Can ‘they’ be singular?

Posted on 21 April 2015 by Lucy Gregory

 
We’re faced with an odd situation in English: there’s no gender-neutral way to describe a person. Folk never used to worry about this; it was standard to treat every unknown person as male:

Anyone who was awarded a bonus last month should expect the money in his bank account this Friday.

Around the 1960s it came to the attention of anyone with a brain that over 50% of the population is not male, that women are relevant, and that it’s somewhat offensive to either discount us or change our gender for the sake of a grammatical nicety. The proposed solution was to use he or she, his or her, along with he/she, she/he and s/he:

Anyone who was awarded a bonus last week should expect the money in his or her bank account this Friday.

These options are more politically correct, although they don’t allow for people of undefined gender. They’re also distracting when used repeatedly in one document. So their popularity has waned and they’re now the exception, rather than the rule.

Back to the drawing board.

One option is to rephrase your sentence and eliminate the problem altogether.

Anyone who was awarded a bonus last week should receive the money this Friday.

If you were awarded a bonus last week, expect the money in your bank account this Friday.

But sometimes this isn’t possible or your new sentence sounds even weirder than the original:

Any person who was awarded a bonus last week should expect the money in that person’s bank account this Friday.

If you can’t rephrase the sentence, it seems your only option is to use they, them or their as singular:

Anyone who was awarded a bonus last week should expect the money in their bank account this Friday.

The grammar pedants hate it, of course, but they haven’t come up with a satisfactory alternative. And, as it turns out, this isn’t some horrible fad of the twenty-first century; Chaucer, Shakespeare and Jane Austen all used they in the singular. (You might want to mention this when encountering an enraged grammar pedant.)

So, in summary, they can be singular. It’s the least bad option, and it’s been used by some pretty important writers in the last thousand years.