Welcome, Singular “They”

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illustration of post-it notes displaying she/her, he/him, and they/them pronouns

Big changes are afoot! APA endorses the use of “they” as a singular third-person pronoun in the seventh edition of the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association. This means it is officially good practice in scholarly writing to use the singular “they.”

This blog post provides insight into how this change came about and provides a forum for questions and feedback.

What Is the Singular “They”?

The singular “they” is a generic third-person pronoun used in English. It’s not the only third-person singular pronoun—other third-person singular pronouns are “she” and “he” as well as less common options such as “ze” or “hen.”

Although the term singular “they” may be unfamiliar, you’ve probably heard and used the singular “they” in conversation throughout your life. Here is an example:

A person should enjoy their vacation.

The noun in this sentence is “person,” and the pronoun is “their.”

Before the seventh edition, people might have written the aforementioned sentence like this in a scholarly paper:

A person should enjoy his or her vacation.

However, this second sentence presumes that a person uses either the pronoun “he” or the pronoun “she,” which is not necessarily the case. For example, some people use other pronouns, including “they,” “zir,” “ze,” “xe,” “hir,” “per,” “ve,” “ey,” and “hen.”

Why Use the Singular “They”?

When readers see a gendered pronoun, they make assumptions about the gender of the person being described (Gastil, 1990; Moulton et al., 1978). APA advocates for the singular “they” because it is inclusive of all people and helps writers avoid making assumptions about gender.

When Should I Use the Singular “They”?

Writers should use the singular “they” in two main cases: (a) when referring to a generic person whose gender is unknown or irrelevant to the context and (b) when referring to a specific, known person who uses “they” as their pronoun.

When referring to a generic person whose gender is unknown or irrelevant to the context, use the singular “they” as the pronoun. For example, if you use nouns like “person,” “individual,” or “everyone” or phrases like “every teacher” or “each nurse” in a sentence, use the appropriate form of the pronoun “they” as needed.

Each student submitted their art portfolio to the committee.
not
Each student submitted his or her art portfolio to the committee.

If you are writing about a specific, known person, always use that person’s pronouns. The person’s pronouns might be “she/her,” “they/them,” “he/him,” or something else—just ask to find out! It is also good practice for an individual to volunteer what pronouns they use so that others do not have to ask.

If a person uses “she” or “he,” do not use “they” instead. Likewise, if a person uses “they,” do not switch to “he” or “she.” Use the pronouns the person uses.

Kai is a nonbinary person. They attend university in their home state of Vermont and are majoring in chemistry. Kai’s friend River is a transgender woman. She attends the same university and is majoring in physics.

What Verbs Do I Use With the Singular “They”?

When “they” is the subject of a sentence, “they” takes a plural verb regardless of whether “they” is meant to be singular or plural. For example, write “they are,” not “they is.” The singular “they” works similarly to the singular “you”—even though “you” may refer to one person or multiple people, in a scholarly paper you should write “you are,” not “you is.” However, if the noun in one sentence is a word like “individual” or a person’s name, use a singular verb.

Every individual is unique. They are a combination of strengths and weaknesses.
not
Every individual is unique. They is a combination of strengths and weaknesses.
Every individual is unique. She or he is a combination of strengths and weaknesses.

Read more about plural verb forms for the singular “they” from the folks at Merriam-Webster.

What Is a Generic Person, Anyway?

Some people write about a generic person but give that generic person gendered qualities. For example, someone might write about “Jane Doe” and intend that Jane be a woman who uses “she/her” pronouns. In that case, it would be acceptable to use the pronoun “she” to refer to Jane because Jane is meant to be a generic woman who uses “she/her” pronouns, not a generic person who might use any pronouns.

Use the singular “they” when the generic person is truly generic—devoid of gendered qualities. When describing generic people, it is easiest to avoid names (or to pick names without an obvious gender association) to avoid this confusion.

What If I Don’t Like the Singular “They”—Do I Have to Use It?

If you are writing about a person who uses “they” as their pronoun, then yes, you have to use it. Respectful and inclusive language is important. And it’s part of APA Style.

If you are writing about a generic person, you should use the singular “they” if your sentence includes a pronoun. However, there are many ways to write grammatical and inclusive sentences. For example, you can rewrite a sentence in the plural to use plural pronouns, or you can rewrite a sentence so that it does not use pronouns at all.

Here are some examples:

People should enjoy their vacations.
A person should enjoy vacations.
A vacation should be enjoyable.

These sentences are just as grammatical and inclusive as “A person should enjoy their vacation.”

Where Did the Change Come From?

Experts in sexual orientation and gender diversity crafted APA’s bias-free language guidelines for writing about gender, including the guidance on singular “they.”

You can read the bias-free language guidelines in full on the APA Style website. These guidelines cover not only how to write about gender but also age, disability, participation in research, racial and ethnic identity, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, and intersectionality.

APA is also not alone in the singular “they” movement. Although usage of the singular “they” was once discouraged in academic writing, many advocacy groups and publishers have accepted and endorsed it, including Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary.

Questions?

To learn more about the singular “they,” read the style and grammar guidelines page on singular “they.” It includes more examples of the proper forms and ways to write inclusive, grammatical sentences.

You can also find guidance on the singular “they” in Section 4.18 of the Publication Manual (7th ed.).

If you have other questions or feedback, leave a comment!

References

Gastil, J. (1990). Generic pronouns and sexist language: The oxymoronic character of masculine generics. Sex Roles, 23(11–12), 629–643. https://doi.org/10.1007/BF00289252

Moulton, J., Robinson, G. M., & Elias, C. (1978). Sex bias in language use: “Neutral” pronouns that aren’t. American Psychologist, 33(11), 1032–1036. https://doi.org/10.1037/0003066X.33.11.1032

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