You may have noticed some recent controversy over the use of singular they/them/their pronouns in academia. Up until recently, some of you may have even been corrected for your use of those pronouns as singular. However, despite its recent media attention, this is actually not a new issue! Singular they/them/theirs pronouns have been a part of the English vernacular for a very long time, and utilized by authors such as Shakespeare (“There’s not a man I meet but doth salute me/As if I were their well-acquainted friend”) and Chaucer (“And whoso fyndeth hym out of swich blame, They wol come up…”).
While some still have their contentions, as of the most recent edition, APA has decided to more formally endorse its usage as a singular pronoun. It is easier shorthand for referring to hypothetical individuals, or when referring to someone whose gender identity is unknown. For example, a literature paper might talk about how “the author can use visual motifs to their advantage”, or a sociologist might talk about “the average college student is uncertain where they’ll be five years from now”.
While it might seem initially confusing, ultimately it just comes down to context clues and careful writing. Additionally, it helps eliminate awkward phrasing like “he/she”, “he or she”, or “(s)he”. which can be jarring to encounter in a paper, while still being generally inclusive language. It’s an excellent chance to show off your skill as a writer in crafting sentences that leave no doubt as to whether they/them/theirs is singular or plural!
See if you can identify the number of “they” or “them” in the sentences below: