The Negative Canon: Singular ‘they’

This post is one in a series about The Negative Canon.

In my last post I considered the question of agreement with collective nouns. Another question of number arises with the use of they. (When I say they I mean them, their, theirs and themselves as well, and, for convenience, I refer to all of them as pronouns, although their is a possessive determiner, and theirs and themselves are different types of pronoun.) Some people still seem to think that they can refer only to a plural antecedent. Thus, they would claim, it has to be, for example, Any student who is ill must obtain a certificate from his or her doctor. That is perfectly grammatical, but – and I concede this is a subjective judgement – it’s awkward, and becomes more so in an extended text:

Any student who is ill must obtain a certificate from his or her doctor. He or she should inform his or her tutor of the situation, and if he or she has an assignment outstanding, he or she should ensure that he or she completes it as soon as he or she has recovered.

Two alternatives are sometimes used. One is the use of he/she and his/her. Another is the alternate use of the masculine and feminine pronouns. I find the first visually unattractive, and the second distracting. Both are unnecessary when a perfectly good gender-neutral pronoun is available in they which R L Trask in ‘Mind the Gaffe’ calls ‘a brief and elegant solution’. It allows our example to become:

Any student who is ill must obtain a certificate from their doctor. They should inform their tutor of the situation, and if they have an assignment outstanding, they should ensure that they complete it as soon as they have recovered.

If you really can’t stomach that, then it is usually possible to make the whole thing plural:

Any students who are ill must obtain a certificate from their doctor. They should inform their tutor of the situation, and if they have an assignment outstanding, they should ensure that they complete it as soon as they have recovered.

That may often be a pragmatic solution, but there will be occasions when the singular form is preferred for stylistic reasons.

Those who object to singular they do so in the face of many authorities. The Oxford English Dictionary comments that they and its derivatives are:

. . . often used in reference to a singular noun made universal by “every”, “any”, “no”, etc., or applicable to one of either sex.

In ‘The Cambridge Guide to English Usage’, Pam Peters writes of the use of various avoidance strategies that:

. . . that kind of response to singular ‘they’/’them’/’their’ is no longer shared by the English-speaking population at large. Writers who use singular ‘they’/’them’/’their’ are not at fault.

In her advice to users of international English, she concludes:

The appearance of singular ‘they’/’them’/’their’ in many kinds of prose shows its acceptance by English writers generally. It recommends itself as a gender-free solution to the problem of agreement with indefinite pronouns and noun phrases.

The ‘Longman Student Grammar of Spoken and Written English’ is a little more guarded:

The use of ‘they referring back to a singular personal noun or pronoun is common in conversation. In serious writing, however, it is often avoided as ‘incorrect’, because a commonly accepted ‘rule’ of pronoun concord states that the pronoun should agree with its antecedent noun phrase in number, as well as in gender. However, there has been a growing adoption of this use of they in written texts.

Even Harry Blamires in ‘The Penguin Guide to Plain English’ is less heated on the topic than some of his other entries might lead the reader to expect. Of the use of ‘their‘ to refer back to ‘every one ‘he writes ‘This practice has now become established.

The detailed article in ‘Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage’ concludes:

‘They’, ‘their’, ‘them’ are used in both literature and general writing to refer to singular nouns, when those nouns have some notion of plurality about them.

The question has become more acute in recent decades because of the reasonable objection that the traditional use of the masculine pronoun is non-inclusive. That, however, is not always the reason why the plural is preferred. The Merriam-Webster article covers the case where the antecedent may be male or female, but also where singular nouns are ‘used in such a way that the singular stands for and includes any or all’. One of the citations illustrating this use is from Bernard Shaw:

No man goes to battle to be killed. – But they do get killed.

As the authors comment:

It would be a violation of English idiom to use a singular pronoun in the second sentence . . . on the assumption that because ‘no man’ is singular in form and governs a singular verb, it must take a singular pronoun in reference.

Once again, we see those who have spent time researching the question lined up against those who have not. If I want an opinion on contract law or on precambrian geology or on the causes of rheumatoid arthritis I consult a specialist in the subject. I don’t listen to the talkative bloke I met down the pub. What you do?

For any who remain in doubt, or who think that singular they is an invention of the nasty modern age, this website provides an illuminating historical perspective.


A further development in the use of they is its use, reported on Language Log:

. . . in reference to a specific, definite, known person, as in ‘Kim helped themself to another piece of cake’, or ‘Sandy said they [meaning Sandy] left their cell phone on the table’. Or an exchange like this one: ‘A: Is Mary coming to dinner? B: No, they texted me to say that they’re not feeling well.’

