According to The Chicago Manual of Style, they, as a gender-neutral pronoun referencing an individual, was chosen in 2015 as the American Dialect Society’s Word of the Year.
When I first learned about pronouns, a singular antecedent always required a singular pronoun: “Beth brought her laptop to class.” However, some individuals prefer they as their individual pronoun, making the “always” part of the rule I learned inaccurate: “Devin brought their laptop to class.”
Gender-Neutral, Singular “They”
Unlike he and she, they (thus their and them) is considered a gender-neutral pronoun. In fact, I once had a couple of college classmates who preferred they as their pronouns. One of them even offered our editing class a list of pronouns I’d never heard of called “neopronouns.” As well, this individual encouraged the class to include preferred pronouns in our social media profiles. Doing so would help normalize the practice. For instance, a heteronormative female’s Twitter profile could read, “Wife, mother, writer, she/her,” while the profile of a nonbinary, genetically female individual might say, “Spouse, parent, writer, they/them.”
CMS’s Take on the issue
The Chicago Manual of Style (17th ed.) states in Section 5.48 that writers should respect an individual’s pronoun preference, even when writing formal works. However, regarding such works, CMS prefers we not use they as a substitute for he or she when referring to a nongendered noun, such as teacher, doctor, nurse, etc.
Which Style, which Verb
The practice of replacing he or she with they to describe an unspecified-gender noun is becoming more and more acceptable, but some style books may be more flexible than others. CMS advises us to only use they as a singular pronoun in formal writing if we’re certain this is our subject’s preference, in which case the singular they would still require the plural form of a verb.
Know Your Style
Refer to the style book guiding your formatting and editing–for example, AP (Associated Press), MLA (Modern Language Association of America), APA (American Psychology Association), or AMA (American Medical Association). Some may be fine with replacing they for he or she in a formal work. I’m not sure if all tackle the issue, but it’s worth a look.
Tip: When in doubt, avoid using nongendered pronouns unless your work dictates it. As well, avoid using gendered pronouns (he/she) if unsure which your subject prefers.
If using they as a pronoun for an individual, take care to avoid confusion. Make sure the pronoun’s antecedent is clear. If done right, a reader will figure out, if they don’t already know, that your subject prefers they as a pronoun.
Readers should also readily grasp whether or not you’re using they as a singular, nongendered pronoun to replace gendered (he/she) pronouns that reference nongendered nouns, such as teacher. Clear relationships between pronouns and antecedents facilitate reading flow and comprehension.
Warning: If your subject prefers they, but you also use that pronoun to specify a nongendered noun or to reference a plural antecedent, clarity can suffer.
Original: “When two classmates offered Chelsea a critique of their work, they were a little offended by the constructive criticism.”
*Problems with this original sentence: Their could refer to Chelsea–being the closest noun, Chelsea is the antecedent. However, because two classmates offered Chelsea a critique, and readers might not know that Chelsea’s pronoun is their, the read is confusing. “Their” could read as an error.
Rephrase 1: “Two classmates critiqued the short story written by Chelsea, who felt a little offended by their peers’ constructive criticism.”
*Readers still might not get that Chelsea prefers the noted pronoun. Try replacing their peers’ with the, as I’ve done below:
Rephrase 2: “Two classmates critiqued the short story written by Chelsea, who felt a little offended by the constructive criticism.”
Although I like action verbs, the passive works here. “Written by” allows me to add important information to the statement without using a pronoun. Which leads me to . . .
I have found that they as an nongendered, singular pronoun can fog up clarity. Whether you’re confused about pronouns or just want to avoid them for whatever reason, go ahead and nix the pronouns. You may even end up with a more concise sentence.
Original: “A teacher who tends to yell at his class should consider how his yelling affects his students.”
Rephrase without pronouns: “A teacher should consider the effects of yelling at students before doing it.”
*The above statement leaves the gender of the teacher up to the imagination of the reader. This is okay because gender is irrelevant to the point.
Original: “Devin brought their computer to class.”
*How does the reader know that Devin uses the their pronoun? Some readers might assume that Devin brought a borrowed laptop to class that belonged to two or more people, such as a set of siblings.
Rephrase: “Today, Devin came into class with a laptop.”
in conclusion . . .
Details matter in writing. If a person’s choice of pronoun is they, writers should respect that by using the pronoun appropriately. However, because many writers now use they to replace the generic he or she (for a noun whose gender is not specified), it’s more important than ever to make sure the antecedent of they is clear. Leave no room for doubt. Otherwise, your work’s message could get lost.