Are the Pronouns They and Them Ever Singular?

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  • Nancy Tuten

    20 August 2017

    Are the Pronouns They and Them Ever Singular?

    The pronouns in the following sentences are problematic:

    1. Everyone came to our office party and brought their favorite dessert.
    2. Each employee has to sign their annual evaluation and return it by December 31.
    3. Someone forgot to lock the front door last night when they left the building.
    4. Anyone who has worked for the company for at least six months is eligible for retirement benefits, but they have to complete the appropriate forms.

    All of these sentences use a plural personal pronoun (namely, they and their) to refer to a singular antecedent.

    The antecedents (everyone, each, someone, and anyone) are indefinite pronouns, so called because they do not refer to a specific person, place, or thing. All of these indefinite pronouns are singular and take a singular verb.

    Until very recently, we would have further advised that the pronouns referring to singular indefinite pronouns should also be singular. The problem, however, is that in English we do not have a singular third-person pronoun that does not reinforce the gender binary.

    The traditional way to correct the sentences above would have been to replace the plural personal pronouns with their singular counterparts:

    1. EVERYONE came to our office party and brought HIS OR HER favorite dessert.
    2. EACH employee has to sign HER OR HIS annual evaluation and return it by December 31.
    3. SOMEONE forgot to lock the front door last night when HE OR SHE left the building.
    4. ANYONE who has worked for the company for at least six months is eligible for retirement benefits, but SHE OR HE HAS to complete the appropriate forms.

    But since the frequent use of the phrase “he or she” is awkward and wordy, we can write a better sentence by avoiding the singular antecedent if possible or by avoiding the use of a pronoun later in the sentence. Here are some examples:

    1. Everyone came to our office party and brought a favorite dessert.
    2. Someone forgot to lock the front door last night when leaving the building.
    3. Anyone who has worked for the company for at least six months is eligible for retirement benefits but must first complete the appropriate forms.

    Notice that sentence 2 poses a more difficult quandary: it would not make sense to say, “EACH employee has to sign AN annual evaluation and return it by December 31” because we then suggest that the employees do not have to sign their own evaluations.

    One option is to change the singular pronoun each to the plural all:

    ALL employees have to sign THEIR annual evaluations and return them by December 31.

    But the image conveyed to the reader is not quite as precise as when we use the singular pronouns. The fact is that each individual employee must sign his or her own evaluation; the activity cannot logically be performed by the group acting together.

    Webster’s, as well as many other sources, notes that using they to refer to singular indefinite pronouns is not new, and can be traced back for centuries.  Both the New York Times and the Associated Press began allowing the use of the singular they in 2017, as explained in this interesting article.

    Here is a list of third-person, singular indefinite pronouns:

    anyone

    anybody

    anything

    everyone

    everybody

    everything

    someone

    somebody

    something

    no one

    nobody

    nothing

    each

    every

    one

    either

    neither

    TEST YOURSELF: How might each of these sentences be improved?
    1. Everybody is leaving work early to be home with their families for a long weekend.
    2. Neither of the books has writing in their margins.
    3. Each of the players on the softball team has to wash their uniform between games.
    POSSIBLE ANSWERS (answers may vary)
    1. ALL EMPLOYEES are leaving work early to be home with their families for a long weekend. [changed the singular everybody to the plural all employees and kept the plural their]OR: All employees are leaving work early for a long weekend of family time at home.
    2. Neither of the books has writing in ITS margins. [OR. . . in THE margins.]
    3. If we know the players are all female (or all male), we could write “Each of the players on the softball team has to wash HER (or HIS) uniform between games.” But if we are uncertain about the gender of the players or if the team is coed, we might write “EACH of the players on the softball team has to wash HIS OR HER uniform between games,” but that option reinforces the gender binary and ignores the reality that many people do not regard themselves as either male or female. A better option, then, might be to say “ALL of the players on the softball team have to wash THEIR uniforms between games.” The latter choice, however, is not as precise as the former because it fails to present the picture of each player washing that player’s own individual uniform. The best choice, then, is probably to use the singular they, as in the original sentence above.

    Copyright 2001 Get It Write. Revised 2018.