failed to remember “you,” which functioned as a singular pronoun, but had been a plural pronoun at first. In fact, “you” lost its billing to “thou,” “thee,” and “thy.” Yet again, another instance of the modern being not-so-modern after all.

By the late 18th century, the use of “they/them/their” was decreasing as more and more grammarians fought against its common usage.

Acceptance of a gender-neutral pronoun

English is a living language — one that is constantly shifting and changing based on what is happening in our culture. That’s how we find ourselves looking at “they/their/them” as a gender-neutral singular pronoun again.

The conversation around gender is constantly evolving, with individuals no longer comfortable with male and female labels. Many non-binary individuals prefer the encompassing “they/their/them” to describe themselves.

In 2015, the singular “they/their/them” was added to The Washington Post style guide. And in 2017, the Chicago Manual of Style added commentary about the use of a singular “they/their/them,” stating that it was more comfortable with the use of “they/their/them” in informal English over formal writing. Also in 2017, The Associated Press (AP) Stylebook added commentary on a singular “they,” deeming it acceptable. The Modern Language Association followed suit soon after and added it to the MLA Style Manual.

Even though many style guides accept the singular “they,” and the Oxford English Dictionary — perhaps the most definitive dictionary — also stands behind it, many grammarians still don’t accept its use for the singular. This doesn’t mean that the use of it is grammatically incorrect. Instead, it’s just another example of language rules taking some time to catch up to the ways that the language is being used.

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