Don't Read This if You Teach English
Discusses the use of the plural pronoun 'they' as singular pronoun when referring to a person whose gender can not be identified. Result of a study conducted on college students; Instance in which 'they' fell short.
By PT Staff published July 1, 1997 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016
What pronoun should you use to refer to a person when you don't know theirgender? The traditional solution is to just say "he" or "him"--an approach that's been criticized as sexist. The leading alternative, "he or she," is fine in theory but can be awfully clunky in actual sentences. And "s/he" may work in print, but how the heck do you pronounce it?
That's why many folks use a form of "they" in such situations—as we did in the opening of this story. While using a plural pronoun in such cases may make English teachers cringe, a recent study suggests that people—or college students, at least—are quite comfortable with the so-called `singular they.' University of Wisconsin psychologists Morton Ann Gernshacher, Ph.D., and Julie Foertsch, Ph.D., measured how long it took students to read various sentences in which the subject's gender was unknown, such as: "A truck driver shouldn't drive when sleepy, even if he may be struggling to be on time." Students read the sentence just as quickly when the researchers substituted "they" for "he," suggesting that the plural pronoun is easily understood. The only instance in which "they" fell short was when a sentence referred to a specific person, as in "that buck driver shouldn't drive when sleepy, even if they..."
Foertsch says that she sometimes finds herself unintentionally using the singular "they," instead of the traditional "he," when writing journal articles. "I used go hack and change it," she laughs. "But now I'm rather defiantly leaving `they' in there."