>> The singular they

The singular they

By Judge Mark P. Painter

My last column stressed the importance of gender-neutral language and set out a number of ways to fix it.

I said that, depending on the specific sentence, gender-specific language can be fixed by (1) omitting the pronoun, (2) substituting an article, (3) substituting the second person, or (4) changing to plural.

The genesis of the problem is that the English language has no singular gender-neutral personal pronouns. We have he and she but not a singular gender-neutral pronoun. Or do we?

This question is related to the gender question, because it avoids the gender-specific his or hers, or worse, his or her, which isn’t specific, just clumsy.

Of course, the problem only arises when we refer to people of mixed genders, or we don’t know the genders: if everyone is male or female, we use that gender pronoun. Everyone on the Patriots has his assignment. Everyone on the Lady Bearcats team knows her position.

Everyone may use they in their writing

Several readers have asked about—most bemoaned—the singular they, as in everyone has their job.

No bemoaning is necessary. Though I know I will get e-mails from people whose grammar teacher also believed superstitions such as not ending a sentence with a preposition, my position is that the singular they or their or them is acceptable, even preferable.

The singular they is as English as Shakespeare or Henry Fielding:

“God send every one their heart’s desire!”

Much Ado About Nothing, Act III, Scene 4

“There’s not a man I meet but doth salute me,

As if I were their well-acquainted friend.”

Comedy of Errors, Act IV, Scene 3

“Every Body fell a laughing, as how could they help it.”

Tom Jones (Everybody was still two words, though, and capital letters abounded.)

Or Jane Austin or Oscar Wilde:

“Every body was punctual, every body in their best looks: not a tear, and hardly a long face to be seen.”


“Experience is the name everyone gives to their mistakes.”

Lady Windermere’s Fan

You can see this website for many more examples: http://www.pemberley.com/janeinfo/sgtheirl.html. Thanks to Steve Pemberton for his collection.

And there is a huge list of quotes from the King James Bible here: http://englishbibles.blogspot.com/2006/09/singular-they-in-english-bibles.html.

The singular they was fine then. And it is fine now. Bryan Garner, the guru of all American language, opines that the singular they will ultimately totally displace the singular his or his and hers. It nearly has already. And we should welcome the change.

And are we really sure that all of the above examples are even singular? Everyone surely means more than one person—it’s the one that threw grammarprissies for a loop. No one is sometimes plural and sometimes singular, but mostly plural.

So don’t hesitate to write “Everyone has their (not his) opinion,” or “If someone wants to know, they will find out.”


I usually show the readability scores for the column. Statistics for this column (my writing only): 15 words per sentence, 10 percent passive voice, and grade level 8.5.


Mark Painter has served as a judge on the Ohio First District Court of Appeals for 13 years, after 13 years on the Hamilton County Municipal Court.  Judge Painter is the author of 365 nationally published decisions, 120 legal articles, and six books, including The Legal Writer: 40 Rules for the Art of Legal Writing, which is available at http://store.cincybooks.com.  Judge Painter has given dozens of seminars on legal writing.  Contact him through his website, www.judgepainter.org.