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IELTS Grammar: using 'they' with a singular

A student asked me about this page on Wikipedia, which gives three examples of the words "they" and "their" being used to refer to singular nouns:

  • Somebody left their umbrella here. Would they please collect it?
  • The patient should be told how much they will be required to pay.
  • A journalist should not be forced to reveal their sources.

They and their are used instead of he or she and his or her.

This is very common in English, and it is unlikely that someone would say: "Somebody left his or her umbrella. Would he or she please collect it?"

But can we use "they" with a singular in the IELTS test?

The simple answer is yes, but my own preference is a little more complicated. When speaking, I naturally use "they" with singular nouns from time to time. But I tend to avoid doing this in written essays, as I prefer to stick to the normal grammatical conventions. For example, I used "he or she" in the sentence below, which comes from this essay.

Firstly, it is hard for a person to be happy if he or she does not have a safe place to live and enough food to eat.

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