As I tell my students (and have had to tell various freelance editors), although “they” is often used as a singular pronoun, frequent usage does not equal grammatical correctness.
Precise language use and rigorous adherence to grammatical correctness adds to clarity. Additionally, and practically speaking, when people pay us to edit and proofread their manuscripts, they want them to be error free. Anything less is bad service.
In that last paragraph, I could have written, “If someone pays us to edit and proofread his or her…” (which is correct but cumbersome) or “If someone pays us to edit and proofread their…” (which is incorrect). Instead, I used “people” and “their.”
Solving the Singular “They”
My two main strategies for resolving this error are as follows, in order of preference.
- Use a plural antecedent to allow for the plural pronoun.
- Remove the plural pronoun altogether and revise the sentence.
Consider the following (incorrect) sentence.
“Everyone who has a puppy knows they need a carpet cleaner.”
This sentence is both wrong (“everyone” vs. “they”) and confusing (does “they” refer to “everyone” or “a puppy”?). This sentence has a singular subject, a singular verb, and a plural pronoun. Whoops!
Let’s apply the first strategy to the sentence: make the antecedent plural.
1. “People who have a puppy know they need a carpet cleaner.” This resolves both the agreement problem (“people” is “they”) and the antecedent confusion (“they” can only be “people” because “people” is the only plural noun to which “they” can apply).
Now let’s apply the second strategy: remove the pronoun and revise.
2. “Everyone who has a puppy knows the need for a carpet cleaner.” This revision has no pronoun, thus avoiding the issue.
Here’s the point: A careful writer does not need to use “they” as a singular pronoun.
(I have a third strategy, too, but it’s pretty conceptual, not formulaic like these two strategies. You can read about it in “Sexist Language and Bad Grammar.”