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The singular “they” is a generic third-person singular pronoun in English. Use of the singular “they” is endorsed as part of APA Style because it is inclusive of all people and helps writers avoid making assumptions about gender. 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.

  • Always use a person’s self-identified pronoun, including when a person uses the singular “they” as their pronoun. 
  • Also use “they” as a generic third-person singular pronoun to refer to a person whose gender is unknown or irrelevant to the context of the usage.
  • Do not use “he” or “she” alone as generic third-person singular pronouns. Use combination forms such as “he or she” and “she or he” only if you know that these pronouns match the people being described.
  • Do not use combination forms such as “(s)he” and “s/he.” 
  • If you do not know the pronouns of the person being described, reword the sentence to avoid a pronoun or use the pronoun “they.”

Singular “they” is covered in Section 4.18 of the APA Publication Manual, Seventh Edition

Forms of the singular “they”

Use following forms of the singular “they”:

Form Example
they Casey is a gender-fluid person. They are from Texas and enjoy tacos.
them Every client got a care package delivered to them.
their Each child played with their parent.
theirs The cup of coffee is theirs.
themselves (or themself) A private person usually keeps to themselves [or themself].

Here are some tips to help you use the proper forms:

  • Use a plural verb form with the singular pronoun “they” (i.e., write “they are” not “they is”).
  • Use a singular verb form with a singular noun (i.e., write “Casey is” or “a person is,” not “Casey are” or “a person are”).
  • Both “themselves” and “themself” are acceptable as reflexive singular pronouns; however, “themselves” is currently the more common usage.

Alternatives to the generic singular “they”

If using the singular “they” as a generic third-person pronoun seems awkward, try rewording the sentence or using the plural.

Strategy Example
Rewording the sentence I delivered a care package to the client.
Using the plural Private people usually keep to themselves.

However, do not use alternatives when people use “they” as their pronoun—always use the pronouns that people use to refer to themselves.

Date created: September 2019