Using “they” or “them” as singular pronouns to refer to an individual is nothing new; but it’s difficult for some to grasp this deviation from traditional grammar rules. Learn what it means to use they/them pronouns and see how easy it is to start using the singular “they” when needed.
Using They/Them Pronouns for a Singular Person
What Does It Mean to Use They/Them Pronouns?
Using they/them pronouns refers to the choice of being called “they” instead of “he” or “she” and “them” instead of “her” or “him.” A person who doesn’t identify as a boy, girl, man, or woman sometimes wants a nonbinary pronoun used in place of their name.
Why Do People Use They/Them Singular Pronouns?
People have been using “they” as a singular pronoun since the late 1300s for a variety of reasons. The best way to find out why someone uses they/them as a singular pronoun is to ask the person using those pronouns. The use of they/them as singular pronouns can have different meanings to different people.
How to Use They/Them Singular Pronouns
Using “they” and “them” as singular pronouns is simple; it just takes a little retraining of the brain. Before you use “they” or “them” as the pronoun for a person, you should make sure they want you to use that pronoun to describe them.
While “they” pronouns describe a single person, you still conjugate the verb as you would with the plural use of “they” in a sentence.
Replacing He and She With They
Anywhere you’d use “he” or “she,” replace it with “they.” For example:
She always has the best shoes.
They always have the best shoes.
I can’t believe he got caught stealing.
I can’t believe they got caught stealing.
She wrote that poem in second grade.
They wrote that poem in second grade
He is cooking dinner right now.
They are cooking dinner right now.
Replacing Her and Him With Them
Anywhere you’d use “her,” besides the possessive form, or “him,” replace it with “them.” For example:
I can’t believe you like him.
I can’t believe you like them.
You have to choose between her and me.
You have to choose between them and me.
Replacing Her and His With Their
Anywhere you’d use “her” in the possessive sense or “his,” replace it with “their.” For example:
Do you think he will let me borrow his car?
Do you think they will let me borrow their car?
You just ruined her favorite sweater.
You just ruined their favorite sweater.
Using Themself and Themselves
Anywhere you’d use “himself” or “herself,” you can use “themself” or “themselves” instead. Some people will have a preference for using either “themself” or “themselves.” For example:
She can use the toaster herself.
They can use the toaster themself.
He only has himself to blame.
They only have themselves to blame.
Official Use of They/Them Singular Pronouns
When you are writing professionally or formally, you follow certain style guidelines. Recent changes have allowed the use of they/them pronouns in the singular form for most styles.
In 2017, the AP Stylebook was updated to include the use of they/them as singular pronouns. However, the new guideline suggests you try to reword a sentence rather than use they/them whenever possible.
The 2017 edition of The Chicago Manual of Style also included sanctioned use of they/them pronouns for a singular person. They/them should always be used with Chicago style when a person requests this pronoun for writing about themself. The style guide suggests you can use “they” to replace a generic use of “he,” but you should try to use other unbiased language strategies first.
The 8th Edition MLA Handbook goes a step further than other style guides and encourages use of they/them to replace the generic “he” or “she.” Like Chicago style, MLA guidelines indicate you should always use a person’s preferred pronouns when speaking about them.
The 7th Edition APA Publication Manual goes even further than the other main styles. According to APA style:
Always use “they” if it is a person’s self-identified pronoun.
Always use “they” for a generic third person singular pronoun.
Don’t ever use “(s)he” or “s/he.”
Merriam-Webster Word of the Year
Dictionary giant Merriam-Webster made “they” their word of the year in 2019. Data about how often words are looked up drives the Word of the Year pick for Merriam-Webster.
What Is a Pronoun?
A pronoun is a word that can replace a noun in a sentence. There are different types of pronouns you might use.
A singular pronoun is a word that replaces a noun describing an individual person, place or thing.
Personal pronouns specifically replace the names of people, places or things.
A subject pronoun is a type of personal pronoun that replaces the subject in a sentence.
An object pronoun replaces a noun that is the object in a sentence.
As a social norm throughout history, people have been grouped in a binary system that accounts for two genders: male and female. The standard subject pronoun for males is traditionally “he” and the subject pronoun for women is “she.”
Singular They/Them in the Modern World
The use of binary pronouns is often considered sexist language in the modern world. You can explore more ways to remove gender from your language by learning a few gender-neutral terms to replace classic gendered terms.