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Supporting Our Trans Community: Singular "They"?

Singular They

pronoun name tag reads 'hello, my pronouns are they/them'"Almost anyone under the circumstances would have doubted if [the letter] were theirs, or indeed if they were themself—but to us it was clear."
— Emily Dickinson, using the singular "theirs" and "themself" in a letter dated Sept. 24, 1881

“She kept her head and kicked her shoes off, as everybody ought to do who falls into deep water in their clothes.”
— C.S. Lewis, using singular "their" in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, published 1952

From Wikipedia:

"Singular they is the use in English of the pronoun they or its inflected or derivative forms, them, their, theirs, and themselves (or themself). The singular they had emerged by the 14th century, about a century after plural they. It has been commonly employed in everyday English ever since then, and has gained currency in official contexts, though it has been strongly criticized at least since the late-19th century. Its use in modern standard English has become more common and accepted with the trend toward gender-neutral language."

The Oxford English Dictionary traces singular they to refer to an unnamed person back to the medieval romance William and the Werewolf in 1375:

"Hastely hiȝed eche... þei neyȝþed so neiȝh... þere william & his worþi lef were liand i-fere."
In modern English that’s, "Each man hurried... till they drew near... where William and his darling were lying together."

pronoun word cloudOther early examples of singular they in literature include:

"Eche on in þer craft ys wijs." ("Each one in their craft is wise.") — Wycliffite Bible, Ecclus. 38:35 (1382)

"If... a psalme scape any person, or a lesson, or els yt they omyt one verse or twayne." — William Bonde, Pylgrimage of Perfection, iii. sig. IIIiiiiv (1526)

"Upon which every body fell a laughing, as how could they help it?" — Henry Fielding, The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling (1749)

"A person can't help their birth." — Rosalind, in William Makepeace Thackeray, Vanity Fair (1848)

"Nobody in their senses would give sixpence on the strength of a promissory note of the kind." — Lord Landsdowne in 1910, quoted in The Liberal Magazine (1914)

Singular "They" in Formal Writing

You may find that you're asking yourself whether the singular they is grammatical. Well, it depends.

Let's look at use of the singular they in formal writing and how the major style guides address the issue.

While the singular they is not uncommon in spoken English and in some informal contexts, in formal writing it is best to reword for agreement in number.

Example:

Each student is expected to choose the topic of their research paper before they take the midterm.

In this case, the singular each student is does not agree in number with the plural their and they. You could replace their with his or her and they with he or she, but not only is that cumbersome, it excludes students who don't identify with male or female pronouns.

Rather than use his or her and he or she or try to make the plural they agree with a singular antecedent, it's best to reword the sentence.

Examples:

Students are expected to choose the topic of their research paper before they take the midterm.
or
Each student is expected to choose a research paper topic before taking the midterm.

In the first example, the antecedent is made plural so that it will agree with they and their. In the second example, the sentence is reworded so that the subject of the sentence remains singular, but the pronouns are removed entirely.

In most formal writing, the APA Publication Manual does not support the use of singular they to refer to an individual whose gender is unknown.

Instead, APA recommends several alternatives to the general singular they, including the following:

  • Make the sentence plural: "Participants indicated their preferences."
  • Rewrite the sentence to replace the pronoun with an article (a, an, or the): "The participant indicated a preference."
  • Rewrite the sentence to drop the pronoun: "The participant indicated preferences."
  • Combine both singular pronouns (he or she, she or he, his or her, her or his, etc.): "The participant indicated his or her preferences." (However, avoid overusing this strategy, as it can become cumbersome upon many repetitions.)

For formal writing, CMOS 17 does not prohibit the use of singular they as a substitute for the generic he in formal writing but recommends avoiding it. Editors should always practice judgment and regard for the reader, though. For instance, some recent books published by the University of Chicago Press feature the use of the singular they as a substitute for the generic he. Context should be a guide when choosing a style, and the writer’s preferences should always receive consideration.

In most cases, a plural pronoun should agree in number with the antecedent. 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.

Learn more about adjusting your language to be inclusive at MyProunouns.org.

Singular "They" For Non-Binary Individuals

Just as the major style guides are clear on what to do with singular they in formal writing (that is, reword your sentence so you don't need the singular they), they're also clear that when someone who is non-binary gender, agender, genderfluid, genderqueer, trans, or otherwise gender-nonconforming uses the singular they pronoun for themself, you should also use singular they to describe them, even in formal writing! 

Using an individual's chosen pronouns is affirming and respectful. Conversely, using binary pronouns for someone who uses non-binary pronouns, such as singular they, can be alienating and dismissive. For the non-binary person, this can feel marginalizing and even as though they are being erased altogether.

Let's look at how the major style guides address the issue of singular they for non-binary individuals.

Writers who wish to use a non-gender-specific pronoun to refer to themselves may prefer they/their (or a neologism like hir). Likewise, writers should follow the personal pronoun choices of individuals they write about, if their preferences are known, and editors should respect those preferences

Example:

They are writing their research paper on Austen’s Persuasion.

They may be used in a singular sense according to a person’s stated preference for it.

APA supports the choice of communities to determine their own descriptors. Thus, when transgender and gender nonconforming people (including agender, genderqueer, and other communities) use the singular they as their pronoun, writers should likewise use the singular they when writing about them. Although the usage isn’t explicitly outlined in the Publication Manual, APA’s guidelines for bias-free language clearly state that writers should be sensitive to labels:

Respect people’s preferences; call people what they prefer to be called. Accept that preferences change with time and that individuals within groups often disagree about the designations they prefer. Make an effort to determine what is appropriate for your situation; you may need to ask your participants which designations they prefer, particularly when preferred designations are being debated within groups. (APA Publication Manual, 2010, p. 72; see also the supplemental material to PM § 3.12)

Thus, choose the appropriate pronoun for the people you are writing about.

A writer (or speaker) may use they to refer to a specific, known person who does not identify with a gender-specific pronoun such as he or she. CMOS 17 advises that “a person’s stated preference for a specific pronoun should be respected.” This usage is still not widespread either in speech or in writing, but Chicago accepts it even in formal writing.

In stories about people who identify as neither male nor female or ask not to be referred to as he/she/him/her: Use the person’s name in place of a pronoun, or otherwise reword the sentence, whenever possible. If they/them/their use is essential, explain in the text that the person prefers a gender-neutral pronoun. Be sure that the phrasing does not imply more than one person.

Remember that AP style is intended for journalists and so is meant to be used in newspaper articles. It is concerned with clarity in writing that will be read by a large audience and must be understood by many people from different backgrounds.

 

 

Resources for Understanding and Using the Singular "They"