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The Singular “They” | (B-Level, Intermediate)

When to Use It and How to Avoid It

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What is a Singular “They?”

Usually, personal pronoun “they” (and its other forms “them,” “their," “theirs," “themselves”) refers back to a plural noun or pronoun. In this example, “they,” “them,” and “themselves” refer back to the plural noun “children:”

I was angry with my children because, when I saw them after work, they had hurt themselves playing with matches.

Nonetheless, in some situations “they” can refer back to a singular noun or pronoun. This is referred to as the singular “they.”

”They” referring back to a singular noun

In these sentences, “they” refers back to singular nouns or pronouns (a student, every student, someone, anyone). These are good examples of the singular “they.”

If anyone calls, please tell them I will return their calls on Monday.

Whenever someone needs help with their schoolwork, they can see a tutor.

I advised every student to complete their homework on their own.

Anyone completing their coursework with an A average should be proud of themselves.

Avoiding Sexist Language

One of the reasons the singular “they” is used in the above examples is that the noun in it refers to in each sentence is singular and genderless.

In some cases, you do not know the gender of a person or their gender is unimportant. The singular “they” works well in these situations.


”He or She” or “She or He"

To avoid sexist language and keep the noun singular (for example, when referring to “anyone” or “a student"), you can use “he or she” (well, or “she or he”) as in, for example,

If anyone calls me, tell him or her I will return their call on Monday.

When a student completes a course with high grades, he or she can be proud of himself or herself.

You can see that using “he or she” (”him or her” or “his or her" or “himself or herself" and so on) can get repetitive and awkward. That is why people prefer to use “they” even when it refers back to a singular noun or pronoun.

Is the Singular “They” Grammatical?

The singular “they” is not new in the language. It was part of spoken and written English in the 1300s.

At some point, grammarians (probably purists) decided that using a plural pronoun to refer to a single noun was incorrect. (Changes do happen over time in what grammarians consider grammatical or ungrammatical.)


Currently, more and more publishers and grammarians have come to accept it as part of standard grammar (again) especially because it allows speakers and writers to avoid the repetitive and awkward “he or she” or “she or he.”

Avoiding the Singular “They”

If for whatever reason you want to or need to avoid using the singular “they,” you can use one of the strategies below.

Strategy: Change the Noun or Pronoun to Plural

Do Not Say


Each student has his or her own book.

Students have their own books.

If anyone calls, tell them I’ll be back tomorrow.

If any clients call, tell them I’ll be back tomorrow.

No one can bring their phones into the examination room.

Test takers cannot bring their phones into the examination room.

Strategy: Rewrite the Sentence

Do Not Say


Anyone who is going with us needs to bring their own food.

Those interested in going with us need to bring their own food.

If you are going with us, you need to bring your own food.

If anyone calls, tell them I’ll be back tomorrow.

Tell any callers that I’ll be back tomorrow.

No one can bring their phones into the examination room.

Phones are not allowed in the examination room.

Note. Using “you” as a pronoun to avoid the singular “they” can potentially create a new issue if if you are instructed to avoid the impersonal “you” in your writing.


If you are required to follow a grammar and style manual, be sure that the singular “they” is acceptable. Otherwise, avoid it so you are in compliance.

Similarly, if you are a college student, ask your instructors whether they find the singular “they” acceptable or not. Even though style manuals such as APA, MLA, and Chicago endorse the singular “they” so that you avoid making assumptions about gender (e.g., see MLA Style Center), some (old guard) college professors may still instruct and require you not to use it. If so, use one of the techniques in this lesson to revise or rewrite sentences. (See “Practice” below.


Practice 1. Practice revising sentences to remove the singular “they”.

Congratulations on completing this lesson!

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