Has someone ever asked you to refer to them as they instead of he or she? Or, are you hedging because you can’t possibly refer to one single person as they? What if we told you that they has been used to refer to just one person since at least the 1300s?
How can they be a pronoun for one person?
Language teachers instruct us on the basic pronouns. Those are the words in a language that can be subbed in when nouns (people, places, or things) aren’t up for playing … or when it just takes too much time to say the full noun form.
In English, I, he, she, you, and it are all pronouns you surely learned along the way. Maybe you also learned that they were used to refer to singular nouns, i.e., words that describe just one person, one place, or one thing. I am going to eat chocolate for breakfast is a sentence that you automatically know is just about you, the one person who is living their best life with a decadent daily treat.
But, notice how we just used they when we were talking about a whole bunch of things? Grammatically, they is used as a plural pronoun, a word that’s used to describe multiple people, places, or things. They all read Dictionary.com, for example, would probably mean a bunch of really cool logophiles sat around on a Friday night looking for definitions together, right? (Hey, we tried).
Check out much more from Dictionary.com on Gender & Sexuality.
But, they is not only a plural pronoun.
This chameleon word is also a singular pronoun, and it has been for centuries. Lexicographers have determined that as far back as the 1300s, they has been used as a gender-neutral pronoun, a word that was substituted in place of either he (a masculine singular pronoun) or she (a feminine singular pronoun), e.g., Each student should get their supplies ready for class. Each student is singular, but we don’t know (or need to know) the gender/sex identity of each student in this situation, so their is perfectly handy. Even Chaucer, Shakespeare, Jane Austen, and other beloved writers of the English literary canon used singular they.
Fast forward to this century when The American Dialect Society’s 2015 Word of the Year was the gender-neutral singular use of they. This vote, as it happened, came just after the late Bill Walsh, a copyeditor at the Washington Post, announced that the newspaper’s official style guide now allows the use of gender-neutral singular they. He called the use of they “the only sensible solution to English’s lack of a gender-neutral third-person singular personal pronoun.”
Opposition of the usage is waning these days.
They is actually an extremely useful word
When we don’t know (or don’t need to know) the gender of the person we’re talking about, they really comes in handy. We even used a variation of it earlier. Did you catch where we said their? Scroll back up!
It’s also an extremely important, powerful, and useful way for people who are nonbinary—don’t identify with the binary genders of female and male to describe themselves, because they and them are not explicitly gendered.
Sharing our pronouns—as the practice of divulging what pronouns you prefer to use for yourself is called—is a way of sharing our gender identity with the world. You might identify as female and ask that people refer to you as she/her/hers. Or, maybe you identify as male and your friends use he/him/his when they talk about you. For people who are nonbinary, they may ask you to use they/them/their as pronouns for them.
Let’s discuss nonbinary pronouns some more.
What pronouns should you use when referring to a nonbinary person?
This question calls for a quick grammar lesson. For a person who prefers nonbinary they or when you need to use a gender-neutral pronoun, we recommend you use the following grammatical forms:
They (nominative pronoun)
Use they to indicate a nonbinary or gender-neutral subject (doer) of a verb (action) instead of he or she.
For example: They cook an amazing lasagna or They have an important meeting at noon.
Them (objective pronoun)
Use them to indicate a nonbinary or gender-neutral object (receiver) of a verb or preposition, instead of him or her.
For example: I sent them a birthday card or I went to the summer pool party with them.
Their/theirs (possessive pronoun)
Use their or theirs to indicate a nonbinary or gender-neutral person has possession, instead of his or her/hers.
For example: They gave me their extra ticket to the concert or That package at the door is theirs.
Themself/themselves/theirself/theirselves (reflexive pronoun)
In grammar, a reflexive pronoun is used when a subject and object (of a verb) are referring to the same thing or person. It is also used when the object of verb is referring back to the subject. (Yep, grammar gets abstract, so check out the examples below.)
There are several options people use for a singular, nonbinary, gender-neutral reflexive pronoun: themself, themselves, theirself, and theirselves.
- They rinsed themselves off after going to the beach.
- They rinsed themself off after going to the beach.
- They run the business all by theirself.
- They run the business all by theirselves.
Does singular they take a singular or plural verb?
While singular they can refer to one person, it still takes a plural verb. In fact, we did it above: They run the business all by theirself, generally never They runs the business all by theirselves.
Keep in mind that, when referring to a nonbinary or gender-conforming person by name, you use a singular verb. For instance: Jess cooks an amazing lasagna inspired by their grandmother’s recipe. They love making modern twists on traditional cuisine.
Also keep in mind that, while singular they widely takes a plural verb, someone individuals who identify as nonbinary may individually prefer using a singular verb with singular they: They cooks an amazing lasagna. If you don’t know someone’s preference, ask!
But, we know what you’re asking: a singular pronoun but a plural verb? Sound inconceivable to you? You do it everyday. We all do it. In fact, the pronoun you was originally only the plural form for the second person. By the 1700s, you had largely supplanted thou as the singular pronoun for the second person—and it took a plural verb with it, as in We trust you can handle singular they.
Singular, nonbinary they is about much more than just grammar
Rory Gory is Digital Marketing Manager for The Trevor Project, the world’s largest suicide prevention and crisis intervention organization for LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and questioning) young people. Rory uses they/them/their pronouns, and explains the importance of using and respecting people’s preferred pronouns:
So, next time someone asks you to use they in the singular, tell them you’re on board. The dictionary approves! And, for more from Rory Gory and gender-inclusive language, check out “How The Letter ‘X’ Creates More Gender-Neutral Language” and “Why Is ‘Bisexual Such A Charged Word?”