The singular pronoun “they” (and associated pronouns “them” and “their”) is appropriate and grammatically correct for use in spoken and written language.
Scroll down for info on why it’s important, why it’s grammatically correct, and for a collection of resources for further reading.
The most important reason to use “they” / “them” to refer to someone who chooses those pronouns is simple: respect. Many non-binary, genderqueer, and transgender people feel that “they” / “them” are the best pronouns to reflect their existence outside of the gender binary. When talking or writing about someone, it is a basic courtesy to refer to them in the way they choose. For example, if someone told you their name was “Steve,” wouldn’t you use that name even if you didn’t like the name “Steve”? Even if in your mind you thought they looked more like a “Marty”?
Is the singular “they” grammatically correct?
A common objection to the use of “they” / “them” as a singular pronoun is that people often mistakenly think it is “grammatically incorrect”. What is grammatically “correct” or “incorrect” is never a cut-and-dry issue. Let’s look at it from two perspectives.
The singular “they” is extremely common in everyday usage
Imagine you’re cleaning up after a party, and you notice an umbrella that someone forgot, but you’re not sure who it belongs to. You might say: “Someone forgot their umbrella. I hope they don’t get soaked on their way home. I’ll hold on to it for them.”
Language is an evolving set of sounds and symbols
Even if the singular “they” was a neologism [NB it’s not, see usage], English has gone through countless adjustments through its history, and will continue to undergo these adjustments for the rest of its existence. Style guides, dictionaries, and usage guides are under constant revision to keep up with the changes in the language. Here are several authorities on language, grammar, and usage that acknowledge the singular “they” as appropriate in the right circumstances:
- Oxford English Dictionary
- Merriam Webster (see Can they, their, them, and themselves be used as singular pronouns?)
- Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage endorses its use
- The Associated Press Style Guide accepts its use for non-binary people, although it cautions to avoid confusion with a plural meaning
- Garner’s Modern American Usage mentions that the main obstacle to its use is the stigma attached to it
In addition to the language authorities above, the singular “they” has been used by authors for a long time.
- A great blog post from Merriam-Webster’s Words at Play blog
- A great essay about the social power behind the word
- The Oxford English Dictionary equivocates on the subject in a grammar entry but - as they are a bastion of descriptivism - we can forgive them
- The Associated Press discusses the inclusion of the singular they in their style guide
- American Dialect Society makes the singular “they” their word of the year
- The Radical Copyeditor’s Style Guide For Writing About Transgender People
- Wikipedia has a very thorough article, providing lists of uses in literature, and a good summary of the controversies involved.
- Copyediting.com gives a good overview
- Copyediting.com notices it gaining acceptance
This page is intended to be a resource that transgender and non-binary people can direct people to, instead of engaging in “debate”. In cases of a knowledge and power imbalance, the disenfranchised person is almost always asked to be the one to supply the labor of educating and coddling the other. Instead of taking the time away from more interesting or fulfilling activities, a trans person may instead direct someone to this page.
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