How I learned to stop worrying and love the singular ‘they’

The problem of what pronoun to use to describe the third person singular has been around for a long time because in English this pronoun has been a gendered one. It used to be that people used the male form of he/him as the default that was tacitly supposed to include both genders but that assumption has long been rejected as sexist. People who are grammatical purists tried to find various ways around it. Resorting to switching everything in a sentence to just the plural form was not always possible and even when it could be done, tended to make sentences less specific and more bland. The more awkward circumlocution ‘he or she’ or ‘his or her’ tends to get really tedious after a while.

But the issue gained a lot more urgency with the growing realization that gender is not binary and to insist on binary usage is to misgender some people. There have been various new gender-neutral forms suggested, such as ze/zir, ze/hir, and xe/xem but the one that seems to be gaining the most steam (and which I have adopted) is to use they/them and its derivatives as the third person singular. Its dominance was reinforced when Merriam-Webster selected it as their 2019 Word of the Year, in which they pointed out that this usage was not new.

English famously lacks a gender-neutral singular pronoun to correspond neatly with singular pronouns like everyone or someone, and as a consequence they has been used for this purpose for over 600 years.

More recently, though, they has also been used to refer to one person whose gender identity is nonbinary, a sense that is increasingly common in published, edited text, as well as social media and in daily personal interactions between English speakers. There’s no doubt that its use is established in the English language, which is why it was added to the dictionary this past September.

Anne Fadiman, a professor of English writing, describes her own evolution on this question in an informative and often amusing essay in the August 2020 issue of Harper’s Magazine (subscription may be required). She was aided in her transition by her students who, as usual, are way ahead of faculty in learning about and adopting trends.

She says that on questions of language, people tend to be either prescriptivists (who favor rules and standards that suggest how people should talk) or descriptivists (who favor popular usage, that this is how people actually talk). She says that she started out firmly in the prescriptivist camp and thus gagged at the use of the singular they. Her acceptance was aided by her own realization that when we say to someone ‘you are’, which we do unthinkingly and accept as correct, we are mixing singular and plural forms and thus technically saying something that a prescriptivist would view as a solecism. She realized that there are many more examples, so that the problem with a singular ‘they’ is really its unfamiliarity.

I already say plenty of things that aren’t grammatical just because everybody does and I’m used to them. I wouldn’t say “I aren’t,” but I say “Aren’t I?” I wouldn’t say “Me is it,” but I say “It’s me” even though—as per Easy English Exercises, Lesson 60, “Case Forms of Pronouns”—“me” should be “I” because it’s a predicate nominative, not a direct object.
Sometimes they just sounds better. If, instead of “If you love someone, set them free,” Sting had sung, “If you love someone, set him or her free” or (following the suggestion in my grammar handout to make the whole sentence plural) “If you love people, set them free,” fans worldwide would have torn up their concert tickets.

Even after Fadiman accepted that this was a welcome development, she highlighted one source of her discomfort which was that, like everyone who prides themselves on their command of language, she feared that a reader or listener may not know that they were using this form deliberately in order to be gender inclusive and not because they did not know proper grammar. For academics and writers particularly, committing what might be seen as grammatical errors is something to be avoided.

I was amused by that because I could relate to it. Growing up in Sri Lanka, the ‘correct’ use of English (both in terms of grammar and pronunciation) was a class marker, showing that one was at least middle class and had gone to elite schools and moved in the ‘right’ social circles where English was the language spoken by everyone. There was a huge amount of this kind of linguistic and cultural snobbery and open disdain towards those who did not meet the standard. I recall that when I was about ten, a relative asked me to go to the next room and get a book of music by Chopin. I had a sense from the way it was asked that this was some kind of test. I went and looked through the music books by Beethoven, Mozart, and others before figuring out, more or less by a process of elimination, that the book with the name Chopin must be the one that was sought, though I was not at that time familiar with his name. When I returned with the book, I sensed surprise from my relative, as if she had expected me say that I could not find any book by Showpan. On another occasion, a different relative laughed openly at me when I mispronounced the name of the French author Stendahl. The residual effects of that kind of linguistic snobbery may be why I too had an initial sense of discomfort at using the singular they, fearing that people might think I did not know ‘proper’ grammar. Now, of course, I just don’t give a damn.

