The pronoun “they” can refer to a singular person if that person’s gender is not known yet.
I’m sure you have been in a situation before when you invite someone to a party and that person asks if they can bring their friend too: “Thanks for the invitation! I’ll definitely come. Is it okay if I bring my friend, too?”
When responding to this kind of request, it would help to know if this person’s friend is male or female, because if the friend is male, you can say: “sure, he is welcome to come” or if that person’s friend is female, you can say: “sure, she is welcome to come.” But in reality, we often don’t know if this friend is male or female yet, which means you have three options to respond:
“Sure, he or she is welcome to come!” – saying “he or she” is possible but seems awkward
"Sure, your friend is welcome to come!” – repeating “your friend” is possible but more effort
“Sure, they are welcome to come!” – using the gender-neutral pronoun “they” is possible and the easiest option
In the examples above, using the pronoun “they” is an easier way of saying “he or she” and also helps you avoid repeating the noun “your friend” again.
Using the Pronoun “They” to Represent One Person
When someone mentions another person to you and you don’t know the gender of that person yet, you can use the pronoun “they” to represent this person even though it is only one person. This is a very common way to avoid incorrectly calling someone “he” if the person is actually a woman or incorrectly calling someone “she” if the person is actually a man.
In the examples below, the speaker uses “they” to refer to a person which is not known as male or female yet:
"Someone called my phone a few minutes ago, but they didn’t leave a message.”
“I heard that a customer is waiting to talk to me. What do they want?”
“If a person drives faster than the speed limit on the highway , they must pay a fine.”
In the first example above, the speaker doesn’t know if the caller is a male or female, so instead of saying “he or she” or saying “the caller”, the speaker can just use “they”. In the second example, the speaker uses “they” because the gender of the customer is not known yet. Finally, in the third example, the pronoun “they” is used because this is a general statement about the consequences of breaking a rule and both men and women can break this rule, so it is not related to just one gender.
Another reason why using the pronoun “they” is useful is because nowadays you cannot assume that someone’s partner is the opposite gender. Sometimes a man might be in a relationship with a man and a woman might be in a relationship with a woman, and it can be awkward or even offensive to the other person if you assume that a man’s partner is a woman or that a woman’s partner is a man.
For example, imagine that your co-worker is a man and says: “my partner is on a business trip in China”. If you want to know when that person’s partner is coming back, you can ask: “oh, when are when they coming back?” If you make the assumption that his partner is a woman and ask: “oh when is she coming back?” it could be awkward for him to answer: “actually he is coming back next week.” In order to avoid this, you can use “they”.
As an English learner, it might seem unusual for you to use “they” to talk about only one person, but it is a very common and natural term for native speakers. You should not use “it” in this case, only “they”, and the verb needs to match the pronoun, so the verb is plural (“are”, “were”, “have”, “wants” etc.). You can also use the object pronoun “them” and the possessive pronoun “their”.
In the examples below, the pronouns “they”, “their”, and “them” are used because the gender of the person being discussed is unknown:
Tell your friend to bring their jacket to the event, because we’re going to be outside all day.
Someone stole the bag, but nobody saw them do it.
If anyone calls while I’m out, ask them for their name and phone number and I’ll call them back.
Rewrite the sentences below by using the pronoun “they” where it’s needed:
If a student cheats on his or her test, he or she will receive a zero and a warning.
One of the guests left his or her glasses in his or her room.
Is your neighbor selling his or her house? I saw a sign on the front lawn.
I’d like to speak to the manager if he or she is here.
When you talked to the Doctor today, did he or she recommend another appointment?
I didn’t know that you have a roommate. If he or she wants to come too, he or she is welcome to join us.
If a student cheats on their test, they will receive a zero and a warning.
One of the guests left their glasses in their room.
Is your neighbor selling their house? I saw a sign on the front lawn.
I’d like to speak to the manager if they are here.
When you talked to the Doctor today, did they recommend another appointment?
I didn’t know that you have a roommate. If they want to come too, they are welcome to join us.