Behind the Dictionary

Lexicographers Talk About Language

Do's and Don'ts for Singular "They"

For National Grammar Day, linguist Neal Whitman takes a look at a long-standing source of contention among grammar enthusiasts: singular they. (Grammar purists, prepare yourselves for some unconventional rules!)

When my son Adam was doing a worksheet on words prefixed with dis-, one of the questions was, "What might cause you to distrust someone?" Adam wrote, "If they let you down." He looked at what he'd written, then said in a tone of mild wonder, "Sometimes they can be singular."

I was proud of him, not only for having absorbed his teacher's lesson on pronouns, but  for realizing that it didn't completely match what he knew about his language. Unfortunately, I couldn't leave well enough alone. The next day, I asked him, "If they is singular, then can you say, 'they is ready'?"

"Oh!" Adam said. "So are can be singular, too!"

I should have kept my mouth shut.

I'm all for ditching the rule against singular they, for reasons you've undoubtedly read before (maybe even around these parts, from Margaret Hundley Parker or Anne Curzan). I won't go into all those reasons now. But I have to admit that a categorical ban is easier to present in a grammar textbook than a set of rules that tries to cover subtleties like whether are can be singular. Furthermore, such rules are irrelevant to writers whose audience will take singular they as a sign of ignorance. That's why Garner's Modern American Usage, which acknowledges the utility of singular they, says more about how to avoid it than how to use it.

Still, in a world where singular they was unquestionably standard, what kind of rules for its use would grammar references give? Taking guidance from the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language and the Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage, I offer my version here, as a list of seven do's and don'ts.

DO use they to refer back to a pronoun such as anyone, someone, everyone, no one, or who when the sex is unknown. The same goes for noun phrases such as any employee, every student, which contestant, etc.

For example: Everyone did their best. This is the least controversial use of singular they. People argue in favor of it by pointing out that words like everyone are notionally plural, but that's not really what's going on. After all, someone, anyone, and who don't seem to imply more than one person, and no one certainly doesn't.

Linguists prefer to say that they is acting as a bound variable. That's because if you put a sentence like someone thinks they got cheated into quasi-logical language, it would be something like, "There exists a person x such that x thinks that x got cheated." X is the variable corresponding to someone and they in ordinary English.

DO use they when referring back to nouns of different gender joined by or.

For example: John or Marsha thinks they can do it. This is another of the less controversial cases, since they is almost the only solution here. Using he makes the sentence mean "John thinks John can do it, or Marsha thinks John can do it."Making this sentence work with he or she requires a respectively, and just can't be taken seriously: John or Marsha thinks he or she, respectively, can do it.

DO use they to refer back to an individual of unknown gender, or whose gender you do not wish to reveal.

For example: My friend said they would be in town this weekend. This is useful for journalists preserving sources' anonymity, as well as a common means of talking about a girlfriend or boyfriend if you don't want to admit to having one. This usage is less accepted, but is useful enough that I'm coming down in favor of it.

DON'T use they when the context makes it clear that you're talking about members of a specific sex. Use he or she instead.

In a Language Log post from 2004, Geoff Pullum shares an example he heard: I think if someone in my class was pregnant I would be sympathetic to them. What seems to be going on is that the bound-variable use of they is becoming more general, losing the restriction that the nonspecific person be of unknown sex. Nevertheless, I'm ruling against this usage. He or she will work, and not leave some readers puzzled over the choice of pronoun.

DON'T use they to refer to a specific, named individual. Use he or she instead.

If you say, "Barack Obama said they would meet with the Dalai Lama," the they has to refer to some group of people; it can't refer to Obama. Of course, if you're referring to a specific individual, you probably know their sex, so why do we even need this rule when we have the one above? The reason is that there's a difference between if someone was pregnant I would be sympathetic to them and Barack Obama said they would meet with the Dalai Lama. Although the pregnant sentence sounds a little off, I know that they refers to the pregnant someone. In contrast, the they in the Obama-Lama sentence simply cannot refer to the intended person. If the above rule is discarded, I don't want this one to disappear by accident.

DO use a plural verb with singular they.

