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“They” Pulls Ahead in the Language Game

Our six-year-old neighbor brought his Pokémon card game over for a playdate the other night. As our daughter read aloud the instructions on a card, the grammar caught my attention. Do you notice it too?



“Your opponent puts a card from his or her hand on the bottom of his or her deck.” That’s just too many inelegant possessive forms.

Having taught business writing at Nintendo, the creators of Pokémon, I know how much the company values flawless writing. So it didn’t surprise me that it would use that correct form. Yes, his or her is correct the way the card uses it. The singular word opponent traditionally needs a singular pronoun.

But today, that correct rendering is outdated. They and their have won out over he or she and his or her–at least in awkward sentences like that one.

Let’s write it this way: “Your opponent puts a card from their hand on the bottom of their deck.” Granted, if you have just one opponent–and you are a grammarian–the plural their will make you cringe. But you have to admit that it’s perfectly clear–just not what you were expecting.

I had to acknowledge something I wasn’t expecting in the excellent book When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir. In it, Patrisse Khan-Cullors refers to her partner Future as they, and each time I read it, the singular they threw me off balance. Here’s an example: “Future told me about their childhood. They have a sister who is their twin and a brother.”

They threw me off balance, but it made me recognize and appreciate that gender-based pronouns don’t serve everyone.

The Washington Post weighed in on this issue back in 2015: “Allowing they for a gender-nonconforming person is a no-brainer. And once we’ve done that, why not allow it for the most awkward of those he or she situations that have troubled us for so many years?” Awkward like the text on the Pokémon card.

I’ve reported before on where style guides stand on the singular they (Number 5 in the article). How about you? Do you use it to avoid clumsy his or her constructions? Are you now accustomed to seeing and using they for gender-nonconforming individuals? Does your company style guide address using they and their for singular pronouns? Please share your experience.


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By Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston has helped thousands of employees and managers improve their business writing skills and confidence through her company, Syntax Training. In her corporate training career of more than 20 years, she has worked with executives, engineers, scientists, sales staff, and many other professionals, helping them get their messages across with clarity and tact.

A gifted teacher, Lynn has led writing classes at more than 100 companies and organizations such as MasterCard, Microsoft, Boeing, Nintendo, REI, AARP, Ledcor, and Kaiser Permanente. Near her home in Seattle, Washington, she has taught managerial communications in the MBA programs of the University of Washington and UW Bothell. She has created a communications course, Business Writing That Builds Relationships, and provides the curriculum at no cost to college instructors.

A recognized expert in business writing etiquette, Lynn has been quoted in "The Wall Street Journal," "The Atlantic," "Vanity Fair," and other media.

Lynn sharpened her business writing skills at the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a master's degree in communication, and at Bradley University, with a bachelor's degree in English.

13 comments on ““They” Pulls Ahead in the Language Game”

  • It’s a shame we can’t devise a gender-neutral pronoun. “They” still seems clunky to me when used in this way.

  • I live in a country and work in a field where you can still go to a presentation with 20 people and see no women. One advantage of “he or she” was that it reminded readers that “he” could be a “she”. But “they” is an elegant solution.

    German lets you call a child “it”. The feminine nouns “la personne” (French) and “die Person” (German) can refer to someone of either gender, and saying “she” in this context does not mean the person is female.

    The world isn’t yet ready for people who do not wish to be classed as either male nor female. Today, institutions and people everywhere expect everyone to be one or the other. Perhaps someday this distinction will go the way of “Miss” and “Mrs.”, but we’re talking about decades, not years.

  • Thanks for your input, Virginia, Bart, George, Daniel, and Lorraine. Yes, it’s complicated, and English doesn’t seem to have the perfect solution yet.

    Virginia, I agree about the clunkiness of “they,” particularly since it requires a plural verb. Had the title of the post been “They Pulls Ahead” (without quotation marks around “they”), everyone would have stumbled over my grammatical mistake.

    Bart, my goal in communication–especially in writing–is never to offend when I can help it. The other day in Staples I referred to an employee, saying “He’s getting it for me.” The coworker responded, “She’s getting it for you.” A gender-neutral pronoun would be perfect in situations like that–no awkwardness, no error.

    George, I like your point about “he or she” reminding the audience of the possibilities. Yes, the change will come slowly.

    Daniel, thanks for weighing in. It’s wonderful that some people are easier to please than others.

    Lorraine, thanks for your thoughts. Unfortunately, English hasn’t accepted “it” to refer to people. We even argue about using it for animals. But apparently, as George mentioned above, German lets us call a child “it.” Regarding “he” used for everyone, that approach was the standard and the solution when I was growing up. These days it’s considered sexist and inappropriate. Perhaps someday we will have a word that everyone agrees on as a singular gender-neutral pronoun.


  • Sometimes “they” and “their” make sense, other times not so much. In the case of Opponent it works, but why not use “its hand” or “its deck”? Also, one of the definitions of “he” at is “anyone (without reference to gender)” as in “He who hesitates is lost.” It would appear that “he” can be used for anything non-gender specific. Using “they” and “their” for gender-nonconforming individuals seems awkward to me. I’m with Bart Rosenberg, use he/she as the person appears physically.

  • There is a precedent in the history of the language for widespread acceptance of “they” as singular when we look at the second person.

    “You” used to be only plural just a few hundred years ago (and only objective case, for that matter). But today, when using “you,” nobody corrects you, telling you to use “thou” or “thee.” The word “you” can be used for both singular and plural without any objection.

    The same will happen eventually with “they.” Until then, fighting to limit “they” to plural uses is a losing battle, just as fighting to limit “you” to only plural would have been a losing battle in the 1600’s.

    I have switched from teaching writing in a university to writing marketing content for a California tech company. To answer a question in the last paragraph in your post, I use “they” for singular instances regularly.

  • Alfredo, thanks for sharing your experience. I appreciate your providing a historical comparison, and I agree with your conclusion.

    I had not realized that you were now working for a tech company. Congratulations!


  • > German lets us call a child “it.

    There may be some confusion. German does not let you call child “it”. In German (and in Russian) unlike English every noun has gender – male, female or neuter. It means when you speak/write then every noun must be used according to its gender. So in German you *must* call a child “it”. Also, you must a girl “it”. Boy is “he”.

    Look at articles before nouns – “die” means female gender (also plural), “der” means male gender, “das” means neuter gender.




  • Alas, “they” when used to refer to a singular person of either gender will always grate on my nerves. To my internal ear, it’s neither smart nor elegant in that context. Assuming “he or she” isn’t an option, my preference is either “it” (which to my ear is more pleasing though nontraditional) or “they” in the plural sense.

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