Native English speakers use the singular they all the time in conversation. For example, you might hear this: “Ooh, someone left a cookie; I hope they don’t mind if I eat it.” Similarly, you might notice sentences such as “Should each professor do their own grading?” This is normal speech, and normal — casual — writing, but is it correct?
- Every student needs to pick up his or her essay so he or she can correct it.
- This is his or her coat; did he or she leave already? We should tell him or her.
- Every time I lecture, at least one person is always on his cellphone.
We live in a time when writing “he / she,” “he or she,” and “s / he” has become increasingly awkward and cumbersome. Saying “Did they leave already?” to refer to an unknown person is fine; that’s how we already speak. As we collectively transition toward more gender-neutral writing, dictionaries and grammar guides are slowly adopting this usage. The Chicago Manual of Style recommends avoiding singular they in formal writing, but now offers guidance for its use with someone who doesn’t identify with a gender-specific pronoun. If you are writing for a publication that relies on a specific style guide, investigate that style guide’s advice.
MORE TO KNOW
Singular they was already in place by the 1300s; it became “incorrect” only about 600 years later. Similarly, the use of he to refer to every individual, male or female, occurred by the late 1800s and is totally inappropriate. Because we are actively modifying the usage of this pronoun, formal writers can simply pluralize the noun until every grammar guide allows the singular they: Students need to pick up their essays.