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The singular they:
Avoid it or use it?
St. Edward’s University OWL
sites.stedwards.edu/owl
The singular they and their
They and their are plural pronouns, but we sometimes use them as
singular pronouns when the antecedent (the noun that the pronoun
refers to) is a person of unspecified gender:
After makes presentation,
will be encouraged to take questions from
the group.
However, using a plural pronoun to refer to a singular subject is often
considered a grammatical error.
each candidate their
they
The singular they and their
They and their are plural pronouns, but we sometimes use them as
singular pronouns when the antecedent (the noun that the pronoun
refers to) is a person of unspecified gender:
After makes presentation,
will be encouraged to take questions from
the group.
However, using a plural pronoun to refer to a singular subject is often
considered a grammatical error.
each candidate their
they
The singular they and their
They and their are plural pronouns, but we sometimes use them as
singular pronouns when the antecedent (the noun that the pronoun
refers to) is a person of unspecified gender:
After makes presentation,
will be encouraged to take questions from
the group.
However, using a plural pronoun to refer to a singular subject is often
considered a grammatical error.
each candidate their, they
{noun: singular} ≠ {pronouns: plural}
!
each candidate their
they
The grammar rule
In English, a pronoun and its antecedent must be either both
singular or both plural. When a noun is singular but a pronoun
that refers to it is plural (or vice versa), the error is known as an
agreement error.
The controversy
English doesn’t have a singular personal pronoun that is gender-
neutral. The singular personal pronouns in English are he and she,
and the singular possessive personal pronouns are his and her.
During the first half of the 20th century, most teachers would
have advised writers to use he and his in place of they and their in
the example. Masculine pronouns, they would have argued, can
refer to people of both genders, just as mankind can mean
humankind. Today, however, many readers would argue that using
he and his to refer to a candidate who may be male or female is
not accurate. Furthermore, they would argue, he and his in the
example sentence would make the sentence seem biased toward
a male candidate.
The controversy, continued
Also, some people don’t identify as either gender, so
even he or she and his or her may not be completely
inclusive of all potential candidates. Plus, writing he
or she and his or her would make the sentence
cumbersome.
Today, many writers—and virtually all speakers—use
they and their to refer to singular nouns. However,
many readers still feel that this use is grammatically
incorrect. These readers argue that the singular they
shouldn’t be used in formal writing.
The solutions
The best solution is dependent on the following,
in order of importance:
1. The audience for your writing (that is, your
reader)
2. The context of the writing
3. What you think
Solution 1: For most formal and
academic contexts
If your reader is likely to be a stickler for traditional grammar,
or if the writing is academic or formal, avoid using the singular
“they.” Rephrase the sentence.
Usually, the most graceful and inclusive alternative is to replace
the singular antecedent with a plural noun, so both the noun
and the pronouns are plural. (Make sure to change any other
words in the sentence, such as verbs and objective nouns, so
they agree with the plural noun.)
After make presentations,
will be encouraged to take questions from
the group.
the candidates their
they
Solution 1: For most formal and
academic contexts
If your reader is likely to be a stickler for traditional grammar,
or if the writing is academic or formal, avoid using the singular
“they.” Rephrase the sentence.
Usually, the most graceful and inclusive alternative is to replace
the singular antecedent with a plural noun, so both the noun
and the pronouns are plural. (Make sure to change any other
words in the sentence, such as verbs and objective nouns, so
they agree with the plural noun.)
After make presentations,
will be encouraged to take questions from
the group.
the candidates their
they
If your reader is likely to have progressive views
on grammar, if your context is casual, or if you
feel strongly that the original is the best way to
phrase the sentence, go ahead and write
After makes presentation,
will be encouraged to take questions from
the group.
Solution 2: For casual contexts
each candidate their
they
If your reader is likely to have progressive views
on grammar, if your context is casual, or if you
feel strongly that the original is the best way to
phrase the sentence, go ahead and write
After makes presentation,
will be encouraged to take questions from
the group.
Solution 2: For casual contexts
each candidate their
they
Remember!
For each piece of writing, make an informed,
intentional choice that reflects your
understanding of your reader, your purpose, and
your own voice as a writer.