In an earlier Language Log post, Geoffrey Pullum expressed his view that the use of they where the antecedent is a proper name ‘sucks canal water’. The example he was considering was:

Dr Gerald Black has applied for a position of Lecturer in the Department of Criminology at the University of Penzance. I would be grateful if you could provide a reference on their suitability for this post.

You can see his point.


Filed under Language, The Negative Canon

14 responses to “The Negative Canon: Singular ‘they’

  1. Ted McClure

    That last reference request just shouts “form letter- I couldn’t be bothered to prepare original correspondence for this request”.


  2. Yes, that’s what the first comment on Pullum’s post said, and it could well be the case. That, however, doesn’t explain the examples in Mark Liberman’s post, and the preferences in the survey which prompted his post. I must say, though, it’s not something I can recall encountering in the UK, so I can’t really comment any further.


  3. I have seen a comment on this post elsewhere that he might be considered a gender-neutral pronoun when it refers to an indeterminate antecedent. I have a little sympathy with that view, but I fear there have been too many social changes in the English-speaking world in the past 50 years for that to be any longer feasible. And I really wonder if past generations who used he where we might now use they or he or she really did think of he as being gender-neutral.


  4. In TEFL we teach that singular they is the natural follower to indefinite pronouns like ‘anyone’ and so on.

    As I understand it, singular they was pretty unremarkable until the 18th century, when a certain Anne Fisher (1719-78) thought that ‘he’ should replace ‘they’ as a gender-free pronoun, and some influential style guides followed suit.

    My impression is that we are more open to singular they in the UK than in America. I’m pretty sure it is used, for example, in the UK passport application form. The American website, for instance, Grammarphobia, who are usually pretty relaxed about things like this, seem to have a particular hang-up about this one.

    And how about singular you? Every time we address a single person as you and use a plural verb, are we not breaking exactly the same so-called rule about agreement? But nobody ever mentions that!


    • I didn’t know about Anne Fisher. As I said in the initial post in this series, it would be interesting to trace the history of items in the negative canon, and she would be a good lead into the history of this one.

      I’d meant to include something about ‘you’, but (a) the post was already long and (b) I forgot.


  5. A nice comeback to people who denounce singular they is to ask why they don’t object equally to singular you, which historically was just as ungrammatical.


  6. Here is an interesting example of deliberate avoidance:
    ‘Poems by Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell’ was a collection of poetry written in male pen names chosen by the Brontë sisters. Each sister used the first initials of their first names


    • Unnecessarily, you mean? Yes, the purpose would have been served by either ‘Each sister used the first initial of her first name’ or ‘The sisters used the first initials of their first names’.


  7. Yes, but deliberately using ‘their’ to avoid a problem that isn’t there. And by doing so the author has got into a knot with singular and plural numbers, implicitly recognising with ‘names’ that ‘their’ is really plural..


  8. Many of us automatically use singular they after indefinite pronouns like ‘everyone, anyone’ , and quantifiers like ‘each’ and ‘every’ when the gender is not known – ‘Each member of staff has their own pigeon hole’. It could be argued that ‘each’ has both a singular and a plural meaning, and so that ‘their’ is particularly apt here.

    Perhaps it’s not such a big step to do this with nouns when the gender is known, and perhaps this use of ‘their’ may be more automatic than deliberate.

    I’m pretty sure that David Crystal has quoted examples of this, but I can’t remember where. This one is from Wikihow- ‘If possible, obtain samples of each cookie so that each girl can offer their opinions on a particular cookie if a customer asks’.

    Here are a couple from Jane Austen in ‘Pride and Prejudice’ – “I cannot pretend to be sorry … that he [Darcy] or that any man should not be estimated beyond their deserts; but with him I believe it does not often happen.”

    “Both sisters were uncomfortable enough. Each felt for the other, and of course for themselves;”

    From Everybody loves their Jane Austen via Linguistics 101 at the University of Pennsylvania.


    • I wonder how often the nay-sayers will ask ‘No one knows, do they?’ or not notice it when someone else does?

      I’ve seen an example somewhere of a case where ‘they’ is used in a context where it can only refer to a woman because it’s about pregnancy or abortion. Anyone else seen it?


  9. Pingback: The Negative Canon: ‘Themself’ | Caxton

  10. Pingback: The Negative Canon: More On Singular ‘They’ | Caxton

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