There’s big news in the grammar world, and unless you subscribe to multiple language, style guides, and dictionary newsletters like I do, you might have missed it. It’s official: writers can now use the singular they!
A colleague at IWCO Direct and I more or less had a party when we heard the news. Everyone else I told just sort of shrugged or looked confused. But trust me, this is big news.
What is the Singular They?
Once upon a time, it was considered incorrect to use “they” or “their” as a genderless singular pronoun in a sentence where the gender is ambiguous. For instance, the phrase “ask the student what they want for lunch” would have been considered incorrect a few years ago. You would have had to restructure the sentence completely or add gendered pronouns to read, “ask the student what he or she wants for lunch.”
But now, if the writing is informal and the gender is unclear, major grammar authorities like the AP Stylebook, Chicago Manual, Washington Post, and more have deemed it a-okay to use “they” as a singular pronoun.
Why Should You Use the Singular They?
- Using “they” instead of “he” or “she” is more gender inclusive, which allows for your writing to resonate with a wider audience.
- Most English speakers use the singular they in everyday conversation; it’s an informal way of writing that reflects the dialect of today’s audience.
- It’s incredibly annoying to have to write “his or her” over and over again and can make your writing very arduous. It also breaks up the flow of text, makes sentences cumbersome, and, frankly, no one cares except hard-core grammarians.
Honestly, doesn’t “Call and let them know they won the car” sound better than “Call and let him or her know he or she won the car”?
The Singular They Should Still Be a Last Resort
Even now, with the general acceptance of the singular they, it’s still preferable to restructure the sentence altogether or to list both gender options versus the universal “they.” Especially in these cases:
- When used in formal writing. Formal writing should be as specific as possible, and “they” could be misconstrued as plural, so it’s best to stay with solely singular pronouns like “he” and “she.”
- When you can find out the gender. The reason acceptance of the singular they has taken over a hundred years is because many grammarians think it enables lazy writing. If you don’t know the gender, you should do your best to find out.
- When you know the gender. Similar to the last point, if you know the gender and decide to use “they,” it better be because the individual chooses not to go by an assigned gender. Otherwise, you’re just being lazy.
- When you can restructure the sentence to avoid gender. In many cases, you can avoid he/she/they altogether by restructuring the sentence, assigning a noun to replace the pronoun, or using “one.”
However, if rephrasing makes the sentence awkward, and if the piece is informal, it’s now perfectly acceptable to use the singular they. Here’s a little cheat sheet on what most grammarians would recommend you use for your pronouns, in order of preference:
- Use the correct gendered pronoun (he/she, his/her): “One way to punish your child is to take away her TV time.”
- Restructure the sentence: “One way to punish your child is to take away the child’s TV time.”
- State both genders: “One way to punish your child is to take away his or her TV time.”
- Use the singular they: “One way to punish your child is to take away their TV time.”
- Rotate gendered pronoun usage: “One way to punish your child is to take away his TV time. Another option is to put her in time out.”
Still confused on why this new development is so great, or when you can use the singular they? Drop me a line, and I’ll walk you through it so you too can rejoice in this exciting (as exciting as grammar gets, anyway) news.
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