by Jenn Zaczek
Someone left their jacket on the bus. After reading that sentence, are you worried that the grammar police are coming to get me?
It’s possible that you’re not too worried, and that’s because the use of the singular they is becoming more accepted. Historically, they has been considered a plural pronoun requiring a plural antecedent (such as people, those boys, or my parents). At the same time, the singular they is nothing new. Dictionaries abound with examples from the classics, and within the last few years, major style guides have updated their stance on the use of singular they.
The latest edition of The Chicago Manual of Style says that the singular they is acceptable when referring to someone whose gender is unknown or unspecified but still recommends avoiding it in formal writing. Chicago also recommends using the singular they when referring to someone who does not identify with he or she; a person’s stated preference for pronoun use should be respected. For example, Chelsea shook their head.
The AP Stylebook points out that many readers are not yet familiar with the non-gendered they/their/them, as in the previous example. AP suggests using the person’s name in place of a pronoun, and if they/their/them is unavoidable, the writer should explain in the text that the person prefers a gender-neutral pronoun.
As a writer, one of your main goals is to keep your readers engaged. You can do this by avoiding awkward constructions and maintaining credibility with a wide readership. Style guides have agreed that he is no longer universally accepted as a generic pronoun. Same with using he or she, s/he, and (wo)man or alternating the use of he and she throughout a manuscript. As an editor, I work to help writers avoid awkward constructions that can pull readers out of the text.
Every girl needs a best friend in
their her life.
“No one can have ice cream
until he or she has they’ve finished his or her their dinner!” Mom said. (Truthfully, this is an edit I would probably never have to make, because most writers know that people would never talk that way.)
Don’t be afraid to use the singular they, but use it wisely. Always consider your genre, your audience, and your publisher’s preferred style manual. And if you’re ever in doubt, ask your editor for help.
Jenn Zaczek has been making sure pronouns agree in number and antecedent professionally for more than a decade. She specializes in line editing and proofreading both fiction and nonfiction, and she endorses the singular they.