Pronouns

August Q&A

Q. I hope I’m not losing my mind. I’ve been told that “they” and “their” are used incorrectly in this sentence: “The telltale sign of a right-winger: they can’t write in English to save their lives.” I agree that it’s an awkward sentence, but is “they/their” used incorrectly? Thanks!

A. The use of they as a singular pronoun is a hot topic in online grammar forums. By traditional standards, the sentence is incorrect because it contains no plural noun for they to refer to. Traditionally, the correct versions are “The telltale sign of right-wingers: they can’t write in English to save their lives” and “The telltale sign of a right-winger: he can’t write in English to save his life.”

The growing acceptance of they as singular is in response to a need for a gender-neutral pronoun that avoids the use of he to mean he or she. Good writers would make right-winger plural to avoid the appearance of incorrectness or gender bias, but in other sentences the plural is not a good option: “Someone ate my Twinkie, and they’d better watch out!” In those contexts, many language experts now approve of the use of they. You can learn more by searching online for “singular they.”