Feb 05, 2016

Grammar Hammer: The Singular Resurgence of Singular Pronoun They

Grammar Hammer They The Singular Pronoun

One of the most interesting things to me is how language is constantly evolving.

Each year, there are new words added to the dictionary. Style guides are updated and once-sacred rules are softened or even eliminated (does anyone remember the big argument over “e-mail” vs. “email”?).

The American Dialect Society recently voted for the gender-neutral singular pronoun “they” as its Word of the Year. Similarly, The Washington Post adopted singular “they” into its style guide, as did The New York Times, The Atlantic, and Dictionary.com all within the past year.

Trying to figure out what pronoun to use in each situation isn’t exactly a new grammatical question. As early as 1794, “they” as a singular pronoun was suggested as a way to identify a singular entity without it being tied to gender.

I find it comforting to know that grammarians and writers have been discussing this issue for over 200 years. It makes me feel like I’m not the only one to wonder which word I should be using in the proper context.

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Consider the following sentences: “Someone left ___ coffee mug in the office cafeteria. Would ___ please collect it?”

Which pronouns do you first think of to fill in the blanks? His/He? Her/She? Their/They?

Saying “Someone left his coffee mug in the office cafeteria.” or “Would she please collect it?” could be misleading. In certain sentences, “his” or “her” could even be a bit patronizing.

Using the singular versions of “their” and “they” (“Someone left their coffee mug…Would they…” not only creates an economy of speech (using fewer words to communicate something everyone will understand), it also reflects what’s acceptable in common language.

It eliminates the need to address a specific gender identity especially when gender identity is irrelevant to the sentence.

One remaining question is whether the acceptance of singular “they” will have an impact on other gender-neutral terms. There are many articles out there discussing the adoption of pronouns like “hen” and “ze.” Will singular “they” help usher them into widespread use?

What ultimately ends up in future style guides is something this Grammar Hammer will be watching. In the meantime, download PR Newswire’s Buyer 2.0 Content Strategy Checklist for more of today’s writing dos and don’ts.

Author Catherine Spicer is a manager of customer content services with more than 20 years’ experience counseling brands on their content. She also authors Beyond PR’s long-running Grammar Hammer series. Follow Cathy on Twitter @cathyspicer and tweet her your #grammargripes.

3 Comments on Blog Post Title


­ Saanya Singh 03:21 EST on Feb 7, 2016

this is quite an interesting article. I will download the buyers 2.0 Content Stategy Checklist today.


­ Richard 08:43 EST on Feb 13, 2016

What was wrong with ‘their’ in your example? Someone left their cup…


­ Amanda Hicken @ PR Newswire 18:03 EST on Feb 13, 2016

Hi, Richard! Because the indefinite pronoun "someone" is considered a singular pronoun, many writers and editors used to argue that "he/his" or "she/her" should be used in formal writing to refer back to "someone."

However, as Cathy details above, the singular "they" and "their" are becoming more widely accepted in formal writing and included in a number of editorial style guides.


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