Legistics
Singular "They"

Introduction

The use of the singular "they" is becoming more common not only in spoken but in written English and can prove to be useful to legislative counsel in a legislative context to eliminate gender-specific language and heavy or awkward repetition of nouns.

Recommendations

  1. Consider using the third-person pronouns "they", "their", "them", "themselves" or "theirs" to refer to a singular indefinite noun, to avoid the unnatural language that results from repeating the noun.

  2. Do not use "they" to refer to a definite singular noun.

  3. Ensure that the pronoun's antecedent is clear.

Background

Most dictionaries and grammars deal with the singular usage of "they" and its other grammatical forms ("their", "them", "themselves" or "theirs"). This usage is also reflected in the legislative practices of other jurisdictions.

In Practice

  1. Consider using the third-person pronouns "they", "their", "them", "themselves" or "theirs" to refer to a singular indefinite noun, to avoid the unnatural language that results from repeating the noun. Examples of singular indefinite nouns are:

    • anyone/anybody
    • no one/nobody
    • everyone/everybody
    • person
    • every applicant
    • any officer
    • every judge
    • manufacturer
    • officer
    • taxpayer

  2. Do not use "they" to refer to a definite singular noun. Examples of definite nouns are:

    • Minister
    • Commissioner
    • Solicitor General
    • Chief Electoral Officer
    • Receiver General
    • Attorney General

    (Pronouns for definite nouns are discussed in the article on Gender-neutral Language.)

  3. Ensure that the pronoun's antecedent is clear.

    For example, "When an applicant notifies the other residents, they must lodge a section 12 notice within 14 days." The use of "they" in this sentence is ambiguous; it is not clear if the antecedent is "residents" or "applicant". In this case, use of the pronoun is not advised and it would be better to repeat the noun "applicant", replace it with "he or she", or re-write the sentence to avoid the use of the pronoun altogether, as follows: "When notifying the other residents, an applicant must lodge a section 12 notice within 14 days".

Examples
Not using "their" Using "their"
Subject to this Act, every person who is qualified as an elector is entitled to have the person's name included in the list of electors. Subject to this Act, every person who is qualified as an elector is entitled to have their name included in the list of electors.
…that person has no other residential quarters that the person considers to be the person's residence. …that person has no other residential quarters that they consider to be their residence.
Between the date of issue of the writ and polling day, each returning officer shall update the Register of Electors from the information that the returning officer obtains in the course of duty. Between the date of issue of the writ and polling day, each returning officer shall update the Register of Electors from the information that they obtain in the course of duty.
Each revising agent shall take an oath in the prescribed form before beginning the revising agent's duties. Each revising agent shall take an oath in the prescribed form before beginning their duties.
…the person against whom the objection is made, where that person wishes to present the person's position,… …the person against whom the objection is made, where they wish to present their position,…
A person who knowingly makes a false or misleading statement, orally or in writing, relating to the person's qualification as an elector… A person who knowingly makes a false or misleading statement, orally or in writing, relating to their qualification as an elector…
…whether those tasks are performed by that person or on that person's behalf. …whether those tasks are performed by them or on their behalf.
The exporter of a device shall maintain, at the exporter's principal place of business in Canada, … The exporter of a device shall maintain, at their principal place of business in Canada ,…

Dictionaries

The Canadian Oxford Dictionary:

They:

4. disputed as a third person sing. indefinite pronoun meaning 'he or she'. The use of they instead of 'he or she' is common in spoken English and increasingly so in written English, although still deplored by some people. It is particularly useful when the sex of the person is unspecified or unknown and the writer wishes to avoid the accusation of sexism that can arise from the use of he. Similarly, their can replace 'his' or 'his or her' and themselves 'himself' or 'himself or herself', e.g. Everyone must provide their own lunch; Did anyone hurt themselves in the accident?

The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary:

They:

2. Often used in reference to a singular noun made universal by every, any, no, etc., or applicable to either sex (= 'he or she')

Their:

3. Often used in relation to a singular noun or pronoun denoting a person, after each, every, either, neither, no one, everyone, etc. Also so used instead of 'his or her', when the gender is inconclusive or uncertain.

