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'They' as a singular

Jim Richardson wrote to Dan Rodricks’ Midday program on National Grammr Day with a familiar quandary:

Here’s my dilemma. I’m always looking for another way to say “his or her” so that I don’t sound sexist: as in, “The patient should visit his or her physician.” While correct, it certainly sounds stilted. Sometimes I say “The patient should visit their physician,” but I’ve gotten varying opinions on the correctness of this form. What do your experts say?

Use their.

That baying sound you hear in the distance is the outraged howling from copy desks across the country. These are people who will tell you that you have three choices: (1) Use his in all instances, and polticial correctitude be damned. (2) Use his and her, no matter how awkward the resulting construction. (3) Convert everything to plurals, so that their can be used acceptably.

You can do any and all of these things, but you should have the option of they/their with a singular antecedent. This has been a common feature of English usage for centuries, and it has become so commonplace in British usage that no one there makes a fuss any longer. Now, I have at least one colleague who sputters, “I don’t care if Jane Austen used it; I’m not going to.” So if you choose to use the singular they, you must be bold, brave and resolute.

Should you require additional support — not that you’d dream of questioning my authority — Bryan Garner, prescriptivist, has called this usage “the most likely solution to the single biggest problem in sexist language,” and the descriptivists at Language Log hold the view that “in certain (not all) contexts, singular they is entirely standard and has been so for a very long time. Yet many people believe, passionately, that it is always wrong, because it offends ‘logic.’ ”

The only question is how long it will take people of my generation to give in or die before the usage becomes widely acceptable in American English. You can be one of the pioneers.



Posted by John McIntyre at 11:21 AM | | Comments (10)


What about alternating "his" and "her" for successive uses? "The patient should visit his physician. The physician should listen to her patient."

Or simply use her in all instances. Stay singular and remain, if not politically correct, at least not politically incorrect.

A year or two ago I gave in and started using "they" in the singular. What a relief! It's easy to use and only occasionally sounds awkward. There's no going back for me now.

I think the bigger challenge is in referring to non-human entities as "they." I see constructions such as, "Google is announcing updates to their mapping software" or "The FDA says they are doing their best to ensure food safety."

Any guidance in these situations, Mr. McIntyre? Thank you.

An agency or a corporation is an "it."

yes, thank you. Now I will continue to fight the good fight.

Wait, what about "varying opinions"? Do you think Mr. Richardson really meant that each (or any) of the opinions he heard varied, as if the person queried suffers from perpetual indecision?

Or am I misinformed about the correct usage of "varied" vs. "varying" (vs. "various")?

Personally I prefer saying "her or his." If somewhat awkward it is at least alphabetical.

This is a very helpful website on singular "they/their/them" with examples not only from Jane Austen but also many other respected writers of English through the ages.

It's a usage that's endorsed by the Oxford English Dictionary. One point to note, however: singular "they/their/them" doesn't feel intuitively grammatical to native speakers of English in all circumstances. It depends largely on how much information is available about the referent.

I was reading Garner's entry on sexism earlier this week, and while I noted his reference to "they/their" as "the ultimate solution to the problem" I was relieved to read before that declaration his suggestion that "the only course that does not risk damaging one's credibility is to write around the problem." He provides detailed advice on how to do just that. There are alternatives, and the reader comes first. First ask, what does she expect?

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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