Sometimes “they” is just one person.
Language is always changing, and proper grammar is nothing more than consensus. What is considered incorrect today will probably be tomorrow’s norm—and just as vigorously defended and argued about.
Consider the pronoun “thou,” which used to be the second person singular. By about 1700, it was gone, as everyone was using “you” for both singular and plural. The same thing is happening with they.
While English teachers and the grammar police freak out, the rest of us are happily using they to mean just one person. Here are six reasons that’s okay.
1. The singular they has been used for a long, long time. Since the middle ages, in fact. Chaucer used the singular they. Shakespeare used the singular they. Austen used the singular they. If they can do it, you can do it.
2. In the singular third person, English does not have a gender-neutral pronoun. “He or she” is not all-inclusive. Some people are neither he nor she. Besides, you’re not talking about an either/or situation. You’re not choosing from many possibilities, you’re talking about a single person. Some academics use “one” here, and I suppose one could do that, if one doesn’t mind sounding like a pretentious ninny.
3. Everyone is already doing it, including you. Don’t believe me? How would you finish this sentence? “If someone wins the lottery…” I bet you started the next clause with “they should…” You’ve also said something like this: “Someone left their cell phone behind. I hope they come back for it.” We do this all the time, especially when words like someone, everybody and anyone are involved.
4. Authorities say it’s correct. The singular they was chosen by the American Dialect Society as their 2015 word of the year. Bill Walsh, the Washington Post editor in charge of the style guide also says the singular they “is the only sensible solution.” The Chicago Manual of Style, The Guardian, The Merriam-Webster dictionary and many other publications also say the singular they is correct.
5. The pronoun does not have to agree with the number of its noun. Although “they” is most often plural, it does not have to be. Consider the following sentence: If our team plays well in the semi-finals, chances are they will play well in the finals, too. We see that the noun “team” is singular, by the use of the verb “plays.” But in the second clause, we use the word “they” to refer to the singular “team.” Or how about this sentence? My family stops by often and they always forget to bring beer. “Family” is singular, yet referred to as “they.”
6. “He” isn’t gender-neutral. Do you insist that “he,” “him,” and “his” includes men and women and non-binary people? Then you won’t mind a sentence like this: I can’t remember: was it your brother or your sister who had his graduation party last week? Or how about this one? Each student should wear his nicest suit or his prettiest dress to the dance. Those sentences are crying out for a singular they. Even worse, when the masculine form of a word is considered the generic, the feminine form usually takes on sexual or derogatory tones. Consider “master” and “mistress,” or “bachelor” and “spinster.”
You can stubbornly plow on, using he or one when the word you really want is the singular they. Eventually you’ll get tired of people rolling their eyes at you and you’ll remember that grammar rules are descriptive, not prescriptive.
In the meantime, don’t you dare tell anyone who is using they as a third-person singular pronoun that they are wrong. Because they are not.
About the author: Alex Kourvo writes short stories and novels. She loves the way language is always changing.