How does the following sentence look to you?
She apologised immediately, as any reasonable person would when they’ve just sworn at their boss.
For most speakers it will look perfectly natural. For others, however, the use of singular they will send them into a fit of rage about the ongoing corruption of the English language. ‘Person’, they will tell you, is singular, and therefore you cannot possibly use ‘they’ and ‘their’ to refer to it.
However, singular they has been used throughout the ages when the gender of the person being referred to is unknown or when both genders are implied, as in the above example, and even the most pedantic of pedants is unlikely to use ‘he/his’ or ‘she/her’ if they came out with – sorry, if he or she came out with – the sentence
in speech. Are they? (Sorry – Is he or she?).
Alternatives to singular they and reasons why it’s correct
Some prescriptive grammarians insist that ‘he/him/his’ are perfectly acceptable as gender-neutral words (‘Every student must do his best’) even when the sentence refers to both male and female individuals (imagine how silly the former sentence would look or sound in a mixed-sex college). Some have tried to redress the sexism of this usage by employing ‘she’ instead (‘Every student must do her best’).
Others have tried to avoid singular they altogether, at least in written English, either by writing ‘he or she’ out fully or by using ‘s/he’ (rather like ‘tod@s’ in Spanish). These options might be preferred stylistically, but none of them have had any impact whatsoever on the use of singular ‘they/them/their’ in spoken English. Would you ever, for example, hear native speakers come out with any of the following?
- Secretary: There’s a customer on the phone for you.
- Boss: Tell him or her that I’ll call back later. And if anyone from the bank calls, just tell him or her that I’m out.
- A: Oh no! I think I’ve left my wallet on the table in the pub. I hope nobody’s taken it.
- B: Don’t worry, he or she won’t have. Let’s go back and check. Somebody might have handed it in.
- A: I doubt it, but if he or she has, I’ll buy him or her a drink for his or her honesty.
On the other hand, given that EFL coursebooks seldom draw attention to singular they as a frequent and perfectly normal part of the language, it’s not uncommon for our students to come out with an awkward ‘he or she’ when they are struggling to find a way to refer to an individual of unspecified gender.
There is clearly a need in the language for a gender-neutral singular pronoun, and ‘they’ has long assumed that role. In certain grammatical constructions with indefinite pronouns, ‘they’ is actually unavoidable. Nobody, everybody, somebody etc. are grammatically singular but their tag questions require ‘they’.
- Nobody wants this, do they?
- Everybody is ready, aren’t they?
- Somebody has been using my computer, haven’t they?
Besides, it’s not as if singular they is modern or sloppy. There are examples of it in Chaucer, Shakespeare, Walt Whitman, George Eliot, Jane Austen, Oscar Wilde and many others, not to mention the King James Bible. Though few would take issue with the language of such leading literary lights, people do still get worked up about singular ‘they’ when it comes to more modern usage.
A few years ago, there was outcry from some quarters when Facebook changed its settings to allow users to choose the gender pronoun they associated with.If you don’t want anyone to know if you’re male or female, or if you don’t associate with that binary gender divide, you can now opt for gender-neutral singular they, ‘them’ and ‘their’ on your profile. Your friends will see, for example, ‘Wish them a happy birthday’. And if one of those friends complains, tell that individual that such is the way that English is and always has been, and that he or she will simply have to like it or lump it. Won’t they?