Using ‘they’ and ‘them’ in the singular
Every employee is expected to be at their desk by 9.00.
This is an example of what is often referred to as ‘singular they’.
The grammatical subject—every employee—is singular, as is the verb is expected, but the following pronoun, their, is plural. Hence the name. It happens when they, them, their, and themselves refer back to subjects that are grammatically singular:
It was every teen for themselves.
When does it happen?
This construction often occurs after words such as:
- nobody/no one
that are used to make indefinite or general statements, without specifying the individual concerned.
Each and every one of my colleagues at the university will express their own opinion.
I feel that if someone is not doing their job it should be called to their attention.
Everyone was absorbed in their own business.
Nobody wants to return to the car park and find that their car has been clamped.
Why do people use it?
At first glance, such mismatches appear to flout the normal rules of agreement, and that is why many people object to them. However, many of these words, for example everyone, can be thought of as plural in meaning, albeit grammatically singular, so semantically there is not really a mismatch.
Additionally, the practical reason that people often use this form of words is if you are referring to someone of an unknown gender, to use he, him, his, etc. is nowadays considered sexist. Using them, they, or their is a way to avoid making an assumption of gender as there is no gender explicit in these pronouns. Find out more about gender-neutral language. Second, people prefer not to use he or she, him or her, etc. because they are long-winded and can be distracting, especially if they have to be repeated several times in the same sentence or paragraph.
Is it grammatically correct?
Despite objections, there is a trend to use ‘singular they’. In fact, it is historically long established. It goes back at least to the 14th century, and writers such as Shakespeare, Sidney, Byron, and Ruskin used it:
There's not a man I meet but doth salute me
As if I were their well-acquainted friend (Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors)
You was a plural pronoun before it became acceptable to use it to refer to a singular person. You replaced thy/thee/thou as the singular pronoun during the 1600s. The form existed in speech before it was written down, and similarly, speakers using singular they have paved the way for approval.
According to "A brief history of singular 'they'", "The New Oxford Dictionary of English (1998) not only accepts singular they, they also use the form in their definitions. And the New Oxford American Dictionary (Third Edition, 2010), calls singular they ‘generally accepted’ with indefinites, and ‘now common but less widely accepted’ with definite nouns, especially in formal contexts."
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