This is the complication I brought up to Adam, and one that opponents of singular they find most troublesome. In fact, though, there's a huge precedent for a pronoun with a singular-like meaning to go with plural verb forms. Centuries ago, thou (along with thee and thy)served as a second-person singular pronoun. Around the 1500s, the second-person plural pronoun you began to be used as a singular. It ultimately almost completely displaced thou, but there was never a time when it was OK to say "You art" and "You goest." You still took a plural verb form: You are, you go. Now those verb forms are simply considered to be second-person singular in addition to being plural. The only difference with they is that instead of displacing he, she, and it, it's living peacefully alongside them.

DON'T use themselves to refer to a single individual. Instead, use themself (gasp!).

Even those at ease with singular they are unsure about this one. Some use themselves, making the reflexive suffix match the plural form of them. Linguist Larry Horn noted this example in a New York Times article on the MTV show Jersey Shore: "A Guidette takes really good care of themselves, has pretty hair, cakes on makeup, has tan skin, wears the hottest heels." (This is also an example of singular they being used even when the referent's sex is known, since Guidettes are women.) Others, however, use the singular form of the suffix, -self, to match the singular meaning, as in this example from 1942: "One player laughing themself to death over the other half of their act can be overdone."

Surprisingly, there are even examples of themself used as a plural. An example from 1913: "[T]hose two men would do again what they had already done, ... with as little thought for themself." But maybe it shouldn't be so surprising: The word themself is older than themselves. (The same goes for yourself and yourselves, ourself and ourselves.) According to MWDEU (citing the OED), "themself was the normal form of the third person plural reflexive pronoun until about 1540, when it was superseded by themselfs and, ultimately, themselves."

Now themself is making a comeback, as one of the reflexive counterparts to singular they. I have written my rule to impose some order: themself for singular they; themselves for plural they. It could catch on — after all, Henry Fowler made a suggestion for streamlining the usage of that and which back in 1908, and 100 years later, for many speakers his suggestion has almost the force of law!

So there they are: my rules for singular they. I've tried to allow the most common and accepted usages, disallow the obviously ungrammatical ones, and strike a balance between utility and potential for confusion in the rest. They're ready to go ... as soon as singular they loses its stigma.

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Neal Whitman blogs at Literal-Minded, where he writes about linguistics in everyday life from the point of view of a husband and father. He taught English as a second language while earning his degree at Ohio State University; has published articles in Language, Journal of Linguistics, and other publications; and writes occasional scripts for the podcast "Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing." Click here to read more articles by Neal Whitman.

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Comments from our users:

Thursday March 4th 2010, 2:36 AM
Comment by: Rune W. (Upper Caboolture Australia)
I wonder if you used Microsoft Word to write this article and how much fun you must have had ignoring its grammar suggestions as you worked.
Thursday March 4th 2010, 7:43 AM
Comment by: Orin Hargraves (CO)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Thanks for this! The audience I most hope you reach is K-12 teachers, and the reference book editors who listen to them. The current regimen seems to be to school kids to avoid singular "they" through any number of awkward and unintuitive substitutes, and it generally doesn't work. I'm not sure I can go to "themself" yet, but it's helpful to have all of this cogently presented. I'm forwarding it to many that I hope will benefit!
Thursday March 4th 2010, 8:44 AM
Comment by: Carl H.
One would simply have to ask oneself why one would go through so much Angst, rationalization,linguistic torture and E-ink when one could simply and most succinctly substitute "one" for all and any case involving one person, musn't one.
Thursday March 4th 2010, 8:52 AM
Comment by: Tom W. (New York, NY)
"Do's" as a plural of "Do" is an ignorant abomination and a sure sign of a thoughtless and careless writer.

Should we also write "hairdo's," "set-to's" and "to-do's?"

Thursday March 4th 2010, 9:41 AM
Comment by: Wood F.
Tom W.'s comment could be the topic of another whole article. (I dared not say "a whole nother" for fear of incurring his added wrath.)