Fadiman classifies the degrees of acceptance of the singular they into a hierarchy of five categories, encompassing more people as you go to higher levels.

  1. Refusing to use it in any way, shape, or form.
  2. Using it only for nonbinary people.
  3. Using it with indefinite pronouns, like anyone and everybody (“Does everybody have their mittens?”).
  4. Using it in other situations in which gender isn’t known or relevant (“A driver should know how to park their car”).
  5. Using it for everyone.

Fadiman says that she started out in the second category and has “now moved cautiously into the third, at least sometimes, though only in conversation” but recently found herself writing a sentence in her journal that for the first time, belonged to category four. I am in category four.


  1. says

    I have long been a proponent of the singular they. I also like themself. Although my spell-checker doesn’t. 🙂

    I’m definitely in Category 4. I might be tempted into Category 5.

  2. consciousness razor says

    English famously lacks a gender-neutral singular pronoun to correspond neatly with singular pronouns like everyone or someone, and as a consequence they has been used for this purpose for over 600 years.

    The language famously lacks one, but also, it has had one that’s been in use for over 600 years.

    Not really, though, because that doesn’t make any sense.

    Some prescriptivists have been famously rejecting it for some amount of time, but probably not for the over 600 years it has been in use. Not so long ago, some people came to believe that “they” shouldn’t be singular; but even more recently, some changed their minds about that, joining the growing number of people who were never brought up to think that way in the first place.

  3. Rob Grigjanis says

    when we say to someone ‘you are’, which we do unthinkingly and accept as correct, we are mixing singular and plural forms

    Historically, ‘you’ and ‘are’ were both plural. The singular used to be ‘thou art’ (or ‘thou beest’, cognate with German ‘du bist’).

  4. sarah00 says

    I’ve never understood the objection to the singular ‘they’. For one, it’s got a long history in English. For another, no-one objects to singular ‘you’. I’ve used singular ‘they’ for years. It’s really useful when you don’t know the gender of the person you’re referring to. I didn’t even realise it was an odd thing to do until I saw certain demographics getting their knickers in a twist about it a few years ago under the guise of ‘grammatical purity’.

  5. Pierce R. Butler says

    Shouldn’t those who prefer “they/them” for themselves go full Queen Victoria and use “we” in first-person mode? 😉

  6. Callinectes says

    I’m surprised by how much of an issue this is. I remember using the singular they in the third and fourth levels as a young kid in school in the nineties, long before the conversation on trans and non-binary acceptance began. I don’t recall being taught it, I think we just defaulted to it whenever gendered pronouns were not specifically appropriate.

  7. blf says

    I myself am now, deliberately, trying for category 5 (everyone), excepting when I know the individual has stated a preference which I happen to remember. I probably started as an inconsistent 2, but eventually decided the whole thing is ridiculous, and jumped straight to 5… albeit old habits die hard, as they say, so I’ve not fully made it yet. Possibly part of the reason I did the 2→5 direct jump is the idiotic gender in Française (I now live in France), which, along with the idiotic gender from Deutsch I “learned” a long time ago, just drives me around the bend without adding anything meaningful to the discourse.

  8. Holms says

    Category 4 has been in common use for centuries, I have no idea why Merriam Webster would pretend that singular third person they is a new development. Especially when they contradict that claim by pointing out that it has been used that way for 600 years.

  9. Matt G says

    While English has gender-neutral terms for a brother or sister, and a son or daughter, the same cannot be said for a niece or nephew. I realized this after my brother’s family added a daughter to their previously all-male brood. So, I went looking and found the word in Italian: nipote (plural: nipoti).

  10. Matt G says

    anat@12- I just looked up nipote again and discovered it can also mean grandchild (or grandson). Someone said this is odd because Italian has a reputation for being a “precise” language.

  11. xohjoh2n says

    @3 Thank god that went away -- I don’t like bees.

    @4 They’re most likely not objecting to the word, they’re objecting to people but don’t have the guts to say so. (As such I suspect in many cases the speaker will slip into (3)+(4) whenever the topic is not specifically non-binary people.)

