Rivaling the Oxford comma, the so-called singular they is one of the most debated grammar topics. What do I mean by “the singular they”? I’m referring to the use of they as a gender-neutral pronoun to mean he or she (and the use of them in place of him or her, and their instead of his or her).
Although it’s widely used in spoken conversation, the singular they can cause confusion with subject-verb agreement when we don’t know how many people it refers to. As such, grammar purists have been reluctant to adopt it in written material. Moreover, using only he (or only she) can be unclear or sexist. I’ve usually advised using the singular they when no other alternative successfully clarifies the sentence. The Associated Press Stylebook editors issued similar guidance in an update at the American Copy Editors Society conference in March. Here’s a portion of the upcoming AP Stylebook entry:
They, them, their In most cases, a plural pronoun should agree in number with the antecedent: The children love the books their uncle gave them. They/them/their is acceptable in limited cases as a singular and/or gender-neutral pronoun, when alternative wording is overly awkward or clumsy. However, rewording usually is possible and always is preferable. Clarity is a top priority; gender-neutral use of a singular they is unfamiliar to many readers. We do not use other gender-neutral pronouns, such as xe or ze.
One way to reword it is to pluralize. For example:
Each patient noted which foods he or she liked best.
Fix: The patients noted which foods they liked best.
However, this method doesn’t always work. Here’s an example of where the singular they would be better:
When you break up with your significant other, you should tell him or her that he or she meant a lot to you but you couldn’t tolerate that he or she continued to see his or her ex.
Fix: When you break up with your significant other, you should tell them that they meant a lot to you but you couldn’t tolerate that they continued to see their ex.
Guidance on gender
Pronouns also highlight the issue of gender. The upcoming edition of the AP Stylebook will also include the following clarifications:
In stories about people who identify as neither male nor female or ask not to be referred to as he/she/him/her, use the person’s name in place of a pronoun, or otherwise reword the sentence, whenever possible. If they/them/their use is essential, explain in the text that the person prefers a gender-neutral pronoun. Be sure that the phrasing does not imply more than one person.
Gender Not synonymous with sex. Gender refers to a person’s social identity, while sex refers to biological characteristics. Not all people fall under one of two categories for sex or gender, according to leading medical organizations, so avoid references to both, either or opposite sexes or genders as a way to encompass all people. When needed for clarity or in certain stories about scientific studies, alternatives include men and women, boys and girls, males and females.