Can They Be Singular?
We often think of the search for gender-neutral pronouns as a modern development, a result of the emerging public recognition of multiple genders and the difficulty with keeping up with terminology that seems to change daily. However, writers have been working at this problem for far longer.
Aside from the growing number of genders people identify as, there are instances when gender is unknown. For instance, an unidentified thief could be a man or a woman, but if we use he to refer to the thief, we run the risk of creating unintentional bias and missing the true culprit.
If you pay attention to the conversations around you, you may notice that most of us default to using they as both singular and plural, much the same way we do with you. Unfortunately, when it comes to writing, things aren’t so simple.
Right or Wrong?
Despite what your English teacher may have told you, the singular they has never actually been wrong. It’s another zombie rule, like never ending a sentence with a preposition.
However, there are a lot of people in the publishing world who don’t like it. Therefore, many style guides advise against its use. But it’s a matter of style, not correctness.
Though the singular they is usually accepted in informal writing and is gaining ground even in formal writing, a lot depends on what style guide you’re following, and many publishers have their own set of rules you’ll have to follow.
Chicago style allows for the use of they to refer to a single person but advises caution in using it in formal writing because many readers in certain spheres view it as a sign of a lack of education.
The point is to know your readers and the rules you’re expected to follow and be intentional with your word choices.
The rules for fiction tend to be a lot looser than those for nonfiction, and if you’re self-publishing, you can make up your own. But whatever you choose, be intentional and be consistent.
If you choose to use the singular they in your writing, decide what the rules surrounding that are.
Generally, the verb following they is plural (they are vs. they is), the same as with you, but just make sure you don’t switch back and forth. Readers will generally forgive a lot as long as you’re consistent and intentional.
Also, themselves is the more common reflexive form, but some people prefer themself when referring to a single person.
These are all decisions that need to be made and noted on your style sheet.
Rebecca Miller is a professional copyeditor and general fan of all things having to do with the written word and the English language.
You can check out her website at Oakdale Editing or connect through Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram, or Email.
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Rebecca has a passion for helping you fill the world with great literature and making sure said literature doesn't get passed over for the lack of a little editing.