There is precedent for the apostrophe-s pluralization, although in most cases it's wrong. But is it wrong in the phrase "Mind your P's and Q's?" How about "Binary computer code consists entirely of 0's and 1's?" I suspect the problem with a non-apostrophized 'dos' for the plural of 'do' is that it looks too much like the Spanish word for "two," and the word "do" as a noun is uncommon enough that its plural form is almost unintelligible without an apostrophe. Maybe what Tom is really outraged by is the fact that the word 'do' could be used as a noun at all.

That said though, there is something very weird-looking about the phrase as punctuated, "Do's and Don'ts." To be consistent in the apostophezed plural, it should be "Do's and Dont's," or possibly "Do's and Don't's." Tom, I can positively HEAR your blood boiling.
Thursday March 4th 2010, 9:41 AM
Comment by: David H. (Bloomington, IN)
I have been in favor of singular they from the time I saw it used throughout "What Color is Your Parachute" decades ago.

While in transition we need an appropriate disclaimer such as ("Yes that is a singular they!"). I suppose the shorter the better. Suggestions anyone?
Thursday March 4th 2010, 10:07 AM
Comment by: Neal WhitmanVisual Thesaurus Contributor
Tom W.:

I'll admit to lapses in grammar, spelling, fact-checking, or clarity in my writing, though of course I do my best to avoid them. However, I'm in general opposed to the use of apostrophes to signal plurals (and even worse, third-person singular verbs!). When my son Doug does it on his papers, I want to ask him, "Where did you learn THAT? Not from me!" (In fact, sometimes I do ask him that.) I ultimately put the apostrophe in "Do's" because:

(1) That seems to be the evolved standard in making this unusual plural. Why is it unusual? Not because it ends in a vowel (so does "radio" and I pluralize that as "radios" or "radioes"), but because it's also a word referring to a word, which is always a little tricky in print. It'll be easier when italicizing mentioned words becomes the standard.

(2) Writing "Dos" risked confusion with "DOS" (or at least, pronunciation as "doss"), and "does" looks like the plural of "doe" or the 3ps present tense of "do".

Now the question is: Why didn't I pluralized "Don't" with another apostrophe?

(1) It doesn't have the problems that "Do" has.

(2) That again seems to be the evolved standard.

(3) I just couldn't stand looking at "Don't's" with two apostrophes in it.
Thursday March 4th 2010, 10:45 AM
Comment by: Dr. Don (Brentwood, CA)Top 10 Commenter
Thanks for the clarifications — and especially for your permission to use the singular "they." In some of the examples you gave, I would have simply rewritten the problem out of the sentence. Bad grammar choices are those that draw attention to themselves.

"John or Marsha thinks they can do it," is awkward. "Both John and Marsha think they can do it," would have been much preferable, in my opinion.
Thursday March 4th 2010, 12:32 PM
Comment by: Tom S. (Portland, OR)
"Do's and don'ts" in a vacuum, perhaps, may look like a sign of carelessness and thoughtlessness (what rule is being followed, anyway?). But EVERYTHING leading up to that phraseology has told me I'm in the presence of an extremely thoughtful and careful writer.

Here's a favorite copy-editing trick of mine: Google Book search the phrase "Do's and don'ts" (in quotes):

Then peruse the 2,300 results to corroborate that this usage has widespread acceptance in edited/published material.

If you're still convinced that such usage is always wrong, always a sign of being careless and thoughtless--that all those writers and editors have bumbled it--you can move on to Plan B, which I guess would be to assert your correctness in the face of substantial evidence to the contrary. You'll at least have 1,680 Google Book search results on your side:
Thursday March 4th 2010, 7:40 PM
Comment by: Julie (Chicago, IL)
" ... The reason is that there's a difference between if someone was pregnant I would be sympathetic to them and ..."

Is the subjunctive mood dead?
Thursday March 4th 2010, 11:05 PM
Comment by: Neal WhitmanVisual Thesaurus Contributor
Don H.:
Not so fast! I deliberately chose the conjunction "or" so that there'd be no easy way out like "Both John and Marsha think". In my sentence, either John thinks he can do it, or Marsha thinks she can, and the speaker doesn't know which.

