The use of the singular ‘they’ to avoid using the generic ‘he’ or alternative usages such as ‘he and she’ or ‘h/she’ is not new and is now widely accepted. (The singular they includes ‘them’ and ‘their’.)
‘The person is entitled to have an alternative address substituted for their usual residential address if:
(a) their name, but not their residential address, is on an electoral roll…’
Corporations Act 2001
‘God send everyone their heart’s desire.’
‘But how can you talk with a person if they always say the same thing?’
Use the singular they with indefinite pronouns
The singular they is useful to refer back to indefinite pronouns (anyone, no one, nobody, someone) or phrases that start with words such as no, every, some.
Everyone washed their own dishes.
‘No American should ever live under a cloud of suspicion just because of what they look like.’
Barack Obama, 2012
Use the singular they with company names
In Australia and New Zealand, company names are treated as singular, but it is now acceptable to use the singular they in the following instance.
Company A is concerned about bullying. They have introduced whistleblowing policies.
Use the singular they to avoid gender
You may not wish to divulge the gender of the person you’re writing about or it may be irrelevant.
My friend passed on the information. They gave it to me in confidence.
The journalist confirmed that their source was reputable.
Ways to avoid the singular they
Since not everyone likes the singular they, you may want to avoid it or rephrase your sentence. Some suggestions are:
- Use the plural
A worker must sign their timesheet.
Workers must sign their timesheets.
- Change the pronoun to an article
A worker must sign their timesheet at the end of the day.
Workers must sign a timesheet at the end of the day.
- Repeat the noun
The worker signed the timesheet. Then the worker re-entered the building without signing in.
- Omit the pronoun
The writer should avoid the passive when they are rewriting.
The writer should avoid the passive when rewriting.
- Use ‘who’ instead of a pronoun
The company may not employ a person if they cannot write well.
The company may not employ a person who cannot write well.
The Commonwealth Attorney-General’s Department, as part of its Corporations Law Simplification Program, set up a Simplification Task Force to examine various drafting issues. In September 1995 this task force produced a paper entitled ‘A singular use of THEY’, which is reproduced here. It gives the history of the singular they and quotes some literary examples.
Neal Whitman covers some do’s and don’ts for the singular they.
The Chicago Manual of Style, 16th edn, University of Chicago, 2010.
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