Using They As The Third-Person Singular Personal Pronoun

They As The Third-Person Singular Pronoun

It is becoming common now to use THEY as an alternative third-person singular pronoun because English doesn’t have a gender-neutral equivalent.

Of the three third-person singular pronouns, both HE and SHE are gender-specific.

However, IT is only suitable for objects, things, and perhaps animals.

But utilizing they requires a little bit of writing skill because you also need to use them, their, theirs, and themselves or themself in a similar manner.

When to use they as the third-person singular

The primary use for they is to avoid being gender specific.

It is also useful when the gender is unknown.

In general, the following are the typical instances when they is the appropriate pronoun to use.

1. When the gender of the subject is unknown or irrelevant.

2. To avoid using two pronouns together, such as he and she or he or she.

3. To be gender neutral.

4. To avoid invented combinations like s/he or (s)he.

5. As an element of inclusive writing.

When using they as a singular pronoun, keep in mind that it retains its plural grammatical form of they are and not they is, for example.

It’s not a perfect solution but a lexical compromise. However, it is not difficult to use with a bit of practice.

 

How to use the singular pronoun

It is reasonably easy to form coherent sentences. Here are a few simple examples to show you how to use it.

Our company is looking to hire a new data analyst. He or she They will need to have excellent Excel and database skills.

I had a long wait, as usual, for my doctor’s appointment. Like all doctors, he is they are always running late.

Like most celebrities, she gets they get a lot of attention on social media.

 

Other pronoun forms

The same applies to the use of their, them, or themselves.

Every new user must select a strong password to access his or her their account.

But it’s up to him or her them to decide if two-factor authentication is necessary.

A new user is expected to keep himself or herself themselves updated on the site’s terms and conditions of use. (or themself)

 

Rewriting to remove awkward phrases

Because you have to use a plural verb with they, it doesn’t always read well.

If you find that a phrase or sentence seems a little clumsy or difficult to understand, you can always rewrite a sentence and retain the same meaning.

Our company is looking to hire a new data analyst. They will need to have excellent Excel and database skills. (original)
Our company is looking to hire a new data analyst, who will need to have excellent Excel and database skills. (rewrite)

I had a long wait, as usual, for my doctor’s appointment. Like all doctors, he is they are always running late. (original)
I had a long wait, as usual, for my doctor’s appointment. Because, like all doctors, running late is common. (rewrite)

Like most celebrities, she gets they get a lot of attention on social media. (original)
Like most celebrities, getting a lot of attention on social media is normal. (rewrite)

 

Summary

When using they as the third-person singular pronoun, it can cause some grammatical problems.

However, most style guides, including APA Style and MLA Style, now consider it the best option for writing more inclusively and overcoming gender assumptions or references.

But it takes a little writing agility in some cases to make it work and read well.

The main point, however, is that you are aware of the issue and stay mindful of unintentional gender references in your writing.

It’s up to every writer to make the decision when to use this form themselves.

 

Related reading: When To Use Maybe or May Be

Derek Haines

A Cambridge CELTA English teacher and author with a passion for writing and all forms of publishing. My days are spent writing and blogging, as well as testing and taming new technology.

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