Monday, October 02, 2006

How to Use the Singular "They"

If English is your second language, be careful with the singular they. The rules can be confusing. But if you're a native speaker of English, you should have no problem if you just proofread like you ought. For, you've been using the singular they in speech all your life. Therefore, you don't need to remember the rules, because they're instinctual to you by now.

Nonetheless, here are the rules ;-)

To learn how to use the singular they, just pay attention to how you use it in speech. That is, use the singular they instead of he or the he-or-she combination only when referring to a generic person — an indefinite person, who could be of either sex and could be either a collective entity or an unknown one. In other words, because the "editor" in the sentence below is a definite (defined) person, you can't write —

The editor from upstairs who was helping arrived yesterday. They....
— because we won't connect they with editor. Instead, we'll stop reading at they, wondering who "they" are. We interpret they as singular only when it refers to an indefinite person. Since the editor in this example is a definite person, they doesn't work. In that sentence, the only pronouns you can use for editor are he, she, or the he-or-she combination. Again, for example, native speakers of English don't say —

I went to the doctor yesterday, and guess what they said.
— because that doctor is a definite person. Since this example is in the first person, even the he-or-she combination makes no sense, because the speaker knows the sex of this doctor. (Well, okay, somebody who wanted to conceal the sex of that doctor might say I went to the doctor yesterday, and guess what he or she said? But normally, in the first person, you must pick he or she to refer to a definite person.)

That's all just common sense, isn't it? So, if you're a native speaker of English, don't worry about this indefinite-person qualification, because you instinctively know when you can use the singular they.

Note that the person referred to must be indefinite, not their sex. Here is a sentence in which the indefinite person's sex is definite, because all these debaters are women.

Had both the children been there, the affair might have been determined too easily . . . and every body had a right to be equally positive in their opinion, and to repeat it over and over again as often as they liked.
That's the narrator in Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austin

So, in this example, using the singular they doesn't make sex indefinite — just irrelevant.

The same rules hold for the plural them and the plural their. This is why the most common form of the singular they is their referring to indefinite singular words like whoever, each, every, everybody, nobody, somebody, anybody, everyone, no one, someone, and anyone.

More on using the singular they next time.

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