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Q&A

Does using plural form for singular object make sense?

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Some people use they/them if they can't identity gender/sex (gender and sex isn't same). But when mentioning a single person should we use plural pronoun?

We know that "they/them" is plural form. But "he/she" is singular form. Recently, a person was telling me to use they/them if I don't know (or identify) his/her gender. But why plural form make sense for singular person?

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2 answers

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There has been a tendency in English toward using singular "they" in the non-specific case, like "someone knocked on my door and they left a package". This is more common in speech than in writing, but becoming more common in both. People will usually understand what you meant. Some people will experience cognitive dissonance from the number mismatch (especially in vaguer cases where you could have been referring to either one person or more than one).

You can do it -- demonstrably: people do. As a writer I feel it is better to avoid this usage because it causes confusion and is almost never necessary. You can just as easily write "someone knocked on my door and left a package" -- no pronoun needed. If you're documenting a process and need to write something like "a user edits (their) profile by...", you can instead take other approaches:

  • Switch to plural: "users edit their profiles by..."
  • If it's documentation for the user, use second person (everywhere, not just in sentences like this): "to edit your profile, ..."
  • Replace the pronoun: "a user edits a profile by..."

You almost never need to use non-specific singular "they" in writing. There are other ways to convey the information clearly. In speech, which is by its nature more immediate, you'll probably both say and hear it.

All of that is for the unspecified case -- you're talking about an individual, but you don't know who -- a generic person. In recent years some people have started using "they" as a personal, specific pronoun -- people who are nonbinary or otherwise do not identify as "male" or "female". This is an evolving area of language. I think this is not what you meant to ask about, so I'm not trying to address it here other than to note that it is a different case than the non-specific usage of singular "they" for which remedies exist.

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+5
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One misconception: They/them has not been strictly plural for quite a long time. Even Shakespeare used it.

There's not a man I meet but doth salute me / as if I were their well-acquainted friend

(From Shakespeare's The Comedy of Errors, written sometime around the late sixteenth century)

Using they as a singular pronoun is perfectly fine, especially when you don't know the gender of the person (or when they are non-binary).

Historically, of course, "they" is plural. That is why it goes with the plural conjunction of verbs - "they are" and not "they is". However, the same can be said for "you" (which was also historically plural, with the singular being "thou"), and I don't think any modern speaker would ever argue that "you" cannot be singular. This just to say, history does not dictate modern language. Many authoritative English guides[1] accept it (at least informally), so if you look to them, then you should feel free to use it.

On another note, one thing that doesn't yet have a consensus is whether the singular referential should be "themselves" or "themself". The former is the historical one, the latter the more logical one.


  1. Pick from your favored style guide: MLA, APA, Chicago ↩︎

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