Pronouns and Neo Pronouns

What is “singular they”?

“Singular they” refers to the use of the pronoun they, them, or their to refer to a singular noun. Singular they has been used for centuries; its first known written use was in the 1300s. Singular they has also been used by Chaucer and Shakespeare.

You already use singular they

Singular they is already used nearly universally in any case where you need to refer to someone but don’t know that person’s gender. For example:

“Oh no! Someone left their phone on the table!”

“I’ll keep it behind the register in case they come back.”

Is singular they grammatically incorrect?

A portrait of William Shakespeare

While singular they has been in use since the 1300s, people didn’t start arguing against its use until the mid 1800s, claiming that singular they was grammatically incorrect – the argument that is still most often used today. However, use of singular they is accepted by all of the major writing style guidelines, including MLA, APA, Chicago Manual of Style, and the Associated Press Stylebook.

Singular they was also named Word Of The Year in 2015 by the American Dialect Society and in 2020 by Merriam-Webster. In 2020, the ADS also named it Word of the Decade for the 2010s.

Given the overwhelming consensus, arguments against the correctness of singular they are clearly nothing more than a disingenuous attempt to make transphobia sound reasonable.

Usage Examples

Still confused about proper use? Here are some examples:

  • Subjective: They are my teacher.”
  • Objective: “I saw them outside.”
  • Possessive: “What is their name?” or “That coat is theirs.”

In addition to singular they, some non-binary people use neopronouns – a category of new (neo) pronouns that are increasingly used in place of “she,” “he,” or  “they” when referring to a person, such as fae/fem/faer or xe/xem/xyr:

A chart with some examples of neopronouns

Respecting people’s pronouns

If someone tells you their correct pronouns, always use those pronouns to refer to them, even (and especially!) when they’re not around. And if someone uses incorrect pronouns to refer to someone, briefly correct them. (“Aspen uses they”). 

Further, always use those pronouns, even if you are telling a story about a trans person from before they changed their name and/or pronouns.