Just about, but that's another article. However, just because the speaker didn't say "were" doesn't mean it's not subjunctive. The fact that she uses the past-tense form instead of the present is enough to peg this as a subjunctive, just as it would if it were just about any other verb: "If someone did that...."
Friday March 5th 2010, 3:32 PM
Comment by: Jacqueline M. (Ottawa Canada)
Like several other people I reacted negatively to "do's and don'ts". to be consistent, you should add another apostrophe after the "t" in "don't".

Referring to Julie's question, I would say that the subjunctive is almost dead in English. One still sees it at times in sentences such as "It is important that you be there for the meeting." Perhaps because I know two other languages, French and Spanish which do use the subjunctive, I often miss it in English
Saturday March 6th 2010, 6:07 AM
Comment by: Syzygy
Goody! This is one of my favorite subjects and I joined VT tonight just to add my two cents to this discussion.

After many years struggling with the awkwardness of the singular 'they' I've come to a conclusion that I would like to present to the VT community and ask for your thoughts on it.

Concerning the " he or she..." construction, I feel that a new term ought to be coined for the singular they. I propose the single letter e, lower case within a sentence, as a new word to mean "he or she".

Usage might be, "One may enter if e is brave enough."

As to precedence, English already has two single letter vowel words: 'a' and 'I'. To my ears, the remaining vowels, 'o' and 'u', sound contrived and gimmicky.

However, the sound of 'e' reminds one of the phrase it replaces, "he or she". Nice and tidy.

Now else can this new word be used? Perhaps, e could also mean "his or her". What do you think of "e's" for the possessive?

Usage might be, "One's fortitude is e's refuge."

So, what do you think?
Saturday March 6th 2010, 9:47 AM
Comment by: Syzygy
Thanks Neal for your great article.

I forgot to mention that the word 'e' also suggests 'either' as in the implied choice in the phrase "he or she".

Here are a few sentences used in Neal's article and the rewrite using e.

Everyone did their best.
Everyone did e's best.

Someone thinks they got cheated.
Someone thinks e got cheated.

John or Marsha thinks they can do it.
John or Marsha thinks e can do it.
Saturday March 6th 2010, 10:47 AM
Comment by: Anonymous
Welcome, Dianna! You might be interested to know that "e" has been suggested in the past as a gender-neutral third-person singular pronoun (a so-called "epicene" pronoun). According to the linguist Dennis Baron, an expert in these matters, "e" was first proposed way back in 1890. It's just one of dozens and dozens of epicene pronouns that have been coined over the past century and a half -- none of which have managed to catch on. You can see Baron's full list of failed pronouns here, and there's some further discussion here (from Margaret Hundley Parker) and here (from me).
Saturday March 6th 2010, 3:59 PM
Comment by: Syzygy
Thank you, Ben, for your reply, your warm welcome and the links. The articles were great and I want to follow up on some reference links in them this weekend.

So, James Rogers in 1890 beat me to the idea. I knew it was too good not to have been explored before. I've nursed this idea long before the Internet, but never really tried to research the matter.

Some of my best ideas were conceived by others long before I was conceived. ;)

To wit, at age 12 or so I tried to build a perpetual motion machine from a 6-volt automobile generator and starter motor. When my dad asked what I was doing I got a lesson on friction.

I am going to love it here... I just learned something new!

If you don't mind, Ben, I'll give myself a grade of E, for effort.
Saturday March 6th 2010, 7:01 PM
Comment by: Syzygy
I'm sorry if it appears that I am beating a dead horse, but I have a hypothetical question...

In engineering, it is one thing to propose a new design and another thing entirely to bring it to fruition. Ergo, there will always be more proposals than products.

I noticed that almost all the links I followed, save maybe two half-hearted attempts on Barron's list, were referencing books and articles by grammarians for grammarians and their students.

Has there ever been a book, a novel say, where the author took a left turn from convention and wrote at length and consistently with his or here (or their, or e's or er) own epicene pronouns?

I realized years ago that the only way to sell your scheme is to wholeheartedly believe in it yourself. Start on the first page of a book, never explain and let the reader catch on as he or she (or e or...) gets engrossed in the tale. By the end of the story, such a epicene pronoun scheme would seem natural as if it had been used by everyone all along.

