In this article, I will summarize the advice offered in modern style guides regarding the use of “they” in the singular. First, though, I’ll provide some background.
I grew up on Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style, which clearly forbids using “they” in the singular. In fact, for those cases where we don’t know the gender of the person the pronoun refers to, Elements advises the use of “he” (2000 edition):
The use of he as a pronoun for nouns embracing both genders is a simple, practical convention rooted in the beginnings of the English language. Currently, however, many writers find the use of the generic he or his to rename indefinite antecedents limiting or offensive.
For people who want to avoid the issue, the suggestion is to try to rephrase generic references to plural. For instance, write “All students should bring their own materials” instead of “Each student….”
When I was in college in the 1980s and 1990s, one suggestion was to alternate “he” and “she” randomly. One problem with that is that “random” often resulted in bias. Teachers and nurses wound up being “she” a lot, while doctors and lawyers wound up being “he”. Younger children were “she”; older children were “he”. Some authors were truly random, but others let their bias show.
There are at least four contexts in which we might consider using “they” in the singular:
- The antecedent is truly generic: “Everybody should remember to lock their car doors.” This is intended for absolutely everyone.
- The antecedent is someone specific whose gender is unknown: “Hey, that person over there just dropped their keys, but I don’t think they noticed.”
- The antecedent is someone whose gender is known, but we want to avoid revealing it: “A student told me that they were having troubles at home.”
- The antecedent is a specific person who uses they/them pronouns: “I saw Starr at the store earlier. They said they’re going back to Kentucky soon.”
Traditional style guides typically only address the first context, and suggest rewriting. The second context comes up mostly in casual situations, something style guides don’t address as much. Elements also mentions the third context, dismissively writing, “Some bashful speakers even say, ‘A friend of mine told me that they….’”
The fourth context, meanwhile, has traditionally received the least attention in the style guides, but that’s changing.
The singular use of “they” dates to the 14th Century. It is not new, but its use has long been considered informal. As a result, style guides have long advised a two-prong approach:
- Rewrite to avoid the generic (context 1) as much as possible.
- If rewriting is not possible, use he/she or some similar construction.
I’ll also note that, in addition to excluding people who don’t use either pronoun, “he/she” specifically has been used as a slur against transgender people (particularly women), and should be avoided for that reason.
What is the current state of recommendations?
Merriam-Webster specifically lays out the four contexts above in its third definition for “they”:
3a — used with a singular indefinite pronoun antecedent
b — used with a singular antecedent to refer to an unknown or unspecified person
c — used to refer to a single person whose gender is intentionally not revealed
d — used to refer to a single person whose gender identity is nonbinary
I’ll note that there are some men and women who use “they” and there are some nonbinary persons who don’t, but for a mainstream dictionary, this is a fair enough definition.
The style guide of the American Psychological Association is one of the main style guides followed by academic writers (particularly education, psychology, and sciences), and its instructions are among the most progressive:
Always use a person’s self-identified pronoun, including when a person uses the singular “they” as their pronoun.
Also use “they” as a generic third-person singular pronoun to refer to a person whose gender is unknown or irrelevant to the context of the usage.
Do not use “he” or “she” alone as generic third-person singular pronouns. Use combination forms such as “he or she” and “she or he” only if you know that these pronouns match the people being described.
Do not use combination forms such as “(s)he” and “s/he.”
If you do not know the pronouns of the person being described, reword the sentence to avoid a pronoun or use the pronoun “they.”
It also allows for “themself” for the singular, although “themselves” is the preferred form.
The style guide of the Modern Language Association is one of the main style guides followed by academic writers (particularly humanities). Two months ago, it acknowledged Merriam-Webster’s guidelines, and now recommends writers to:
always follow the personal pronouns of individuals they write about.
Furthermore, the generic form (when “gender is unknown or irrelevant to the context”) is allowed;
the MLA encourages writers to accept its use to avoid making or enabling assumptions about gender.
The MLA had previously overtly recommended rewriting to avoid the issue entirely, but the March 2020 entry leaves this recommendation implicit in its examples.
Chicago Manual of Style
The style guide of the University of Chicago is one of the main style guides followed by academic writers (particularly business, history, and the fine arts). In 2017, it updated its guidelines to allow singular “they” in three of the four contexts above.
For a specific person:
A writer (or speaker) may also use they to refer to a specific, known person who does not identify with a gender-specific pronoun such as he or she. … This usage is still not widespread either in speech or in writing, but Chicago accepts it even in formal writing.
For generic situations:
CMOS 17 does not prohibit the use of singular they as a substitute for the generic he in formal writing, but recommends avoiding it, offering various other ways to achieve bias-free language.
The only context not clearly addressed in these notes is the third one, where the writer knows the (binary) gender of a person but chooses not to disclose it.
The style guide of the Associated Press is the standard for journalists. In 2017, it updated its guidelines to allow for singular “they” when the person being written about specifically requests it, but that it should be both minimized and pointed out:
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.
Otherwise, “they” should agree with its antecedent, so generic contexts should be rewritten if possible:
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.
AMA Manual of Style
The style guide of the American Medical Association is used in medical writing. It followed the lead of CMS and AP. In 2017, AMA Style Insider wrote, “The AMA Manual of Style will follow suit with the next edition, allowing the use of plural pronouns with singular indefinite antecedents (eg, Everyone allocates their time) in an effort to avoid sex-specific pronouns and awkward sentence structure.” This apparently happened in February of this year.
These are the major style guides used for most professional writing. Other style guides in active development appear to be following suit, either already accepting “they” for non-binary persons or queuing that change for their next editions.
If you’re a student and your teacher is resisting “they”: First of all, be patient. The prohibition on singular “they” in written text was long-standing and has only recently begun to evolve. I started Kindergarten in 1973, and my entire schooling (through my first round of graduate school) involved being told to never use “they” in the singular, for any reason.
However, as a teacher myself, I’m aware that things change. The major style guides agree: If a person uses “they” for themselves, use “they”. The justification that was used to me decades ago — “that not what the style guides say” — is no longer true.
Also, unfortunately, the guides are still either ignoring or openly resistant to neopronouns (such as zie, xe, or fae). I hope that this changes soon.