Singular “They” Is Not the End of the World

Pronouns have gotten a lot of attention lately, primarily because they have been brought to the forefront of efforts to create more inclusive language.

Those wishing to create welcoming spaces for transgender individuals will include their preferred pronouns when introducing themselves. “Hi, I’m Jamal, my pronouns are he/him,” someone might say. This is done to create a space where someone else might introduce themselves as “Jackie, pronouns they/them.”

I have written elsewhere that it can be hard for older English speakers to hear the word they as applying to a specific, defined individual. Nevertheless, the use of they to refer to a singular individual is nothing new—and nothing to fear.

A Long Pedigree

English speakers have been using they as a generic, third-person indefinite pronoun for a long time.

There’s not a man I meet but doth salute me
As if I were their well-acquainted friend

A Comedy of Errors, Act IV, Scene 3

That’s Shakespeare—Shakespeare!—equating a “man I meet” with “their.” The same Shakespeare who would write in The Rape of Lucrece:

Now leaden slumber with life’s strength doth fight;
And every one to rest themselves betake,
Save thieves, and cares, and troubled minds, that wake.

Now, perhaps Shakespeare isn’t enough of an authority for you. Consider, then, the following:

Let nothing be done through strife or vainglory; but in lowliness of mind let each esteem other better than themselves.

Philippians 2:3, KJV

That’s the Bible—the King James Version of the Bible, no less—equating “each” with “themselves.” The KJV is hardly a bastion of linguistic radicalism. In any event, the translators of the KJV were merely following in the literary footsteps of the great Middle English poet Geoffrey Chaucer:

And whoso fyndeth hym out of swich blame, / They wol come up and offre a Goddés name
(And whoso findeth him out of such blame, / They will come up and offer in God’s name)

Geoffey Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales1

And Chaucer was following in the footsteps of others who wrote things like:

Bath ware made sun and mon, / Aiþer wit þer ouen light
(Both were made sun and moon, / Either with their own light)

Anon., Cursor Mundi, c. 13252Ibid.

All of this is to say that using they as a generic third-person indefinite pronoun has been going on a long time in English, to the point where the construction is, dare I say, grammatical.

But grammar aside, the use of singular they avoids sexist constructions like

  • A good writer should trust his instincts.

and awkward and clunky ones like

  • A good writer should trust his or her instincts.

Compared to those, A good writer should trust their instincts is downright elegant.

Mind Your Context

As always, context matters. As I noted in the previous post, even though a construction might be grammatical—as I believe the use of singular they to be—there are contexts in which you should not use it.

A writer’s language should never distract from the message being written. If using singular they becomes distracting because the text is a formal or traditional text, it should be avoided. An easy way to do this without lapsing into sexism or awkward phrasing is simply to pluralize everything:

  • Good writers should trust their instincts.

At other times, in less formal contexts, singular they is not only permissible, but it may also be warranted, especially to lift up inclusive language. In my own writing, I have used singular they extensively for this very reason (though I did warn my readers with a note in the preface so they wouldn’t think I’d made a mistake!).

Perhaps one of the best arguments for using singular they is that it’s the way people already speak. Although written English and spoken English are not the same, neither should they be too far removed from one another. Capturing the rhythms and flows of natural spoken English can not only make your writing feel more authentic, but it can also increase the effectiveness and power of your words.

So, in the end, you have more options than your high school English teacher or the office grammar police might have told you. You just have to use your best judgment. After all, a good writer should trust their instincts.