Let's take an extreme example... what if J. K. Rowling decided to tackle the problems with the epicene pronouns? (Yes, I have considered the problem of selling the 'e' pronouns to the British were 'e and 'er are commonly used contractions to suggest the Cockney accent.)

Imagine millions of kids growing up with the epicene pronoun scheme Rowling could have used throughout her Harry Potter series.

Back to us lesser mortals, I think that if the proper book was well written and it proved to be popular, it could patch the pronoun hole in our beloved language.

BTW, I can't imagine myself writing about anything that would become popular or appeal to children. Oh! when will our Prince or Princess save us with his or her (or e, or their) wit and writing skills?
Saturday March 6th 2010, 7:36 PM
Comment by: Anonymous
Dianna: A number of feminist novelists (especially in the fantasy/sci-fi genre) have experimented with epicene pronouns -- Ursula K. Le Guin, Dorothy Bryant, and June Arnold all show up in Baron's list (along with the French writer Monique Wittig). If you're interested in reading more on the topic, check out Anna Livia's Pronoun Envy: Literary Uses of Linguistic Gender ( Chapter 6 in particular).
Saturday March 6th 2010, 11:15 PM
Comment by: Syzygy
Thanks for your patience, Ben. I guess it is time to break out the
BBQ. Horse burgers avec du fromage anyone?

I will check out Livia's book. You have to love her title, 'Pronoun Envy'.
Friday March 12th 2010, 8:00 PM
Comment by: Karen D. (Laurel, MD)
Couple of things: pronouns are a closed class in virtually all languages (I would say "all" but then someone would come up with one I've never heard of). This means it is, basically, impossible to foist a new pronoun onto people. This is especially true of languages that already have the pronoun you want - English has "they", it doesn't need "e" or "hesh".

Second, the subjunctive isn't dead, it's just mutated. After all, the form you want only exists with "be", so the language found another way to show it - that's what that "if" is doing there.

Last, I don't quite see the problem with "someone ... they" or "my friend ... they". I used it myself. Maybe it's all part of the maxim of quantity - not providing more info than needed - or something, but it feels natural to me.
Friday March 12th 2010, 10:11 PM
Comment by: Syzygy
First, I want to apologize to the list for my obnoxious introduction here. I was embarrassingly naive and brash... I know better but I got carried away.

Karen, thanks for your input. I am thoroughly convinced. I ordered Anna Livia's "Pronoun Envy" and it should arrive next week.

Since high school English, I have reworded almost every sentence that came out with the singular 'they'... particularly in my technical writing. From now on, I will embrace Neal Whitman's article above and start using the singular 'they' without cringing.
Saturday March 13th 2010, 2:46 PM
Comment by: thomas S. (sausalito, CA)
I cannot believe so many people are buying into this. I've never been confronted with a situation I couldn't rewrite my way out of. English has some design flaws, and the fun is working around them.

Proclaiming a singular "they" is the very essence of a cop-out.
Monday March 15th 2010, 11:03 PM
Comment by: Neal WhitmanVisual Thesaurus Contributor
Thomas S.:
I deliberately avoided going into all the arguments why singular 'they' should be a part of standard English, figuring most of the audience here had probably already heard them. If you're not familiar with them, I'd recommend following the links to the other VT articles I linked to. In short, though, singular 'they' WAS standard for hundreds of years until grammar-writer Lindley Murray took a dislike to it in 1795.

Your "cop-out" comment brings to mind an analogy. I buy a house whose front door is stuck. Should I get out some tools and fix it, or hire someone to do the repair? No! What a silly idea, when I have a perfectly good back door, a working garage door, and plenty of windows I can get in through!
Tuesday August 10th 2010, 12:18 AM
Comment by: Kathleen C.
Neal, I can kinda-sorta buy into your thesis, because the usage mimics the English spoken by the majority of Americans (or so it seems to me). But like so many, I balk at the plural verb. Just doesn't sound right!
Wednesday August 7th 2013, 5:12 PM
Comment by: Andrés (Spain)
As a non-native English speaker, I've always had trouble with singular they. Your post is the most comprehensive guide I've found. Thanks for it, it's now in my bookmarks!

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