In English we don’t have a well-known dedicated non-gendered pronoun in the singular form. (Well, we do have ‘it’, but you can hardly use that when writing about humans.) Fortunately, however, we can use the word ‘they’ to fulfil this function.
In the past, the default was to use ‘he’ or ‘his’ when the gender of the noun was unknown or irrelevant. For instance: ‘The author relies upon his editor.’ Defaulting to the male pronoun, understandably, has become unacceptable. The alternative, which is still sometimes used, was to replace ‘he’ or ‘his’ with the unwieldy ‘his/her’ or ‘his or her’ or even ‘s/he’. For example: ‘The author relies upon his or her editor.’
This becomes tiresome if it appears often in a passage. It also fails to account for non-binary members of the community.
For these reasons, the plural pronoun, ‘they’ (or the possessive form, ‘their’), is perfectly acceptable: ‘The author relies upon their editor’.
Granted, for those of us who have grown up carefully ensuring that the pronoun matches its antecedent, the singular use of ‘they’ can be jarring. But we’ll just have to get used to it. In fact, using ‘they’ in this way is not a new thing; it’s been happening for hundreds of years. What’s new is the use of ‘they’ as a singular pronoun for a person with non-binary gender. For example: ‘Sandy relies upon their editor’.
There is often a better alternative, and that is to recast the sentence so as to avoid this mismatch. In the example I’ve given, ‘Authors rely upon their editors’ solves the problem nicely. But sometimes this isn’t possible – and in those cases, using the singular pronoun ‘they’ is perfectly appropriate.
Read more about it here: https://www.academicwritingsuccess.com/the-astonishing-history-of-singular-they/ to edit.
About this blog
Through my experience as an editor, a reader and a book reviewer, I’ve noticed that some writing faults keep just popping up again and again. As an author, I’m especially aware of those writing crimes that I’m frequently tempted to commit myself. This series of brief tips addresses the common writing problems that I’ve encountered. Following them will help make your writing clear, accurate and stylish.