February 2021 -->

Walden University Writing Center

Where instructors and editors talk writing.

Inclusivity in Academic Writing and APA: The Singular “They”

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Last year, Walden University  adopted the newest edition of the APA Manual, APA 7. While many rules stayed the same between APA 6 and APA 7, a few rules changed, including one that has caused excitement across the university: APA 7 officially endorses the use of “they” as a singular third-person pronoun (see Section 4.18 in APA 7).  

What do I mean by the singular they? Essentially, writers can now use “they” to refer to one individual or many individuals, just like “you” can be either singular or plural. Here are a few examples of the singular “they” in writing:  

  • While my boss provides regular employee feedback, they also take mid-year reviews seriously. 

  • The respondent noted that they did not fully understand the question in the survey.  

  • My daughter has appreciated their nonbinary student high school support group.  

While the Writing Center has advised Walden students to use “they” as a singular pronoun since our 2017 Inclusive Language Policy announcement, APA 7’s endorsement means that the singular “they” has taken another step on its journey to mainstream use by entering Standard Academic English standards. The singular “they” is actually much older than you might think. If you’re interested in etymology like me, you can read the Oxford English dictionary’s comprehensive history of the singular “they,” which  traces the first documented use of the singular “they” back to 1375.  

The singular “they” has a long history
 and is one that also includes controversy as many grammarians have treated it as grammatically incorrect. More recently, however, academics have recognized that the singular “they” can provide writers a much needed tool in their writing. Using “they” as a singular pronoun allows writers to reflect the gender identity of individuals they are talking about. This practice is particularly helpful for nonbinary individuals who may not identify with gendered pronouns like he/him or she/her.  

The singular “they” also allows writers to avoid gender bias in various situations in their writing. For example, the singular “they” provides writers a way to avoid misgendering individuals when their pronouns aren’t knownFor example, let’s imagine a situation in which we are able to gather in person again: Maybe a Walden student is attending an in-person residency, and in their reflection paper on the residency, they want to talk about someone who asked a question across the room in a session. The student doesn’t—and can’t possibly—know that person’s pronouns. In this case, APA recommends using the singular “they.” Similarly, if you’re writing about a hypothetical situation, use the singular “they” to avoid gender bias. Research shows that when nouns are gendered (as is the case in languages like Spanish and German), speakers describe objects differently based on their gender. The language we use does impact our perception of who we are taking about, and the singular “they” helps us avoid that bias. 

The use of singular “they” in academic writing and APA is one more action we can embrace to ensure our communication is inclusive, and it’s not only happening in academic writing. You might see people you email self-identify their pronouns in email or on social media, or you might see pronouns identified on someone’s name badge at work or at a conference. Many members of the Walden community have embraced the idea of self-identifying their pronouns, and I’m glad to see that APA is now following suite by adopting the singular “they.”   

Now that you better understand the history and context around the singular “they”—and gendered pronouns in general—I encourage you to begin using the singular “they” in your writing. Like many changes to writing rules, it may take some practice to get used to, so give yourself time to experiment with this pronoun. Try using the singular “they” in your other writing at work, with family and friends, and on social media. The more you practice using it, the better you’ll understand how to use this tool in your writing toolbox.  

Resources to learn more about the singular “they”: 

  • Walden University Writing Center, “Singular ‘They’” 

    • Beth Nastachowski has been with the Writing Center since 2010, and she currently is the associate director of the Office of Writing Instruction. She spends her time running after her sons, husband, and dog in St. Paul, MN. 

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