Real Grammar Quiz, Question 6: Is it OK to use “they” when referring to a singular person?

Posted by on February 18, 2015

Macmillan Dictionary – Real GrammarReal Grammar isn’t about the made-up or outdated “rules” which some people try to make us follow. As we said in the introduction to this new series from Macmillan DictionaryReal Grammar is based on the evidence of language in use.

In the coming months, we’ll be bringing you blog posts and videos that give evidence-based answers to frequently asked questions about grammar and usage. There’s even a Real Grammar quiz for you to try.

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In the sixth question in our Real Grammar quiz, we asked whether it was better to say

We should give everyone a chance to say what he or she thinks.
or
We should give everyone a chance to say what they think.

The question arises because English has no gender-neutral pronoun for referring to a person in the singular. You can say he (when referring to a man) or she (when referring to a woman) – but what do you say when the gender of the person you’re referring to is not known or not relevant?

One traditional solution was to use he as a generic pronoun, and this was common until quite recently. In his essay Politics and the English Language (1946), George Orwell writes

The person who uses [these words] has his own private definition, but allows his hearer to think he means something quite different.

The “person” referred to here could be male or female, and Orwell assumes his readers will interpret he and his as applying equally to either. American usage bible Strunk and White continues to promote this view, claiming that, in sentences of this type

He has lost all suggestion of maleness. . . . It has no pejorative connotation; it is never incorrect.

But this notion was debunked long ago in Miller and Swift’s Handbook of Nonsexist Writing (first published in 1980), and today only the most diehard traditionalists would find it acceptable to use he in this way. As the usage note in the Macmillan Dictionary says

Many people think that this use suggests that women are not included or that men are more important than women.

(A similar point is made about the use of man to mean “human beings generally”.)

A more common solution is to use they – as in the second sentence in our quiz. But there is an obvious objection: using a plural pronoun to refer to a singular entity violates the principle of concord – the basic grammatical rule that the forms of a noun or verb or pronoun should all match up, according to whether we’re talking about someone male or female, or about one person or many.

To quote the Chicago Manual of Style (16th edition, 2010), “a singular antecedent requires a singular referent pronoun”. Its advice continues:

It has become common in speech and in informal writing to substitute the third-person plural pronouns they, them, their, and themselves… While this usage is accepted in casual context, it is still considered ungrammatical in formal writing.

But is it? Admittedly, the usual suspects remain implacably opposed. In a “Preliminary Note” on “singular they” in his prescriptive book Strictly English, Simon Heffer says “I regard that as abominable and want no part of it”. His acolyte Nevile Gwynne goes further: “I would justify going to war on behalf of the traditional ‘he’”. Such hysterical views are no longer widespread, but there is still a surprising amount of hostility to “singular they”. The Usage Panel of the American Heritage Dictionary has gradually become more tolerant, but even in the most recent survey only 56% of the Panel accepted the sentence If anyone calls, tell them I can’t come to the phone. Which means that almost half of them disapproved of it.

Yet this is such a natural formulation that most people wouldn’t even notice it. Nor is it a recent development, confined to spoken or informal contexts, as some prescriptivists seem to imagine. The OED includes a citation from the early 16th century (He neuer forsaketh any creature vnlesse they before haue forsaken them selues) and there is abundant evidence of similar patterns in the work of well-known writers from every period since then.

Finally, what about alternatives to they, such as he/she, s/he, or (as in the first sentence in the quiz) he or she? The motivation is good (upholding the rule of concord, avoiding sexist language) but it can all get rather complicated, for example in a sentence like

If anyone has a problem, he or she should speak to his or her teacher.

And in the end this just looks like a way of avoiding the issue. It may be advisable not to use “someone…they” expressions in very formal writing, but in any other register it is the only natural thing to say, and is perfectly acceptable. Oh, and it’s a formula we use in definitions in the Macmillan Dictionary, too. A bankrupt, for example, is defined as “someone who has officially admitted that they have no money and cannot pay what they owe”.

To read more about Real Grammar, keep a close eye on our Real Grammar page. You can catch up with the videos on our YouTube channel, where the seventh video in the series is now live. You can also follow this topic using #realgrammar on Twitter and remember that you can find all our earlier blog posts on this topic by using the tags “prescriptivism” or “realgrammar”.

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Comments (3)
  • The question “Is it better …?” could usefully be divided into three:
    1 Do you think it’s better to say X or Y?
    2 Do (you believe that) you personally say X or Y?
    3 Do you personally – actually, really – say X or Y?
    Number 3 would be interesting, especially in contrast with number 1, but could only be answered by stalking people with a microphone.

    Consider this scenario …..
    A: Look! There’s someone on that roof over there!
    B: So there is – I wonder what __________ doing?
    (‘Someone’ is a singular person, too far away for gender to be identifiable.)
    I don’t think many people would say “I wonder what he’s doing?” or “I wonder what he or she is doing?”

    I wonder whether people are inclined to like:
    1 We should give everyone a chance to say what they think
    more than:
    2 The winner will be given a cash prize and an all-expenses paid trip to our next conference, where they will be asked to present their project
    – because ‘everyone’, although it’s formally singular, refers to a plural number of people, whereas ‘the winner’ refers to a single person?

    As you say, “using a plural pronoun to refer to a singular entity violates the principle of concord”. But concord, like everything else in language, isn’t carved in stone; it’s inherently wobbly and subject to change.

    Posted by Jonathan Marks on 21st February, 2015
  • Thanks Jonathan: stalking people with a microphone may be a bit extreme, but it has been proven that there is often a difference between what people *think* they say and what they actually do say when they’re not thinking about it. On your second point: the use of “they” feels more natural in relation to indefinite pronouns (like someone, anyone) than when the antecedent is a singular noun (like your example of “winner”). So, like most things in language, it’s not a binary right/wrong choice, but more of a spectrum.

    Posted by Michael Rundell on 24th February, 2015
  • “….in any other register it is the only natural thing to say, and is perfectly acceptable.”
    So here is a firm rule from the the non-prescriptivist!
    One criterion in deciding whether or not to adopt a common but recent usage (and perhaps the only useful one) is: Will it annoy the readers or make them think I am uneducated or lacking in linguistic taste? If the answer is yes, what I have to say may not be taken seriously.

    Posted by Jeremy Hummerstone on 24th November, 2015
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