Why the Singular 'They' Has Always Made Sense In Context

Updated July 8, 2022
They/Them With Non-binary Flag
    They/Them With Non-binary Flag
    Background: Tolchik / iStock / Getty Images Plus
    Used under Getty Images license

English has a lot of great things going for it. It's got tons of fun adjectives, an amazing variety of verbs and a veritable hodgepodge of nouns (that's a great one right there). But one thing it lacks is a singular, non-gendered pronoun, so many people use they and them to refer to one person without reference to gender. Does that feel a bit too 21st century for you? It shouldn't — they and them have been singular pronouns for quite a long time now.

Don't Blow a Grammar Gasket Yet — It's Historical

A lot of grammar nerds just cringed at the idea of a singular they, and it's understandable. But the singular they (as a subject pronoun) and them (as an object pronoun) have been around for a long time. In fact, the Oxford English Dictionary traces their usage as early as the 1375 romance poem William and the Werewolf.

No one even claimed they and them were solely plural pronouns until four hundred years later — and even then, grammarians demanded that you was also only a plural pronoun (thou was the singular form). But like indoor plumbing and sanitation, grammar has come a long way since the 17th century, and proper usage ain't what it used to be.


Why Do People Use They/Them Singular Pronouns?

There are many reasons why someone would use (or prefer others to use) they and them instead of he or she. For example:

  • A person who doesn’t identify as a boy, girl, man, or woman sometimes wants a nonbinary pronoun used in place of their name.
  • You're discussing a person and you don't know their (see how it works?) gender.
  • A writer is speaking in the third-person perspective about a general "everyperson" and doesn't want to use "he or she"

The best way to find out why someone uses they/them as a singular pronoun is to ask the person using those pronouns. The use of they/them as singular pronouns can have different meanings to different people.

But It Hurts My Grammatical Heart

Still opining about how "They is my best friend" looks funny? Don't worry. Even though they and them can refer to a singular person, they still use plural verbs ("They are my best friend"). That's a big reason why many publishing houses and style guides dragged their feet on allowing writers to use these pronouns — subject-verb agreement is important!

However, consider the pronoun you, which also uses a plural verb and can refer to only one person. If you don't have a problem with you are, consider loosening up on they are.


What Do the Style Guides Say?

Every major style guide now includes provisions for using they and them as singular pronouns. No matter who you're writing for, chances are, they've got some guidance on these pronouns!

AP Style

In 2017, the AP Stylebook was updated to include the use of they/them as singular pronouns. However, the new guideline suggests you try to reword a sentence rather than use they/them whenever possible.

Chicago Style

The 2017 edition of The Chicago Manual of Style also included sanctioned use of they/them pronouns for a singular person. They/them should always be used with Chicago style when a person requests this pronoun for writing about themself. The style guide suggests you can use “they” to replace a generic use of “he,” but you should try to use other unbiased language strategies first.


MLA Style

The 8th Edition MLA Handbook goes a step further than other style guides and encourages use of they/them to replace the generic “he” or “she.” Like Chicago style, MLA guidelines indicate you should always use a person’s preferred pronouns when speaking about them.

APA Style

The 7th Edition APA Publication Manual goes even further than the other main styles. According to APA style:

  • Always use “they” if it is a person’s self-identified pronoun.
  • Always use “they” for a generic third-person singular pronoun.
  • Don’t ever use “(s)he” or “s/he.”

Merriam-Webster Word of the Year

Dictionary giant Merriam-Webster made “they” their word of the year in 2019. Data about how often words are looked up drives the Word of the Year pick for Merriam-Webster.


Using the Singular They/Them Isn't as Hard as It Looks

Using they and them as singular pronouns just takes a little retraining of the brain. You use it in two ways: to replace he and she with gender-neutral pronouns, and to refer to a general, unknown person.

They/Them Instead of He and She

When you know that a person would prefer being called they instead of he or she, make every effort to do so. Just replace the gender-specific pronouns with they and change the verb accordingly (if needed)!

For example:

  • She always has the best shoes.
  • They always have the best shoes.
  • I can’t believe he won the fishing contest.
  • I can’t believe they won the fishing contest.
  • I knew you liked him.
  • I knew you liked them.
  • You don't have to choose between her and me.
  • You don't have to choose between them and me.

They/Them For General People

You may be asking "Can't I just use 'he or she' when referring to a general, unknown person?" You can — but it's falling out of favor. "He or she" implies that the person you're talking about identifies with one of two genders, which may not be the case. Also, it's awkward and clunky in the middle of a sentence.

Use they or them when discussing a hypothetical, genderless person, or when you need a pronoun for a gender-neutral antecedent (such as student or doctor). For example:

  • The veterinarian will tell you what they think.
  • Approach the customer and ask how you can help them.
  • When a baby cries, they are trying to tell you something.
  • Can you get the manager? I'd like to speak to them.

What About Their?

If you're realizing that the grammatical change is a lot bigger than just they and them, you're right! What about possessive pronouns and adjectives? Same rule applies: replace her and his with their, and you'll still be correct. For example:

  • Do you think he will let me borrow his car?

  • Do you think they will let me borrow their car?

  • You just ruined her favorite sweater.

  • You just ruined their favorite sweater.


Wait — Is Themself a Word?

Okay, now things get a little sticky in the grammar world. Themselves clearly refers to two or more people, but is themself a better option? Is it even a word?

Themself is a real word, and its popularity has grown in the last several years. Writers are using the third-person reflexive pronoun more and more to describe a specific person who uses they and them pronouns, or a general person whose gender is unknown or irrelevant. If it looks odd to you, just wait — in a few years, it may feel as natural as herself or himself.

However, if themself hasn't made its way to your lexicon, you can use themselves without upsetting too many readers (as long as it's not confusing). For example:

  • The hotel guest can use the toaster herself.

  • They can use the toaster themself.

  • They can use the toaster themselves.

  • The author only has himself to share the ending with, becasue the book isn't published yet.
  • The author only has themself to share the ending with, becasue the book isn't published yet.
  • They only have themselves to share the ending with, becasue the book isn't published yet.

The Grammar, It Is A'Changing (But Not Really)

It may feel like these rules are brand new, which makes them seem unnecessary. But the opposite is actually true: Grammar reflects the changing society around it. The fact that they and them are increasingly common ways to refer to a single person should tell you that it's quite an important issue to many — and therefore, worthy of your attention (and correction)!