How not to use the word “they” in a paper

Of all of the grammar mistakes I’ve seen my students make, using the word “they” incorrectly is the most common.

When you are writing an academic paper, NEVER follow a singular subject in the beginning of a sentence with the word “they” in the second part of the sentence.  Here are a few examples of how NOT to use the word “they”:

1. When a student doesn’t understand an assignment, they might just need to hear it in a different way.

2. When a person becomes a victim of sexual assault, they can access many resources.

3. If a goalie wants to effectively block a shot, they should put complete focus on the ball.

Why are these sentences wrong?  

The beginning of the sentence refers to a singular subject.  In the second part of the sentence, the writer refers to that one person as “they”.

Why do students love to do this?  

In many essays and papers, it is considered incorrect to assume one gender or another for a subject.  For example, in the third sentence, the goalie could be a male or a female.  The word “they” could refer to either gender, thus avoiding any sexist stereotyping.  However, “they” is also grammatically incorrect.

How can you correct this mistake?

One method is replacing “they” with “he or she”. This sounds a but awkward at times, but avoids gender stereotyping while maintaining a grammatically correct sentence structure.

In many papers, it seems like we have to repeat “he or she” over and over, making the writing seem a but clumsy or choppy.  In that case, it is just as correct to change the singular subject to a plural one:

If goalies want to effectively block shots, they should put complete focus on the ball.

By changing the subject to a plural word, “goalies,” and modifying the rest of the sentence, the writer can avoid using “he or she” and also have a correctly worded sentence.

If you are editing your paper for grammatical errors, notice how you used the word “they.”  Make sure that anytime you wrote it, you were referring to a plural subject.  If not, use the above hints to change your paper.