Professionals in the writing industry are often considered sticklers for grammar rules; however, today’s Grammar Time is all about modern usage and why someone might choose to use the singular‘“they.”
Pronouns are an easy way to refer to the subject of a sentence without repeating the name too often. Singular pronouns generally reflect the gender of the subject, while plural pronouns like “they” and “their” are genderless. With modern usage, and because they aren’t limited to a gender, “they” and “their” are more and more commonly used as singular pronouns. How does this work?
Consider this sentence:
“If your child is struggling with math, a tutor can help him or her study for future tests.”
With the singular “they,” you could easily and correctly say the following:
“If your child is struggling with math, a tutor can help them study for future tests.”
Because the gender of the student doesn’t particularly matter here and it isn’t necessary to fully understand the meaning of the sentence, you can avoid potential wordiness by using “they/them.”
The singular pronoun “they/them” has also become a topic of discussion due to the rise of inclusive speech, which strives to be gender neutral when possible. A good example of this is using words like “flight attendant” rather than “stewardess” to signify that the job is something both men and women can perform, or another example is using “they” as a nifty way to satisfy a person’s preference if they’d rather not be referred to as a he or she. “They/them” is a good replacement if you want to refer to a professional without going the whole “him/her” route. Here’s an example:
“If you hire a plumber, he or she will give you a quote before he or she fixes your pipes.”
“If you hire a plumber, they will give you a quote before they fix your pipes.”
Note that the verb “fix” takes its plural form, rather than the singular “fixes” even though you’re talking about one plumber. Here, you’re talking about plumbers in general, so the meaning of the sentence is still clear and true.
The nature of this rule is a good example of how our language evolves around the people who use it. When you’re writing, just be sure to check whatever style guide or manual you have to use for your writing project. Some employers or style guides are more prescriptive than others and may still not allow the singular “they.”