When it comes to writing about sex, sexuality and gender, there are some easily confusable terms. This is the first in short series of blog posts looking at those easily confusable terms to help writers, editors and proofreaders understand the differences.
This blog post looks at the pronoun “they” when used in the singular.
As always, language is constantly evolving. This article is a simplified explanation of two easily confusable terms. As with all language relating to groups, there is much nuance and diversity in usage and that changes over time. If you spot an error in my explanations, please feel free to get in touch.
When it comes to writing the English language, there are plenty of rules to follow. For example, you have to agree on a singular pronoun when referring to one person or thing, and you have to agree on plural pronouns when referring to more than one person or thing. But there are some rules that aren’t really rules, like using singular they pronouns.
Gender nonconforming individuals and people who identify as neither male or female may use the singular they/them as their pronouns.
Gender vs. pronouns
Just because you can see someone’s gender (remembering it is different to sex), doesn’t mean you know their pronouns.
Note: I tend not to use the term “preferred pronouns” as this implies people have a choice or that how they choose to identify is a preference that can be chosen to be followed or not. If someone says they use he/his, she/her, they/them, or other pronouns, I’ll respect that.
How someone identifies is fundamental to them. Whatever pronouns someone chooses to use, we must respect that.
If you don’t know someone’s pronouns, it is perfectly acceptable to ask. “I just wanted to check, what pronouns do you use?”
Why is it a problem?
For many people, the idea of a singular “they” can cause some confusion.
I’ll make it clear: singular “they” is okay.
I could tell you about the history of it, how it’s been used for centuries and how it is a perfectly valid gender neutral pronoun. But that isn’t going to persuade some people. Unfortunately, there are still writers and editors who cannot see that “they” can refer to one person.
But by reading this blog post, I’m going to suggest that you are not one of them!
How do you use singular “they”?
If you are writing about a person who uses “they” as their pronoun, then yes, you have to use it. Respectful and inclusive language is important. And it’s part of APA Style.The APA style guide
Whether you are writing, editing or proofreading fiction or non-fiction, keeping pronouns consistent and authentic is very important.
The article from the APA goes on to remind us that even if “they” is being used in the singular, we should use plural verb forms afterwards. For instance, “they are” as opposed to “they is”.
Why does it matter?
I’ve lost count of the number of times I have reminded people that the singular “they” is perfectly acceptable. Annoyingly, it is often fellow editorial professionals I have to remind.
When you make corrections from singular “they”, you invalidate someone’s existence. That hurts them.
(If you change “they” to “he or she”, you are doing exactly the same, by the way. You are writing out some people.)
Some people use “they/them”. Stop editing it!
Nick (he/him) is an editor and proofreader, specialising in LGBTQ+ writing. He is an Intermediate Member of the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading and a member of PEN, the Professional Editors Network.
To find out more and to work with Nick, use the buttons above.
Receive my newsletter!