When I as in school, it was considered to be incorrect to use ‘they’ to represent an unknown singular noun. If I wanted to allude to an unspecified person in an essay or report, I needed to write ‘he or she’, or possibly ‘he/she’ if I was feeling bold. (I had seen ‘s/he’ a few times but was never rebellious enough to use that myself.)
But language changes with the times, and now it’s considered not only acceptable, but even correct to use ‘they’ (and ‘their’ and ‘them’) in certain cases. Let’s look at the main three.
If the speaker/writer
- doesn’t know the specific noun,
- doesn’t want to reveal the specific noun,
- doesn’t know the gender of that noun, or
- uses a more generic noun,
they can use ‘they’ as a pronoun to represent that noun. In fact, I did just that in the previous sentence. I was referring to any speaker or writer, who could be male, female, or neither. These are the cases where I used to use ‘he or she’, and it’s not wrong to continue using ‘he or she’. But if you have to use ‘he or she’ several times within a paragraph or two, it becomes tedious. In the same way we use pronouns in place of nouns for better communicability, we can use the pronoun ‘they’ in place of ‘he or she’ to be more concise and to allow for better flow.
If you’re like me, it might take you a while to accept that’s okay, but I promise it’s now accepted by many grammar experts.
By the way, this usage overlaps with the pronoun ‘one’. In exceptionally formal speech/writing, you might say something like “If one were to explore that place, one would discover …”, but ‘one’ is more archaic these days. Still, if you use the words ‘someone’, ‘anyone’, or ‘no one’, you can later use ‘they’ to refer back to those ‘___ones’.
Some people choose not to be identified as either male or female. There are different pronouns that can be used for them, and if you know such a person, you may want to find out what their preferred pronoun is. ‘They’/’their’/them’ is the most common and should probably be used as the default.
An Undetermined Number of Nouns
Maybe you don’t know for certain how many nouns you’re talking about. If it’s possible that there’s more than one, it may make more sense to use ‘they’, since ‘they’ can be either singular or plural. More often than not, this case will overlap with the first case anyway.
Now that you know the cases, let’s look at:
Verb Forms for ‘They’ Subjects
Although we say “she is” and “he goes”, we don’t say “they is” and “they goes”, even if ‘they’ is singular. Instead, say “they are” and “they go”. Sure, this treats the verb as if the pronoun were plural, but there are two reasons that’s okay:
We’re used to using plural-form verbs after ‘they’, so it’s natural to continue doing so, even if the definition of ‘they’ has altered. We’re not going to convince the entire English-speaking world to change that anyway, and part of language is that however it’s consistently used makes it the new correct way.
‘They’ isn’t alone in this situation. The pronoun ‘you’ is also used for both singular and plural purposes. But either way, we use the plural-form verb (we don’t say “you is” or “you goes”, even when ‘you’ is singular). ‘You’ sets the precedent that ‘they’ now follows.
So if singular ‘they’ is your subject, do not add an ‘s’ to your present simple verb. For to be, use ‘are’ and ‘were’, just like you would if ‘they’ was plural.