Being a non-English native, I'm surprised when I read people who use a plural form when they're clearly talking about a single person.

Here are two excerpts from a software I used to work on, written by a former Irish co-worker:

... a supervisor must assign it to themselves and deal with it.


This supervisor has no restaurants assigned to them.

I would have written the following sentences instead:

... a supervisor must assign it to himself and deal with it.


This supervisor has no restaurants assigned to him.

Is the plural form correct English, and if so, is the plural preferred over the singular form?

marked as duplicate by FumbleFingers, sumelic, Centaurus, Mitch, Community Nov 14 '15 at 19:44

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    Since both examples deal with "business" there's the issue of gender neutrality in play. Corporate environments can be very picky about that kind of thing. – Misneac Nov 14 '15 at 15:38
  • Ah yeah, it didn't strike me that this was a gender-neutral thing. Extensive reading indeed in the link @FumbleFingers provides! – Benjamin Nov 14 '15 at 15:41
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    Everybody has their own opinion about singular they, but there are in fact rules one can follow. – John Lawler Nov 14 '15 at 15:51
  • @John Lawler What about this? A friend of mine calls me up and tells me she is sending a co-worker to hand me a parcel. Five hours later she calls me again to learn whether the parcel has been delivered: "I've sent my co-worker, Jan, to deliver the parcel. Have you got it?" To this point in time, I don't know whether Jan is a male or a female and I tell her: "Jan was here while I was in the shower and left a note saying they will be back tomorrow." Here I don't know who Jan is and I presume I won't be wrong if I consider Jan non-referential. Would I be wrong? – Centaurus Nov 14 '15 at 16:35
  • @JohnLawler - do you see any sign that 'they' is becoming more used as in this version of your sentence: A certain Jan (unknown gender) called by and said they'll call back later. – Dan Nov 14 '15 at 16:40

Singular they is widely used as a gender-neutral pronoun to refer to a single person.

A reason for its use is that English has no dedicated singular personal pronoun of indeterminate gender.[5] In some cases, its use can be explained by notional agreement because words like "everyone", though singular in form, are plural in meaning.[6] Its use in formal English has increased in recent times with the trend toward gender-inclusive language,[4] but it has been used by respected writers for centuries.[7]

Though singular "they" has a long history of usage and is common in everyday English, its use has been criticized since the late nineteenth century, and acceptance varies.

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