    @8 I don’t know why you’d pretend that Merriam-Webster are pretending that use of they as singular is new, since they specifically say it isn’t in the quote from them above.

  12. Silentbob says

    Count me among those at stage four and always have been. It’s obviously cultural, but where I live singular they has always been used routinely to refer to an individual of unknown gender, and it doesn’t sound weird at all. I was surprised to find it does sound weird to other people.

    I’m reminded of an inadvertently funny quote by Jordan Peterson, who became famous for refusing to use genderless pronouns:

    I don’t recognize another person’s [note the singular] right to decide what words I’m going to use, especially when the words they want me to use, first of all, are non-standard elements of the English language and they are constructs of a small coterie of ideologically motivated people. They might have a point but I’m not going to say their words for them.

    Bolding obviously mine. 🙂

    To me, and clearly to Peterson, that way of speaking sounds completely natural.

    As for stage five, I urge caution. It can be offensive to use genderless pronouns for a person of binary gender, especially of course for people who are transgender. The number one way transphobes insult trans people is to refuse to recognise their gender, so for a trans man, for example, to call him “them” can be misinterpreted as trying to be deliberately insulting.

  13. lochaber says

    I think I’ve long been a 3, because I just really don’t care that much about grammar, and using “they” is a lot easier and smoother than trying to jam in some hyphenated/fraction mess.

    I’ve been trying to be more conscious of my language and gender, and trying to use gender-neutral terms when I remember/recognize, with the exception of talking about instances where the gender of someone was relevant, or specifically talking about an individual with known pronoun preferences. So I guess I’m trying for a 4?

  14. Holms says

    No pretence, Merriam-Webster clearly indicate that they believe ‘they as singular third person’ is a new development, while also indicating that it has had that meaning for 600 years.

  15. John Morales says

    Holms, no, there is no contradiction. The new development is as a specifically non-gendered pronoun, rather than as a generic pronoun. I quote:

    They is taking on a new use, however: as a pronoun of choice for someone who doesn’t identify as either male or female. This is a different use than the traditional singular they, which is used to refer to a person whose gender isn’t known or isn’t important in the context, as in the example above. The new use of they is direct, and it is for a person whose gender is known or knowable, but who does not identify as male or female.”


    In passing, that’s Americanese, not English English.

  16. Owlmirror says

    @John Morales:

    If the OED is sufficiently authoritative for you with regards to English English, then you should be aware that the OED states (they, def. A. I. [As personal pronoun.] 2. [ In anaphoric reference to a singular noun or pronoun.] c.):

     c. Used with reference to a person whose sense of personal identity does not correspond to conventional sex and gender distinctions, and who has typically asked to be referred to as they (rather than as he or she).

  17. Holms says

    So it went from having a use as a third person pronoun without gender, which use it had for 600 years, to: a third person pronoun without gender. Cool change.

  18. xohjoh2n says


    I don’t think you’re sufficiently stupid, so if you claim not see the *extremely* clear distinction being made between historical and modern usage in the Merriam-Webster quote given above, then you must be arguing dishonestly.

  19. Holms says

    The distinction is without difference. Fadiman even admits this, and reveals that it causes her some distress that there is no difference discernible by the reader:

    Here are some sentences from the applications I received last fall:

    If I’m asking a person to read something, it’s because I want to hear what they have to say.
    It’s rare to get to ask an author questions about what they’ve written.
    I don’t want to be that student who can’t stop talking about how their summer abroad changed them.
    It’s an intimate experience to look someone in the eye and tell them how you’re struggling.

    These applicants were neither more careless nor less deferential than their predecessors. They had undoubtedly proofread their applications with meticulous attention […].

    The students’ sentences, of course, all contained the second kind of singular they, the all-purpose generic pronoun. And they all made me wince.

