How Do You Handle Singular-They Pronouns?


While some people still seem unwilling to negotiate the ‘singular they,’ we also need to discuss appropriate singular they pronouns.

A TV show description on Hulu caught my attention recently because of how it dealt with singular-they pronouns. The singular they, in case you’ve been living under a rock the last couple of years, refers to people who feel the they pronoun best fits their own gender identity.

As I’ve said before, you don’t have to understand it to at least be respectful. I freely admit that I don’t understand how someone can feel that their gender is best represented by they instead of he or she. But I accept that there are people who feel that way.

Because I deal with grammar, I’ve have written about the flak grammar enthusiasts sling over singular they.

A while back, I wrote about Demi Lovato, who at the time, announced singular they as their pronoun choice. The issue I brought up is the fact that it causes confusion when one reads articles about Lovato. I provided an example of a headline:

Why Demi Lovato Is Telling Fans To Not Comment On Their Body

Normally, a reader can fairly easily understand to whom a pronoun refers. But this particular headline, I wrote, potentially caused confusion. Since they was used to refer to Lovato, the headline became vague.

Was Lovato telling fans not to talk about Lovato’s body or fans’ bodies? Well, if it had been the latter, we would assume body would have been bodies.

So maybe it isn’t as confusing as it first appears if you go back and ponder. Part of the problem is that in this day and age, where everyone wants to scan through something in a couple of seconds, few take that time to think about it.

Singular-they pronouns may need a closer look

Just when it began to look as if more people were calming down over the whole singular they thing, there’s new cause for concern…at least from a grammatical standpoint.

While browsing through program listings on Hulu, the other day, I spotted a show called TRANsitioning. It appears to involve life coach Tony Ferraiolo, who counsels young people facing that challenge. The first episode of the first season is titled, “Matthew.” Here’s the listing I saw (emphasis is mine):

Life coach and transman Tony Ferraiolo takes a 23-year-old transman through a series of difficult steps as they considers living as a man for the first time in Santa Clarita, California.

First, the listing did not hyphenate 23-year-old, which is a grammatical faux pas. That age, written out in that manner, serves as a compound modifier and should be hyphenated.

But the bigger issue is the word considers.

“…as they considers…”

That can’t sound correct to anyone. Granted, considers would be the correct verb to agree with either he or she. They, in this case, is singular they, referring to one person.

That one person considers living as a man for the first time.

But when you take the pronoun they, you still need to adjust the verb to match.

They consider is the only thing that sounds correct. Anything else sounds like a mistake.

While singular they has been around for a long time, though not with respect to transgender, there are still gray areas where rules are concerned.

I’m all for being respectful in using the person’s preferred pronouns.

But I’m also all for being clear as a writer.

I checked with the Associated Press Stylebook to see if there’s even a mention of how this should be handled. It turns out AP Style does list a rule with regard to singular they pronouns and verbs:

They/them/their take plural verbs even when used as a singular pronoun, and the singular reflexive themself is also acceptable when referring to people who use they/them/their.

Because singular they requires a plural verb, the listing should have read, “Life coach and transman Tony Ferraiolo takes a 23-year-old transman through a series of difficult steps as they consider living as a man for the first time in Santa Clarita, California. “

If you don’t follow AP Style, you should check with whatever style guide you follow.

If you don’t follow one at all, I strongly recommend you adopt this rule: Even singular they should take a plural verb.

When you mix up subject-verb agreement, it distracts the reader and even draws what could be considered undue attention to the pronoun itself.

If we’re trying to be respectful with the pronoun use, we shouldn’t write in such a way as to make it look like a mistake.

the authorPatrick
Patrick is a Christian with more than 30 years experience in professional writing, producing and marketing. His professional background also includes social media, reporting for broadcast television and the web, directing, videography and photography. He enjoys getting to know people over coffee and spending time with his dog.