Singular They | Usage, Examples & History
The singular “they” is the use of the third-person plural pronoun they with a singular meaning—i.e., to refer to one person without using “he” or “she.”
The singular “they” has existed for hundreds of years, but it was long condemned as grammatically incorrect. Now, it’s recommended by most style guides and dictionaries as the best choice when you need a gender-neutral singular pronoun.
You can use the singular “they” to refer to:
- A generic individual whose gender is unknown or irrelevant in the context
- A specific person who identifies as neither male nor female (or whose gender is unknown to you)
Singular they for a generic individual
You can use the singular “they” when you’re making a generalization, referring to someone whose identity is unknown, or deliberately hiding the person’s gender to prevent them from being identified.
If you find that the singular “they” reads awkwardly in these contexts, alternatives include pluralizing the subject of the sentence, using the impersonal pronoun “one,” or revising the sentence structure so that no pronoun is necessary.
Singular they for a specific person
You should use the singular “they” to refer to a person who doesn’t identify as either male or female or who otherwise indicates that this is their preference. It’s considered disrespectful to ignore someone’s preferences in this regard.
You should use the singular “they” for people who identify with it, not for everyone. When referring to a specific individual, always use their preferred pronouns, gendered or otherwise.
They is or they are?
Although “they” in these contexts is singular in meaning, it’s still used in the same way as the plural version, with plural verb forms. That means that in standard English, it’s only correct to say “they are,” not “they is.” The same applies to other verbs.
This use of plural verbs with a singular meaning sounds unnatural to some people, but these are the same verbs that are used with the second-person pronoun “you,” which is used for both the plural and the singular (e.g., “you are,” not “you is”), so it’s hard to justify the objection.
Themself or themselves?
Because of its singular meaning, the most logical choice for a gender-neutral singular reflexive pronoun (or intensive pronoun) is “themself,” not “themselves.” This is similar to the use of “yourself” in place of “yourselves” when the meaning is singular.
However, the use of “themself” is still not universally accepted. Merriam-Webster labels it “nonstandard,” although they note that it’s becoming more widely used. APA Style endorses either “themselves” or “themself,” noting that the former is still more common.
The best advice if you’re concerned about correctness is to stick with “themselves,” but “themself” is also an acceptable choice, depending on your style guide. Always use “themselves” when the meaning is plural.
He or she vs. they
Before the use of the singular “they” became widespread, a common approach to gender inclusivity was to use a combination of masculine and feminine pronouns (e.g., “he or she,” “he/she,” “her- or himself,” “her or his”).
Most style guides now prefer the singular “they” over these formulations, for two main reasons:
- Using one word, rather than two or three, is more concise and readable.
- “He or she” is not an appropriate choice for someone whose preferred pronoun is “they.” It therefore can’t be used for a specific person, and it’s less inclusive than “they” for referring to a generic individual.
For these reasons, we also recommend using “they,” not “he or she.”
It vs. they
“It,” “its,” and “itself” are referred to as the neuter or inanimate pronouns. While the word “neuter” here does mean that these words are gender-neutral, they should not be used to refer to people. Referring to someone as “it” is seen as dehumanizing and very disrespectful.
Neuter pronouns are used to refer to inanimate objects, concepts, places, and sometimes animals (gendered pronouns are sometimes used instead with animals, especially pets). The correct choice for a gender-neutral pronoun for humans is the singular “they.”
As with all pronouns, when using the singular “they,” make sure it is clear to whom you are referring. Since it doesn’t specify gender and can be either plural or singular, “they” can easily result in confusion. To avoid problems, you may have to rephrase.
In the first sentence below, the antecedent of “they” could plausibly be the teacher, the student, or both. In the revised version, the subject is named directly, and it is clear from context that “their work” also refers to the student.
History of the singular they
Despite sometimes being criticized as an unnecessary novelty, the singular “they” has actually been used since at least the 1300s. It shows up in the work of such famous writers as Geoffrey Chaucer and Emily Dickinson.
Objections arose in the 1700s, based on the idea that a plural pronoun shouldn’t have a singular antecedent. But the same shift from plural to singular had already taken place with “you,” and we no longer see this as a problem at all. The grammarians’ complaints didn’t prevent continued use of the singular “they,” but they did stigmatize it somewhat.
It’s only recently that language authorities have actively endorsed the singular “they.” And one development is entirely new: the use of “they” to refer to specific people who identify as neither male nor female. Chaucer wouldn’t have been familiar with this usage, but that doesn’t mean it’s not helpful now.
Frequently asked questions
- What are preferred pronouns?
The term preferred pronouns is used to mean the (third-person) personal pronouns a person identifies with and would like to be referred to by. People usually state the subject and object pronoun (e.g., “she/her”) but may also include the possessive (e.g., “she/her/hers”).
Most people go by the masculine “he/him,” the feminine “she/her,” the gender-neutral singular “they/them,” or some combination of these. There are also neopronouns used to express nonbinary gender identity, such as “xe/xem.” These are less common than the singular “they.”
The practice of stating one’s preferred pronouns (e.g., in a professional context or on a social media profile) is meant to promote inclusion for transgender and gender-nonconforming people. The first- and second-person pronouns (“I” and “you”) are not included, since they’re the same for everyone.
- Is “they” singular or plural?
- What part of speech is “they”?
They is a pronoun. Specifically, it’s the third-person plural subject pronoun. That means it’s used in the subject position to refer to a group of two or more people or things, as in the sentence “They went out ten minutes ago.”
The singular “they” is a term for the use of the word as a singular pronoun. In this usage it can be classed as a third-person gender-neutral (aka epicene) singular pronoun. It’s used to refer to an individual of unknown or nonbinary gender, as in the sentence “They are a friend of mine.”
Sources in this article
We strongly encourage students to use sources in their work. You can cite our article (APA Style) or take a deep dive into the articles below.This Scribbr article Sources Show all sources (3)