    Why did this kind of singular they make me want to put my hands over my ears when I’d been instantly willing to use the other kind of singular they with nonbinary students? Besides the fact that the nonbinary they had far higher stakes—fairness, courtesy, accuracy—there were two reasons. The first was that the nonbinary they was an example of splitting (into either the “trinary” of which Wren took a dim view or something more fluid, but at the very least, more than just he and she), whereas the other they is an example of lumping (he and she smooshed into a single pronoun). No one who separated her M&Ms into piles would like it. The second reason was that when I used the nonbinary they, I imagined a neon sign lighting up above my head, visible to all, that read THAT WAS INTENTIONAL. And then, in smaller letters, sʜᴇ’s ᴍᴀᴋɪɴɢ ᴀ ʜᴜɢᴇ sᴀᴄʀɪғɪᴄᴇ. sʜᴇ’s ᴘᴜᴛᴛɪɴɢ ʜᴇʀ ᴘʀᴏɢʀᴇssɪᴠᴇ ᴘʀɪɴᴄɪᴘʟᴇs ᴀʜᴇᴀᴅ ᴏғ ʜᴇʀ ɢʀᴀᴍᴍᴀʀ ᴛᴏʀʏɪsᴍ, ᴀɴᴅ ᴜɴʟᴇss ʏᴏᴜ ɢʀᴇᴡ ᴜᴘ ɪɴ ᴀ ғᴀᴍɪʟʏ ʟɪᴋᴇ ʜᴇʀs, ʏᴏᴜ ʜᴀᴠᴇ ɴᴏ ɪᴅᴇᴀ ʜᴏᴡ ᴍᴜᴄʜ ᴛʜᴀᴛ ʜᴜʀᴛs. If I were to say, “One of the cooks has given me their recipe for cherry pie,” no such sign would light up.

    Notice both uses of they are described as ‘the singular they’. Notice the observation that no one can tell the difference. Notice the complaint seemingly at the heart of it: her efforts are not receiving credit.

    More telling is the passage shortly preceding that quote:

    According to Baron, there are twenty-one terms for gender-neutral pronouns, including “duo-personal,” “epicene,” “hermaphroditic,” and “masculor feminine.” He prefers “the missing word,” and concludes that in English, “It turns out that the missing word isn’t missing at all. It’s singular they.”

    And according to Merriam-Webster, it’s been around for 600 years.

  20. John Morales says

    [Owlmirror, I was lazy and thus imprecise; I meant the Merriam-Webster dictionary, not the term. Just as Macmillan is the Australianese dictionary]

  21. kremer says

    I’m not particularly buying the order of that hierarchy as I know people who would happy follow 1, 3, and 4 without hesitation and scoff at number 2.

  22. Owlmirror says

    The distinction is without difference.

    Dictionaries, how do they work?

    they pronoun

    Definition of they

    1   : those ones : those people, animals, or things

    2   —used to refer to people in a general way or to a group of people who are not specified

    3   a   —used with a singular indefinite pronoun antecedent

        b   —used with a singular antecedent to refer to an unknown or unspecified person

        c   —used to refer to a single person whose gender is intentionally not revealed

        d   —used to refer to a single person whose gender identity is nonbinary (see nonbinary sense c)

    And while I’m there:

    purblind adjective

    Definition of purblind

    1   a   obsolete : wholly blind

        b   : partly blind

    2   : lacking in vision, insight, or understanding : obtuse

  23. Holms says



    distinction without a difference

    An artificially created distinction where no real difference exists.

    ‘They’ is a third person pronoun, singular or plural, and genderless. 3b, c, and d are simply three applications of this.

  24. John Morales says

    Holms, there’s a reason senses and subsenses (polysemes) are enumerated in dictionaries; if you want to believe that different usages are distinctions without a difference, that’s fine, but lexicographers obviously think otherwise.

    3b, c, and d are simply three applications of this

    The two-level classification is informative; in this case, senses (the numbers) and subsenses (the letters).

    Interesting that (by implication) you think 3a is distinct, though.

  25. Owlmirror says

    ‘They’ is a third person pronoun, singular or plural, and genderless. 3b, c, and d are simply three applications of this.

    . . . and 3(d), according to you, has been so applied for 600 years?
    OK Humpty

  26. xohjoh2n says

    @29 Whether he believes that or not personally is actually irrelevant, as are any other beliefs he might have around the subject matter. What he has specifically said is that M-W are saying it has, when in fact their quote above says the exact opposite in very plain language. Hence: dishonest.

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