The Grama Queen Asks: Who Are They? Or Is It “Who Is They?”

by Bonnie Smiler

When did they, them, and their become so singular? It seems that in current parlance one uses the plural pronoun they, them, or their following a singular antecedent. A couple examples from the Star Ledger should suffice: “I . . . ranked each artist based on the unique words used in their work,” and “ . . . a judge . . . had ordered a domestic violence defendant released pending trial, only for them to allegedly take a victim’s life.” Artist and defendant are both singular, their and them are not. There was a time when all unknown references were masculine, so his or him would be acceptably used. In these more politically correct times, an awkward his/her or him/her might be preferred.

Although technically grammatically incorrect, expanding the use of they, them, and their makes sense and certainly makes sentences less awkward. While one could rewrite a sentence to avoid ambiguous antecedent confusion, many writers, especially those under a deadline, won’t take the trouble, and a rewrite may not be so easy to do. (That’s even assuming a writer notices his or her mistake.) Down the road, if it hasn’t happened already, English writers will consider the singularity of they, them, and their an acceptable convenience and a further step on the simplification of the English language.

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