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by Mark Israel
[This is a fast-access FAQ excerpt.]
"Singular 'they'" is the name generally given to the use of
"they", "them", "their", or "theirs" with a singular antecedent such
as "someone" or "everyone", as in "Everyone was blowing their nose."
(It does not refer to the use of singular verbs in such mock-
illiterate sentences as "Them's the breaks" and "Them as has,
gets." Any verb agreeing with a singular "they" is plural:
"Someone killed him, and they are going to pay for it.")
Singular "they" has been used in English since the time of
Chaucer. Prescriptive grammarians have traditionally (since 1746,
although the actual practice goes right back to 1200) prescribed
"he": "Everyone was blowing his nose." In 1926, Fowler wrote
that singular "they" had an "old-fashioned sound [...]; few good
modern writers would flout the grammarians so conspicuously." But
in recent decades, singular "they" has gained popularity as a result
of the move towards gender-neutral language.
For a defence of singular "they", with examples from Shakespeare,
Jane Austen, and others, see Henry Churchyard's page [...].
[On 15 July 1999 Henry Churchyard made the following
announcement: My "Singular their" page has moved [...] to
the mirror is still in place at
But note that
not all of us are as keen on singular "they" as Henry is. Asked to
fill in the blank in sentences such as "A patient who doesn't
accurately report ___ sexual history to the doctor runs the risk of
misdiagnosis", only 3% of AHD3's usage panel chose "their". AHD3's
usage note says: "this solution ignores a persistent intuition
that expressions such as everyone and each student should in
fact be treated as grammatically singular." An example from Fowler
wittily demonstrates how singular "they" never seems to agree
perfectly: "Everyone was blowing their nose"? "Everyone was
blowing their noses"? "Everyone were blowing their noses"?
Proposals for other gender-neutral pronouns get made from time to
time, and some can be found in actual use ("sie" and "hir" are the
ones most frequently found on Usenet). Cecil Adams, in Return of
the Straight Dope (Ballantine, 1994, ISBN 0-345-38111-4), says that
some eighty such terms have been proposed, the first of them in the
1850s. John Chao (firstname.lastname@example.org) was constructing a long FAQ
on this topic: [...]
[Some remarks about John Chao's work with gender-neutral
pronouns are at
John Chao's FAQ on gender-neutral pronouns is at
Discussions about gender-neutral pronouns tend to go round and
round and never reach a conclusion. Please refrain.
(We also get disputes about the use of the word "gender" in the
sense of "sex", i.e., of whether a human being is male or female.
This also dates from the 14th century. By 1900 it was restricted
to jocular use, but it has now been revived because of the "sexual
relations" sense of "sex".)