Pronouns: they with singular reference
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Sicello Simelane from Swaziland writes:

What is the right pronoun to use for someone whose gender is not known: can I use he?

Debo Omikunle from Nigeria writes:

Please could you tell me the correct form of pronoun (singular or plural) to use with the word every and all its variants and compound forms (everybody, anybody, everyone) and also the verb forms too. I have seen examples like this:

Everyone should get their coats…
Everybody thinks their calls…
Everyone has their own styles…

Roger Woodham replies:
  He - she - (s)he - or they?

In the past, Sicello, we used to use he when the sex of the person was unknown:

  • A doctor should always be accompanied by a nurse when he is examining a patient.

  • If I find the person who has wrought such havoc in my garden, I'll wring his neck!

However, such usage is now sometimes considered sexist, so alternative forms are used. One possibility is to use he or she or (s)he, but this looks and sounds clumsy:

  • If the patient decides to cancel the appointment, he or she must let the receptionist know ASAP.
  • If the patient decides to cancel the appointment, (s)he must let the receptionist know ASAP.

These forms are sometimes retained in formal written English, but the preferred solution generally, and especially in informal discourse, is to use they, even if the reference is singular:

  • If the patient decides to cancel the appointment, they must let the receptionist know as soon as possible.

  • If anybody calls, make a note of their details and ask them to take a seat.

  • Everybody should take their belongings with them. Don't leave them on the bus.


They / them / their with singular reference

These structures are common, Debo, after all indefinite pronouns such as anybody/one, somebody/one, nobody/one, everyone, anyone, every, each and no and after person. Consider the following:

  • No child may leave the hall until they have finished their work.

  • If anyone finds my cat in their garden, I'd be grateful if they could give me a ring and I'll come and collect her.

  • Somebody has left their coat on the bus. Could they please come and collect it?

  • Nobody plans to stay in London overnight, do they?

  • Everybody but me thinks they will pass the test, but I am not so confident.

  • Every person going on this trip must have their own tent. Sharing tents is not allowed.

This structure is useful not only when the sex of the person is unknown, but also when the sexes are mixed. Of course, if the company is single sex, it may not be necessary. If the people on the bus in the above example are all male, then we could just as easily say:

  • Somebody has left his coat on the bus. Could he please come and collect it?

However, even when the sex is known, we often use they/them/their, especially in generalised statements.

  • No girl over the age of 16 should be made to wear a school uniform. It makes them feel childish.


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