More on Using the Singular "They"
Using the Singular They, Them and Their
- These are payments made to an employee because of physical or mental incapacity that renders them unable to fulfill their duties.
- Nobody got their paycheck yesterday.
- Everybody loves their dog.
- If a client calls, tell them I'll be back at nine o'clock.
- When anybody does that to us, we feel like asking them who they think they are.
- Nobody in their right mind would do that.
Do notice that everybody loves their dog, not their dogs. So, we say —
— instead of —
Everyone was blowing their noses.
If you get confused, look at the subject (everyone) and ask yourself whether we say Everyone is (singular) or Everyone are (plural). Since we are talking about one person, she or he has but one nose.
Also notice that, since they is normally plural, it takes a plural verb. So, we say —
— not —
Somebody murdered her, and they is going to pay for their crime.
Educated native speakers of English are unlikely to make any of these mistakes. Yet there's one mistake it's easy to make with any pronoun: giving it an ambiguous antecedent. So, as with all pronouns, make sure there's no doubt what word the singular they refers to.
We connect a pronoun to the nearest preceding noun that agrees with it in number. So, since they is normally plural, look out for another plural noun, especially one nearer than the one you refer to. For example, if you fill in the blank below with they, two nouns will compete for it:
When an applicant notifies the other residents, ______ must file a Form 2b within thirty days.
You can't use they in the blank to refer to applicant, because residents is nearer and plural. So readers would think you mean that the other residents must file, not the applicant. Therefore, though the applicant is an indefinite person, the only nonsexist solution is —
When an applicant notifies the other residents, he or she must file a Form 2b within thirty days.