In March 2015, the Swedish Academy announced the addition of the gender-neutral pronoun “hen” to the Svenska Akademiens ordlista (SAOL), the official dictionary of the Swedish language. English needs a gender-neutral singular pronoun too. “They” is the leading candidate. “They” is widely used as a singular pronoun in spoken English and is not uncommon in written English. Some scholars do consciously use “they” (or “hu”) as a third-person singular pronoun.
The Modern Language Association’s current stance is that “it is best to reword for agreement in number.” In other words, rework your sentence to avoid “he,” “she,” “they” (or “his,” “her,” or “their”) entirely. I expect that even the major style-setting organizations will adopt the singular “they” in the next decade.
By conservative standards, “their,” “them,” and “they” are (for the moment, at least) plural pronouns. If you want to follow MLA’s policy, try not use these pronouns if the preceding noun is singular.
- Avoid: A modern actor usually strives to find psychological validity in their Shakespearean character.
- A modern actor usually strives to find psychological validity in his [or “her”] character. [Grammatically correct but not inclusive and highly likely to offend.]
- A modern actor usually strives to find psychological validty in his character. When preparing her role, the actor might interview real people. [Alternate exclusive pronouns. I’ve read parenting books where the singular pronouns changed for each chapter, “she” in chapter one, “he” in chapter two, and so on.]
- A modern actor usually strives to find psychological validity in the character. [Clean, effective solution.]
- Modern actors usually strive to find psychological validity in their characters. [Opt for the plural.]
What should you do if you are writing for me? I’m quite happy to see “they” and “their” show up as pronouns referring back to singular nouns. Students from the early years of my career would probably be surprised. Language changes! So do I!
If you are writing for someone else or for another context, think about your reader and what kind of effect you want to have on that reader.