Third-Person Pronouns

Can 'They' Ever Be Singular?

Mickey Spillane, The Long Wait (1951)
(Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images)

In English grammar, third-person pronouns refer to people or things other than the speaker (or writer) and the person(s) addressed.

In contemporary standard English, these are the third-person pronouns:

  • he, she, it, one (singular personal pronouns in the subjective case)
  • they (plural personal pronoun in the subjective case)
  • him, her, it, one (singular personal pronouns in the objective case)
  • them (plural personal pronoun in the objective case)
  • his, hers (singular possessive pronouns)
  • theirs (plural possessive pronoun)
  • himself, herself, itself, oneself (singular reflexive/intensive pronouns)
  • themselves (plural reflexive/intensive pronoun)

In addition, his, her, its, one's, and their are the singular and plural third-person possessive determiners.

Unlike first-person (I, our, we, us, ours) and second-person pronouns (you, your, yours), third-person pronouns in the singular are marked for gender: he and she, him and her, his and hers, himself and herself.

Formal Vs. Informal Usage

Third-person pronouns are often used formally or impersonally, where the second person you might be used in more informal contexts. In spoken English, you'll often hear people use the plural they and their to agree with collective nouns (which are singular), but it's not typically considered correct to do so, especially in formal written English. For example, you'd write, "The business just started using its new system," rather than their.

The Singular They?

There is disagreement on the topic of whether they should ever be allowed to be singular, however. Authors Kersti Börjars and Kate Burridge illustrate pronoun usage and take up that debate:

"Note that although it is true to say that first person refers to speaker/writer, second person to hearer/reader and third person to third parties, English shows some untypical uses....[Y]ou can be used to refer to people in general (preferable in some varieties of English to the indefinite one), e.g., Chocolate is actually good for you; in special cases of extreme politeness third person forms can be used to refer to the hearer (a kind of distancing technique), e.g. If Madam so desires, she could have the waist taken in a little; they often appear as a gender-neutral third person singular pronoun, e.g., If anyone wants it, they can have pavlova with extra whipped cream. We often hear the argument that this 'singular they' is grammatically incorrect because a plural pronoun shouldn't refer back to a singular word and that he should be used instead, but clearly, this is linguistically unfounded. As we've just discussed, English has many examples where for special purposes pronouns depart from their central meaning—as so often is the case, there is no perfect match between form and meaning here." (Kersti Börjars and Kate Burridge, "Introducing English Grammar," 2nd ed. Hodder, 2010.)

If you're writing for a class or for publication, find out whether guidelines allow for third-person they and their in singular contexts before using the convention, as it's not widely accepted in formal, professional writing. However, it is gaining a toehold there and is sometimes also used in contexts where people need to refer to someone who "does not identify with a gender-specific pronoun," explains the 17th edition of the Chicago Manual of Style. Singular they usage is more commonly accepted in British English than American English. 

The Origin of Third-Person Pronouns in Old English

So why doesn't English have a singular gender-neutral pronoun, which is the role that the usage ​of the singular they is trying to fill? The reason is just part of the history of the language and how it adopted conventions from other languages as it evolved. 

Author Simon Horobin explained further:

"Where Latin loanwords were predominantly lexical words—nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs—Old Norse loans included grammatical items such as pronouns, conjunctions, and prepositions....The most striking effect of this contact is the adoption into English of the Old Norse third-person plural pronouns, they, their, and them, which replaced the Old English equivalents to enable clearer distinctions between the third person plural pronouns hie ('they'), hira ('their'), him ('them'), and the pronouns he, her, and him." ("How English Became English." Oxford University Press, 2016)