The Other “They”

48796188_thumbnailHere’s a short quiz for you: Which pronouns would you use to complete these sentences?

1. Someone left _____ lunch in the office. Would _____ please come get it?
2. When a student wants to study, _____ should try to find a quiet place.

There’s been a lot of discussion and debate (argument) about what to do when the subject of a sentence like “someone” is indefinite (not masculine/male or feminine/female), or when a subject like “students” could be masculine, feminine, or both.

If you look in a grammar book, you’ll find suggestions like these:

1. Someone left [“his or her” or “his/her”] lunch in the office. Would [“he or she”, “he/she”, or “s/he”] please come get it?
2. When a student wants to study, [“he or she”, “he/she”, or “s/he] should try to find a quiet place.

Many famous writers – Shakespeare, C.S. Lewis, Jane Austen, and others – often ignored (didn’t do) what the grammar books said to do. They used different forms of what we call the “singular they.” If we use the singular they in our two sentences, they look like this:

1. Someone left their lunch in the office. Would they please come get it?
2. When a student wants to study, they should try to find a quiet place.

The singular they has been discussed and debated for a long time. But in 2015, organizations like the Associated Press (a news organization) and the Washington Post newspaper added the singular they to their style guides, books that tell their writers what is okay and what is not. Many dictionaries – including my two favorites for English learners, the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English and the New Oxford American English Dictionary – have added the singular they. And just a few days ago, the American Dialect Society (a dialect is the form of a language used in a particular place or by a particular group of people) voted the singular they as their Word of the Year.

The Longman Dictionary says this about the singular they: “You can use they, them, and their to refer to a single person when you do not want to show that the person is male or female [or, I would add, when it’s not important to know whether the person is male or female].”

Let’s look at another example to see how the singular they makes the writer’s and reader’s work easier. First, here is a sentence that uses personal pronouns in two different ways:

1. Everyone agreed that he or she would bring his or her lunch with him or her.
2. Everyone agreed that (s)he would bring his/her lunch with him/her.

Now, here is the same sentence using the singular they:

3. Everyone agreed that they would bring their lunch with them.

I think you’ll agree that the singular they makes both writing and reading easier.

The story of the singular they reminds of us that language changes as people use it in new and different ways. Dictionaries, which describe how a language is being used, will add those changes at some point (time). However, the best way to keep up with changes is to do the same thing you do to improve your fluency (ability to use a language): do a lot of reading. You will acquire (pick up) most new uses automatically, without trying.

~ Warren Ediger – ESL/EFL coach/tutor and creator of the Successful English website.

Photo found on the MentalFloss website.

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11 Responses to The Other “They”

  1. emiliano says:

    Happy New Year Warren and thank you very much for your explanation.
    I has been very useful for me and of course I prefer to use they, the singular
    they, that I didn´t use before but I am going to use it in future.

    The best for you and your family, thanks again. emiliano

  2. peter says:

    You know , in fave it is a part of daily lexicon.
    I mean u use ” singular they” subconsciously.
    Funny thing is I never realized that I was using it not until u brought it up 🙂

    Just imagine u wanna keep saying he/she while speaking. Man ,talk about a huge mess.


  3. Dan says:

    Hello everyone!

    I have watched several videos on the subject posted by SJW (Social Justice Warriors) or transgender people that are sensitive about this issue.
    It seems that nowadays anything is offensive for certain people.
    But anyway, I have heard that if I am not sure about a person’s gender I am supposed to use They Them or even ask the person what pronouns they prefer to use.
    I have also found out that there is a jungle of gender neutral pronouns out there. Stuff like: Zer, Hir, Xem…it gets too confusing.

    I am going to listen what you guys tell us to do here.

    One of my favorites dictionary online is The Urban Dictionary.
    That’s because it’s funny and makes me laugh.

    Thanks Warren.

  4. Aecio Flavio Perim says:

    I have read about that in a Grammar Book. Use they when refering to someone even though it is singular. “Find someone and ask them for directions.” It is interesting. Now Warren gave us an clear explanation. Thanks, Warren, for the lesson.

  5. Mari Carmen says:

    Hello again!

    A controversial issue, indeed.

    Just a pair of quick thoughts:

    1- If the attitude is bad, a politically correct saying might be much more offensive or insulting than one more spontaneous.

    2- I prefer the singular they than the words he and she to refer someone whom I don’t know their gender.

    Thank you

  6. Dan says:


    Reading Obama’s SOTU speech he said:
    ” online tools that give an entrepreneur everything she or he needs..”
    This is a good example where they is better especially when you have to give a long speech. It saves time and breath.

    Anyway, bye bye Mr president and thanks for your presidency.
    Who knows who is going to be next..cough…cough Trump cough..sorry.

  7. Thiago Messias says:

    I´ve been using this singular they non stop for time now. Great explanation. Cheers!

  8. peter says:

    Thanks Warren for the tips on Dictionary front.
    I look them over and found them elaborately practical.
    Actually , I added them to my home screen for easy access.
    Share please If you have some more tips up ur sleeve.
    I like the grammar notes on the button of almost every enter I looked over in there.
    I see the relevant grammar notes as a bunes.



  9. Tania says:

    Thank you for the explanation of ” the singular they”.

  10. Dan says:

    Hello everyone.

    With Warren’s permission I would like to share a good news from my country
    Our culture minister announced that 2015 was ” a golden year for Italian museums” with a record number of visitors.
    According to the data presented, in 2015 there were 43 million visitors generating an income of 155 million.


  11. peter says:


    Dan, Italy is a renown country for its tourist attractions, museums , sceneries,weather , and so on.

    So , I m guessing ,every year Italy hosts a significant number of tourists visiting the country.

    Still , there must be a boost in the number of tourist there that it grabbed headlines.

    Good for Italy

    U know , I have been around, but never Italy, although I have always planed to come visit Italy.

    Well , i m no invalid yet :)))
    I m saving some money for my next trip. It might as well be “Rome , Italy ”

    Thanks for the stimulating news 🙂


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