Singular 'They': Understanding the Usage of Singular 'They' in English (Examples)

By Carly Forsaith, updated on June 8, 2023

If you're wondering about the use of 'they' as a singular pronoun, you've come to the right place. In this article, you'll learn when it's appropriate to use and how to make it work with the rest of your sentence.

In short:

  • The singular 'they' can be used in two instances: to refer to a generic person whose gender is unknown or kept hidden and to refer to a specific person who's chosen 'they' as one of their preferred pronouns.

This guide is part of our free online Grammar Book.

Pronouns and the Singular 'They'

Personal pronouns are used in place of the subject's name in order to avoid repetition or when it's unknown.

There are eight personal pronouns:

  • I
    First-person singular
  • You
    Second person singular
  • He, she, it
    Third person singular
  • We
    First-person plural
  • You
    Second person plural
  • They
    Third person plural

That last one ('they') is also used as a third-person singular pronoun, just like 'he,' 'she,' and 'it.' But it isn't the same as any of those, and yet it isn't precisely a third-person singular pronoun either because the grammar around it should be adapted to match that of the plural pronouns.

  • So it's a bit of a mixture of the two, a hybrid, if you will.
  • It's a third-person plural pronoun with a singular meaning.

This article will focus on the usage of 'they'—and its related pronouns and determiners, them, their, theirs, and themselves—as singular pronouns.

Singular 'They' to Avoid Revealing the Person's Gender

The first instance where you can use 'they' with a singular meaning is to refer to a person whose gender you don't want to reveal.

This could be:

  • a specific person whose gender is unknown
  • a particular person whose gender is voluntarily withheld
  • a generic person to represent a part of the population

You might ask, why would you want to keep someone's identity secret? It could be several reasons. It might be because it's irrelevant; you want to keep their identity private or avoid gender bias.

Here are some examples of sentences that use 'they' in a singular way:

I don't know who got me for Secret Santa but they are going to have a tough time finding me a gift I'll like. 

My most recent client is very famous; I wish I could tell you who they are but I'm sworn to secrecy!

If you ask an 18-year-old nowadays if they know what a DVD is, they're most likely to answer 'no.'

Can you call the client and ask them if they want to have lunch at 1 pm?

If someone wanted it, it would be theirs for the taking.

Once upon a time, it was customary to use 'he/she' in these contexts, but this is now considered clunky and non-inclusive.

The APA Style Guide advises against using 'he/she' or combination forms such as '(s)he' and 's/he' as generic third-person singular pronouns unless you know these pronouns are the person's preferred pronouns.

They state:

Use of the singular “they” is endorsed as part of APA Style because it is inclusive of all people and helps writers avoid making assumptions about gender. Although usage of the singular “they” was once discouraged in academic writing, many advocacy groups and publishers have accepted and endorsed it.

Singular 'They' for Specific People

You can also use 'they' as a singular pronoun to refer to a person who does not identify as male or female (non-binary) and/or has stated that 'they' is one of their preferred pronouns.

Here are some examples of 'they' being used in this way:

Why don't you ask Sally? They're right there.

Ben and I are an item. They asked me last night to be their girlfriend.

I tried to help John but they said they wanted to do it themselves.

Note that not everyone who is non-binary chooses to use 'they' as their pronoun, so don't just assume that someone who is non-binary prefers that specific pronoun. Check with them first, and if in doubt, reword the sentence so you don't need to use a pronoun.

For example:

They're getting here at 9 pm.

Ashley's getting here at 9 pm.

Subject-Verb Agreement

It's essential to ensure the verb form matches the subject when making sentences. I.e., when the subject is plural, the verb should be, too.

Here are some sentences with correct subject-verb agreement:

I am feeling under the weather today. 

Many people are starting to realize the benefits of meditation.

My son thinks he is Superman.

Here are some sentences with incorrect subject-verb agreement:

Josie and Helen lives together. 

My dog bark quite a lot. ❌

Tennis are my favorite sport.

So you use plural verb conjugation with plural pronouns and singular verb conjugation with singular pronouns. So far, so good. But what should you do with the pronoun 'they' when used for singular purposes? Should you use singular verb conjugation or plural?

  • The answer is that you should use the plural form.
  • Any verb you use with the pronoun 'they,' whether used as a singular or plural pronoun, should be plural.

Here are some examples:

Ash just started at the organization. They are our new head of marketing.

I really appreciated Jamie's input; they always say interesting stuff.

You have to feel for George: they have the flu again!

Watch out, though! Sometimes the verb follows the person's first name instead of the personal pronoun 'they,' in which case you would revert back to singular verb conjugation.

For example:

Sara Ramirez often uses their Instagram as a platform for justice.

Does this seem a little odd to you? Does it sound weird? If so, think about the pronoun 'you.' It can also be both singular and plural, just like 'they.'

Concluding Thoughts

That concludes this article on the singular 'they.' I hope you found it helpful. Let's summarize what we've learned:

  • You can use the singular 'they' to refer to a person whose gender is unknown or if you want to keep it hidden purposely. You can also use it to refer to a generic person.
  • The singular 'you' is also used to talk about a person who's stated that 'they' is one of their preferred pronouns.
  • 'You' is another example of a pronoun that is both singular and plural.

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Written By:
Carly Forsaith
Carly Forsaith is one of the lead freelance writers for Carly is a copywriter who has been writing about the English language for over 3 years. Before that, she was a teacher in Thailand, helping people learn English as a second language. She is a total grammar nerd and spends her time spotting language errors on signs and on the internet.

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