They, Them, and Their
As a writer and editor, written English has always been a source of both joy and frustration. This is simply because it’s easy to make mistakes when we write. After all, English grammar doesn’t always “line up” perfectly.
One of the most common sources of confusion I encounter is the use of the pronoun “they.” I’d like to share some ideas that can help you understand why.
They, Them, and Their
Normally, the pronoun “they” is quite straightforward: it is a plural pronoun that refers to a group of people. For example, I could say “My parents joined me for dinner last night. They brought an apple pie for dessert!”
However, as the language has evolved, the pronoun itself has found a common new use as a singular pronoun.
This helps avoid the clunky “he or she” construction when referring to a single person whose gender is unknown. In fact, this is probably the main reason so many people use the word “they” so frequently. We don’t want our writing to sound sexist or to show gender preference, but we lack a “true” word to make this possible.
What Can I Do to Avoid Any Confusion?
The easiest way to avoid “they” confusion when writing is to keep everything plural. I’ve provided a couple of examples to show you what I mean:
Instead of Saying: A member (singular) must enter their password to login to our online portal.
Say This: Members (plural) must enter their password to login to our online portal.
Instead of Saying: When a conference attendee (singular) checks in, provide them with their badge and welcome package.
Say This: When conference attendees (plural) check in, provide them with their badge and welcome package.
This is a common and elegant solution. And, on top of that, it avoids any confusion for readers who may be looking for a plural noun to go with the plural pronoun.
Can “They” be Singular?
Yes! (Actually, it’s a bit more complicated than that…)
In 2017, two of the most common style guides used in the United States updated their entries regarding “they, them, and their.”
- The Associated Press (AP) suggests that plural pronouns should agree with plural nouns in most cases. However, “they” can be used (albeit in limited cases) as a singular or gender-neutral pronoun, especially when alternative wording is cumbersome.
- The Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS) makes a similar case – the word “they” most often refers to a plural noun, but can be used as a singular to avoid gender preference or to instill a more informal feel.
What Should I Do?
Let’s face it – English is a complicated language! Shaped by history, conquest, and shifting attitudes, our linguistic heritage is rife with many influences. This has shaped the way we speak, the way we think, and the way write.
When you write, keep an open mind and use your judgment to determine if words like “they, them, and their” could be confusing to your readers. Remember, one of your primary goals is to get your message across clearly. Having clear writing is one of the best ways to do this!