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November 16, 2015

The Use of Singular “They” in APA Style

Chelsea blog 2by Chelsea Lee

Dear Style Experts,


Can I use the singular “they” in APA Style? Is it okay to use “they” or “their” to refer to a single person, or should I say “he or she” or “his or hers” instead?

—A Reader

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Dear Reader,

In APA Style, whether it’s appropriate to use singular they depends on the context.

The Context of Gender Diversity

APA supports the choice of communities to determine their own descriptors. Thus, when transgender and gender nonconforming people (including agender, genderqueer, and other communities) use the singular they as their pronoun, writers should likewise use the singular they when writing about them. Although the usage isn’t explicitly outlined in the Publication Manual, APA’s guidelines for bias-free language clearly state that writers should be sensitive to labels:

Respect people’s preferences; call people what they prefer to be called. Accept that preferences change with time and that individuals within groups often disagree about the designations they prefer. Make an effort to determine what is appropriate for your situation; you may need to ask your participants which designations they prefer, particularly when preferred designations are being debated within groups. (APA Publication Manual, 2010, p. 72; see also the supplemental material to PM § 3.12)

Thus, choose the appropriate pronoun for the people you are writing about. Note, however, that many transgender people use the pronoun that matches their gender identity or gender expression, which would be she for a transgender woman and he for a transgender man. Other possible terms are noted in the supplemental material.

When writing with the singular they, use the forms they, them, their, and themselves.

The Context of General Use

The singular they is also commonly used to refer to a person whose gender is irrelevant or unknown—for example, imagine the sentence "The participant indicated their preferences." However, most formal writing and style guides, including the APA Publication Manual, the Chicago Manual of Style, and the AP Stylebook, do not currently support this usage, deeming it too informal and/or ungrammatical.

Instead, APA recommends several alternatives to the general singular they, including the following:

  • Make the sentence plural: "Participants indicated their preferences."
  • Rewrite the sentence to replace the pronoun with an article (a, an, or the): "The participant indicated a preference."
  • Rewrite the sentence to drop the pronoun: "The participant indicated preferences."
  • Combine both singular pronouns (he or she, she or he, his or her, her or his, etc.): "The participant indicated his or her preferences." (However, avoid overusing this strategy, as it can become cumbersome upon many repetitions.)

These alternatives are also available for you to use when writing in the context of gender diversity if you would prefer them or if you are unsure of the appropriate pronoun to use.

Other alternatives to the singular they are not recommended:

  • Avoid combination constructions like s/he, (s)he, and he/she because they can look awkward and distracting to the reader.
  • Do not use either he or she alone to refer to a generic individual—"use of either pronoun unavoidably suggests that specific gender to the reader" (PM § 3.12).
  • Do not alternate between he and she (e.g., using he in one sentence and she in the next), as this can also become confusing and distracting to the reader.

The Future of Singular They

The use of singular they has received a lot of attention in recent years, and the tide seems to be turning in favor of using it more generally, not just in the context of gender diversity. After all, the usage addresses a real need for a gender-neutral, singular, third-person pronoun in the English language. Indeed, some magazines and newspapers have officially endorsed the broad use of singular they in their pages.

It’s possible that APA might directly endorse the singular they in the future, but that decision lies in the hands of the task forces and committees that craft and approve the Publication Manual, not just in the hands of the writers of this blog.

In the meantime, we hope that this post clarifies the current ways in which it is appropriate to use the singular they in APA Style. You may also be interested to read APA's Guidelines for Psychological Practice With Transgender and Gender Nonconforming People, which discusses these issues in more detail and provides a glossary of terms and definitions.

We welcome your thoughts and feedback on this matter and hope you will share them with us in the comments below.

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