English Language users, have in many generations, used “he/she” when referring to a person whose gender is not known. Of course, if the person is a male, the pronoun “he” takes care, and, if a female, “she” takes care. That’s how gender sensitivity has been ensured over the years, when a generic person is referred to in a context.
However, as English Language evolves and has seen transformation over and over again, the singular “they” has come to replace “he/she”. The APA in its seventh edition of the “Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association” has endorsed the use of “they” as a third person singular (Lee, 2019). “They” is a more genders sensitive usage as it refers to either “she” or “he”. It is more appropriate for referring to a generic person and is the most acceptable to be used in scholarly writings and formal speeches.
1. The student scored a grade they deserved.
NB: “The student” (a noun) is a person whose gender is unknown in the sentence. “They” (a pronoun) refers to this generic person.
Before APA endorsed the use of “they” as a third person singular pronoun, the same sentence would read:
“The student scored a grade ‘he/she’ deserved.”
2. The police officer is enjoying their ride.
NB: “The police officer” is a person whose gender is unknown or is irrelevant to the context. “Their” (a pronoun) refers to this generic person.
Formerly, it would read:
“The police officer is enjoying ‘his/her’ ride.
3. If any student defies my instructions, I will give them some strokes.
NB: “Them” refers to “any student”. The gender of the student is not known or is irrelevant to the context.
In the ‘archaic’ form, it would read:
“If any student defies my instructions, I will give ‘him/her’ some strokes.”
4. I treat each employee as if they are the best at their job.
NB: “Each employee” is a person whose gender is unknown or is irrelevant to the context. Both “they” and “their” refer to this generic person.
In the ‘archaic’ usage, it would read:
“I treat each employee as if ‘he/she’ is the best at ‘his/her’ job.”
It is important to note that in terms of concord or subject-verb agreement, even though the singular “they” functions as a third person singular pronoun, it agrees with a plural verb.
I want my student to prove that they ‘are’ (not ‘is) the best in the competition.
Even though in the ‘obsolete’ usage, it would read, “I want my student to prove that ‘he/she’ ‘is’ the best in the competition.”, “they” still would not take the singular verb “is”. The rule of concord in this respect is still intact.
Following from these illustrations, it is clear that the singular “they” has appropriately replaced “he/she” in contexts where a generic person or a person whose gender is unknown or is irrelevant is referred to. Do not be confused if you hear a speaker mention or a writer write “they” or “their” or “them”, where you expected to hear or read “he/she” or “his/her” or “him/her”. It is time you also adopted the modern usage.
Lee, C. (2019). Welcome, Singular “They”. Retrieved April 15, 2020 from