Language is developed by those who use it.

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The Singular "They": Use It or Avoid it?

  • 1. The singular they: Avoid it or use it? St. Edward’s University OWL sites.stedwards.edu/owl
  • 2. The singular they and their They and their are plural pronouns, but we sometimes use them as singular pronouns when the antecedent (the noun that the pronoun refers to) is a person of unspecified gender: After makes presentation, will be encouraged to take questions from the group. However, using a plural pronoun to refer to a singular subject is often considered a grammatical error. each candidate their they
  • 3. The singular they and their They and their are plural pronouns, but we sometimes use them as singular pronouns when the antecedent (the noun that the pronoun refers to) is a person of unspecified gender: After makes presentation, will be encouraged to take questions from the group. However, using a plural pronoun to refer to a singular subject is often considered a grammatical error. each candidate their they
  • 4. The singular they and their They and their are plural pronouns, but we sometimes use them as singular pronouns when the antecedent (the noun that the pronoun refers to) is a person of unspecified gender: After makes presentation, will be encouraged to take questions from the group. However, using a plural pronoun to refer to a singular subject is often considered a grammatical error. each candidate their, they {noun: singular} ≠ {pronouns: plural} ! each candidate their they
  • 5. The grammar rule In English, a pronoun and its antecedent must be either both singular or both plural. When a noun is singular but a pronoun that refers to it is plural (or vice versa), the error is known as an agreement error.
  • 6. The controversy English doesn’t have a singular personal pronoun that is gender- neutral. The singular personal pronouns in English are he and she, and the singular possessive personal pronouns are his and her. During the first half of the 20th century, most teachers would have advised writers to use he and his in place of they and their in the example. Masculine pronouns, they would have argued, can refer to people of both genders, just as mankind can mean humankind. Today, however, many readers would argue that using he and his to refer to a candidate who may be male or female is not accurate. Furthermore, they would argue, he and his in the example sentence would make the sentence seem biased toward a male candidate.
  • 7. The controversy, continued Also, some people don’t identify as either gender, so even he or she and his or her may not be completely inclusive of all potential candidates. Plus, writing he or she and his or her would make the sentence cumbersome. Today, many writers—and virtually all speakers—use they and their to refer to singular nouns. However, many readers still feel that this use is grammatically incorrect. These readers argue that the singular they shouldn’t be used in formal writing.
  • 8. The solutions The best solution is dependent on the following, in order of importance: 1. The audience for your writing (that is, your reader) 2. The context of the writing 3. What you think
  • 9. Solution 1: For most formal and academic contexts If your reader is likely to be a stickler for traditional grammar, or if the writing is academic or formal, avoid using the singular “they.” Rephrase the sentence. Usually, the most graceful and inclusive alternative is to replace the singular antecedent with a plural noun, so both the noun and the pronouns are plural. (Make sure to change any other words in the sentence, such as verbs and objective nouns, so they agree with the plural noun.) After make presentations, will be encouraged to take questions from the group. the candidates their they
  • 10. Solution 1: For most formal and academic contexts If your reader is likely to be a stickler for traditional grammar, or if the writing is academic or formal, avoid using the singular “they.” Rephrase the sentence. Usually, the most graceful and inclusive alternative is to replace the singular antecedent with a plural noun, so both the noun and the pronouns are plural. (Make sure to change any other words in the sentence, such as verbs and objective nouns, so they agree with the plural noun.) After make presentations, will be encouraged to take questions from the group. the candidates their they
  • 11. If your reader is likely to have progressive views on grammar, if your context is casual, or if you feel strongly that the original is the best way to phrase the sentence, go ahead and write After makes presentation, will be encouraged to take questions from the group. Solution 2: For casual contexts each candidate their they
  • 12. If your reader is likely to have progressive views on grammar, if your context is casual, or if you feel strongly that the original is the best way to phrase the sentence, go ahead and write After makes presentation, will be encouraged to take questions from the group. Solution 2: For casual contexts each candidate their they
  • 13. Remember! For each piece of writing, make an informed, intentional choice that reflects your understanding of your reader, your purpose, and your own voice as a writer. Language is developed by those who use it.