Singular They: Acceptable or Unacceptable?

the use of "they" as a singular pronoun
I’m downright militant about the use of they as a singular pronoun in formal writing. When I started teaching in 1990, I used to tease the grammar queens in our department. They all but whacked kids in the knuckles for using a plural pronoun to refer to one person. It’s plural. It’s nominative. These things don’t change. End of story.
Nope. Not anymore.

Here’s the historical grammar behind the singular they:

THEY is a plural nominative personal pronoun. It has two positions in a sentence, as the subject or as the predicate nominative.
They are my sisters. (They is the subject of the sentence.)
The recipients of award were they. (They is the predicate nominative, basically a noun or pronoun that appears in the predicate after a linking verb and renames the subject of the sentence. In this case. They renames recipients.)

Language Evolves.

If that second example made you cock your head like a dog, it’s because LANGUAGE EVOLVES. People rarely–even in academic writing–use THEY in this way. We more often put THEM in the nominative position. For example, someone might say, “I’m not sure which family is next. I think it’s them.” That example hurts on two fronts: 1. In American English, “family” is singular when the group of people is acting as a unit, so if my parents and I are doing the same thing at the same time, we’re technically an “it.” But ew. What a sentence that would make.  2. The word THEM is always objective in that it appears as the object of something, like a preposition or a verb.  For example, in The cake is for them., them is the object of the preposition for. It is plural. Forever and ever amen.                                                                                                                           


According to the APA, in the sentence The cake is for them., them can refer to one person. Merriam-Webster’s made the call a couple of years ago, and “they” can be singular. MLA? Not so much. The Modern Language Association is sticking to its guns on the whole singular/plural issue.  

As an English teacher, I have a few choices.

  • 1. Retain my militant stance and risk excluding a non-binary student.
  • 2. Teach the historical grammar rule, explain the evolution of language, and let individual students decide for themselves where to fall.
  • 3. Turn the issue into a teachable moment and have my students design a debate. As a class, we decide.
  • 4. Discuss the issue with my department and come to consensus. Good luck on that one.
  • 5. Choose a style manual and follow its rule (See what I did there? Not their rule. Its rule.) If your school uses MLA, perhaps the decision is made for you.
  • 6. Teach students to code switch. In formal writing, stick with the historical rule. In casual spoken language, evolve.
  • 7. Have students recast their sentences. I used to teach that a student had three choices. Be sexist by referring to everyone with a generic he.
    Be grammatically incorrect by referring to a single person as they.
    Be awkward with something goofy like s/he or he or she.  

It doesn’t have to be that way. Here’s an UGLY sentence: Every person in our country needs to be able to justify himself or herself by following a moral code.

Clumsy, right? Let’s try to tidy it up without changing the meaning. Attempt #1: Every American should follow a moral code. Attempt #2: Every American is justified by a personal moral code.

Don’t want to go against Warriner’s? Don’t want to offend? Just do some reconfiguring, and the issue is resolved.


I’m a recovering high school English teacher and curriculum specialist with a passion for helping teachers leave school at school. I create engaging, rigorous curriculum resources for secondary ELA professionals, and I facilitate workshops to help those teachers implement the materials effectively.