Chicago Style for the Singular They

Since the announcement that the 17th edition of The Chicago Manual of Style will arrive in September, there has been a lot of buzz about some of the announced changes to the Manual. We’ll be looking closer at some of the changes over the coming weeks. First up is the pronoun they when it refers to a singular antecedent.

The pronoun they

Most often in English the pronoun they refers to a plural antecedent, but they can also be used to refer to a singular antecedent. There are two main ways in which they has this singular meaning. In CMOS 17, one type is approved for use in all kinds of writing, including formal contexts; the other is recommended mainly for informal writing.

They as a substitute for the generic he

First, let’s take they as the familiar substitute for the so-called generic he when referring to someone whose gender is unknown or unspecified.

{Whoever tallied the scores should add their own vote to the total.}
{Does anyone want their pizza reheated?}

Chicago accepts this use of singular they in speech and informal writing. For formal writing, most modern style and usage manuals have not accepted this usage until recently, if at all. CMOS 17 does not prohibit the use of singular they as a substitute for the generic he in formal writing, but recommends avoiding it, offering various other ways to achieve bias-free language.

A note on flexibility: Editors should always practice judgment and regard for the reader. For instance, some recent books published by the University of Chicago Press feature the use of the singular they as a substitute for the generic he. Context should be a guide when choosing a style, and the writer’s preferences should always receive consideration.

They to refer to a specific person

A writer (or speaker) may also use they to refer to a specific, known person who does not identify with a gender-specific pronoun such as he or she. (They used in this way was the American Dialect Society’s 2015 Word of the Year.) CMOS 17 will advise that “a person’s stated preference for a specific pronoun should be respected.” This usage is still not widespread either in speech or in writing, but Chicago accepts it even in formal writing.

The grammar of they

Like singular you, singular they is treated as a grammatical plural and* takes a plural verb.

{their favorite color is blue}
{they have a degree in molecular biology}

CMOS 17 will state that themself (like yourself) may be used to signal the singular antecedent (though some people will prefer themselves).

{they blamed themself [or themselves]}

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*Edited April 3, 2017, 04:14 p.m.

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