Themselves:

2. In concord with a singular pronoun or noun denoting a person, in cases where the meaning implies more than one, as when the noun is qualified by a distributive, or refers to either sex: = 'himself or herself'.

The New Shorter Oxford Dictionary of English:

They:

4. In relation to a singular noun or pronoun of undetermined gender: he or she.

Grammars and Style Guides

Webster's Dictionary of English Usage:

On pages 901 to 903, the authors provide quotations from great writers, from Austen, Chaucer, Shaw, Auden, Shakespeare and others, and go on to say:

"The examples here of the 'great ones' from Chaucer to the present are not lapses. They are uses following a normal pattern in English that was established four centuries before the 18th-century grammarians invented the solecism (whereby 'he' is to be used as the "gender-neutral" pronoun). The plural pronoun is one solution devised by native speakers of English to a grammatical problem inherent in that language -- and it is by no means the worst solution.

They, their, them have been used continuously in singular reference for about six centuries, and have been disparaged in such use for about two centuries. Now the influence of social forces is making their use even more attractive."

A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language:

Masculine and feminine gender (cf 6.9):
Difficulties of usage arise, however, because English has no sex-neutral 3rd person singular pronoun. Consequently, the plural pronoun they is often used informally in defiance of strict number concord, in coreference with the indefinite pronouns everybody; someone, somebody; anyone, anybody; no one, nobody.

Pronoun reference (cf 10.50):
The pronoun they is commonly used as a 3rd person singular pronoun that is neutral between masculine and feminine. It is a convenient means of avoiding the dilemma of whether to use the he or she form. At one time restricted to informal usage, it is now increasingly accepted even in formal usage, especially in AmE.

The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language:

Singular they (p. 426)

They is commonly used with a singular antecedent, as in Someone has left their umbrella behind. As such, it fills a gap in the gender system of the core personal pronouns by virtue of being neutral as to sex.

(e) Singular they (pp. 493-494)

The use of they with a singular antecedent goes back to the Middle English, and in spite of criticism since the earliest prescriptive grammars it has continued to be very common in informal style. In recent years it has gained greater acceptance in other styles as the use of purportedly sex-neutral he has declined. It is particularly common with such antecedents as everyone, someone, no one; indeed its use in examples like No one felt that they had been misled is so widespread that it can probably be regarded as stylistically neutral. Somewhat more restricted is its use with antecedents containing common nouns as head…The view taken here is that they, like you, can be either plural or singular.

Other Jurisdictions

Ontario

In 1985, the Government of Ontario adopted an official policy of using gender-neutral language in all official publications, including bills and regulations. Since then, all bills and regulations drafted in Ontario have been prepared using the gender-neutral style. In 1988, Ontario began revising all existing public general statutes and all regulations. The Ontario statutes database has many examples showing the use of the singular "they" to refer to indefinite singular nouns. For example:

"consumer" means any person who… purchases or receives delivery of tobacco… for their own use or consumption or for the use or consumption by others at their expense… or as the agent for a principal who desires to acquire the tobacco for use or consumption by themself or other persons at their expense; (R.S.O. 1990, c. T-10)

Australia

As part of its Corporations Law Simplification Program, the Attorney-General's Department of the Commonwealth of Australia has decided to use the indefinite singular they and, among other convincing reasons, gives the following examples:

  1. There used to be two second-person pronouns in English: thou in the singular and ye in the plural. By the end of the 17th century you had replaced both and today remains the only second-person pronoun. For the past three centuries, English speakers have demonstrated by their usage that they are not disturbed by using the one pronoun in both a singular and a plural sense…language can -- and does -- change without a collapse in successful communication.

  2. We may be prepared to accept a sole use of he or she but in a string of sentences it becomes far too cumbersome and they is by far the happier solution:

    If a person was asked to define a zebra, they could do this quite efficiently without calling up a whole 'zoo' or 'safari' frame. But if they overheard someone talking about a zebra seen in London earlier in the day, then they could go deeper into their memory, and call up a zoo frame, which would allow them to fit the narrative into a predicted set-up.

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