The Singular “They”

grammarHow many times have I written he/she, or s/he as if I were trying to condense the two into one? If you are a person who wants to reach people of all genders with your writing, you can certainly sympathize with my problem!

As a woman, I had no intention of using he/him exclusively, but he/she or s/he became incredibly tedious when writing non-fiction instructional-type prose. This has always been an issue when the subject of a sentence is in the singular, and the writer was trying to match it with a related singular pronoun, such as in the following examples:

  • If your child is thinking about college majors, ___ can get good advice from this website.
  • A reporter has to be completely objective in ___ findings.

In both of these examples, matching the singular subject would result in filling in the blank with he/she or him/her. However, current grammatical decorum permits use the plural pronouns ‘they’, ‘them’, ‘their’ etc., despite the fact that, technically, they are referring back to a singular noun, such as in the following:

  • If your child is thinking about college majors, they can get good advice from this website.
  • A reporter has to be completely objective in their findings.

The Oxford dictionary states that while some people object to the use of plural pronouns in this type of situation, the use of plural pronouns to refer back to a singular subject isn’t new, and it actually represents a revival of a practice dating from the 16th century. It has become increasingly common in our English language and is now widely accepted both in speech and in writing.

Whew – that will make my instructional writing MUCH less wordy!