Grammar, Writing

All About Them, They, and Their

Most of the time, we use the words “them”, “they”, and “their” when we are referring to two or more people. It is easier to use these words instead of writing a bunch of names or descriptive terms (such as “the people in my office” or “the engineering students at my university”) over and over again.

Technically, “them” and “they” are third person plural pronouns while “their” is a third person plural possessive pronoun. (Don’t worry about remembering all of that—there is no quiz at the end of the article and you will not be graded!)

The following story shows how “they”, “them”, and “their” are commonly used:

David and Marie got into their car. They stopped to pick up their friends, Janet and Farrah. They drove around searching for a good place to have lunch, but nothing in their neighborhood looked good to them. Marie suggested that they eat at the food court at a nearby shopping mall. The others agreed. At the mall, they ran into some of David’s co-workers. Their names were Paul and Fabio. Marie had met them before, but Janet and Farrah did not know them. Everyone seemed to get along well, so they all ate their lunch in the food court together.

Similarly, “them”, “they”, and “their” can also refer to two or more things. Here are some examples:

Do you see those dishes over there? Please put them on the counter.

Wow, this store has so many different kinds of shoes. And they are all on sale!

The basketballs at the gym are all losing their air, so they don’t bounce very well.

One person?

Did you know that you can also use “they”, “them”, and “their” to refer to one person? This happens mainly when we are writing or speaking about someone whose gender is unknown.

Some strict, old-fashioned grammarians cringe at the thought of using third person plural pronouns to refer to a single person. However, most of the current style guides consider the “singular they” to be acceptable.

On a practical level, the “singular they” works better than the traditional practice of using male pronouns (“he”, “him”, “his”) to refer to someone whose gender is unknown, or writing out the cumbersome “he or she”, “him or her”, or “his or hers”.

You can see how this works in the examples below:

I’m going to meet with an agent at the job placement office next week, and I hope they will have some opportunities for me.

Because I don’t know which coworker left this note on my desk, I can’t give them the file they requested.

Someone left their phone on the bus, so I turned it in to the driver.

In recent years, some individuals who identify as non-binary have started using “they”, “them”, and “their” instead of gendered pronouns. As we detailed in a previous article about names, using good language etiquette requires you to follow the other person’s lead and refer to them using the name and pronouns that they prefer. However, there are some regions and workplaces that have different policies regarding non-binary pronouns. Make sure you know the policies about pronouns where you live, work, or go to school.

If you want to make sure you are using “them”, “they”, and “their” correctly, click the blue box below. A TextRanch editor will take a look at your writing and give you some feedback. If you need a more in-depth explanation about a sentence using one of these words, our Ask an Editor service offers customized advice from an English expert.

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