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Is there a “their” there?

[Note: An updated post on this same subject was published on May 22, 2017.]

Q: I love your Language Myths page. It’s so refreshing to see language mavens allow English some wiggle room! However, I still cringe at some current trends, like the use of the plural pronoun “they” with a singular subject. I don’t have the heart to recalibrate my internal editor to accept this change. I’d love to hear what you think about it.

A: This is a tough one, but you shouldn’t recalibrate your inner editor just yet (but stay tuned).

Almost everyone it seems (especially in speech, if not in writing) uses “they/them/their” at some time or another in reference to a singular, indefinite someone. We occasionally catch ourselves in the act.

What’s indisputably true is that anyone who uses these plurals in this way is using at best casual, informal English. In formal, grammatically correct English, these are third-person plural pronouns, inappropriate in reference to a singular. 

We’ve written about this subject many times on our blog, including a post in 2008 and another in 2011. We’ve also written an article about it for the New York Times.

The plural pronouns “they,” “them,” and “their” were often used as indefinite singulars centuries ago, and are quite commonly used that way today in informal (some would say substandard) English. But in formal English, they’re restricted to the plural.

And anyone who wants to be correct without resorting to “he/she” or some variant can always recast the sentence and make the antecedent plural. Instead of “Every parent loves his or her (or their) child,” make it “All parents love their children.”

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) labels “they” as a “usage problem” when “used to refer to the one previously mentioned or implied, especially as a substitute for generic he.

The dictionary gives this sentence as an example: “Every person has rights under the law, but they don’t always know them.”

In an excellent usage note, American Heritage explains that the “use of an ostensibly plural pronoun such as they, them, themselves, or their with a singular antecedent dates back at least to 1300.”

Over the years, the dictionary says, “such constructions have been used by many admired writers, including William Makepeace Thackeray (‘A person can’t help their birth’), George Bernard Shaw (‘To do a person in means to kill them’), and Anne Morrow Lindbergh (‘When you love someone you do not love them all the time’).

“The practice is so widespread both in print and in speech that it generally passes unnoticed,” AH continues. “Forms of they are useful as gender-neutral substitutes for generic he and for coordinate forms like his/her or his or her (which can sound clumsy, especially when repeated frequently). Nevertheless, many people avoid using forms of they with a singular antecedent out of respect for traditional pronoun agreement.”

The dictionary says most of its usage panel “still upholds the practice of traditional pronoun agreement, but in decreasing numbers.”

“In our 1996 survey, 80 percent rejected the use of they in the sentence A person at that level should not have to keep track of the hours they put in,” AH adds. “In 2008, however, only 62 percent of the Panel still held this view, and by 2011, just 55 percent disapproved of the sentence Each student must have their pencil sharpened.

In 2008, the dictionary notes, a majority of the panel “accepted the use of they with antecedents such as anyone and everyone, pronouns that are grammatically singular but carry a plural meaning. Some 56 percent accepted the sentence If anyone calls, tell them I can’t come to the phone, and 59 percent accepted Everyone returned to their seats.

American Heritage’s conclusion:

“The trend, then, is clear. Writers who choose to use they with a singular antecedent should rest assured that they are in good company—even if a fair number of traditionalists still wince at the usage. For those who wish to adhere to the traditional rule, one good solution is to recast the sentence in the plural: People at that level should not have to keep track of the hours they put in.

In other words, write around the problem. We hope this helps, though it’s probably not as clear-cut an answer as you’d like.

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