Skip to content Skip to footer

The Singular “They”

Last week’s newsletter broadly explained some differences between my trusty sixteenth edition of the Chicago Manual of Style and the seventeenth edition that arrives in September. I thought I’d mention a few specific updates in subsequent newsletters, starting with the singular they.

This CMOS Shop Talk Article discusses the singular they updates in depth, so I thought I’d share them with you. We writers and editors can get pretty excited about new grammar rules, and even if that doesn’t thrill you, it’s good to know about the changes.

Most of the time, we think of the word they as being a plural pronoun. However, there are two main instances in which they can have a singular meaning.

The first instance is when the word they is used as a substitute for the generic he.

“Does anyone want their pizza reheated?”

It is typical to use the word they or their rather than he or his in speech and informal writing. Until now, that usage has not been recommended for formal writing. The CMOS Seventeenth Edition “does not prohibit” the use of singular they in formal writing, though it does recommend against it and provides alternative options.

The other use of the singular they is when a writer refers to a specific person who does not identify with the gendered pronouns he or she. Although this usage is still not widespread, CMOS Seventeenth Edition now accepts it even in formal writing.

Finally, the new edition will allow for the use of either themself or themselves, depending on preference. For example, you can choose whether to write:

They blamed themself” or They blamed themselves.”

I’ll have to get used to that one.

But remember, even though you’re using they as a singular pronoun, you still need to include a plural verb:

“Their favorite color is blue.”
“They have a degree in molecular biology.”

To read a more thorough explanation of these updates, read the article on CMOS Shop Talk here and then weigh in. Let us know in the comments section below what you think about the use of they when referring to one person.

Leave a comment