Writing skills: my pet grammar peeve is “it” vs. “they”

betty ming liu Writing how-to's 23 Comments

The  best employers, editors and professors intuitively use a fool-proof test to evaluate your writing. Unfortunately, most people are unaware of what’s going on and instantly fail. But the problem is easy to fix. Learn a simple grammar  trick and you’ll automatically write like a winner.

If the thought of tackling grammar makes you want to run screaming from this page, wait! The solution is actually quite painless. And the benefits last forever.

Instead of writing like a rookie, you’ll have an edge in writing anything — your next research paper, memo, job application, cover letter, blog post, essay or novel. Even your texts or emails will look sharper.

We begin by wrapping our brains around two tiny words.




The difference between “it” vs. “they”

When students first walk into my class, I find that they’ve grown up barely paying any attention to their usage of “it” and “they.” Their first written homework assignment is always a wake-up call.

Treating “it” and “they” carelessly makes for sloppy writing. Sloppy writing makes teachers, professors and smart bosses very irritable.

In dealing with me, a student who lacks it-vs.-they  insight receives an A- on what might otherwise be an A assignment. Repeat violators eventually shape up because they get tired of grades in the B+ or B range.

The pay-off comes comes at semester’s end. With their sharp(er) writing, my cranky students turn happy as they find work and even land great gigs.

Bottom line: Writing skills matter in the business world. In the job market, a lack of it-vs.-they  savvy will probably land your cover letter in the “reject” pile.

But after reading this blog post, your new it-vs.-they  knowledge makes you more hirable, promotable and maybe even more likable.  :)

Going through a few examples will show you how this works.


Examples using “it” vs. “they”

Okay. Here are two sentences. What’s wrong with the second one?

This is a great restaurant. They have the best bread.

Well, the problem is that there’s only one restaurant mentioned. So if “restaurant” is singular, you can’t use “they.” You have to say “it.” Like this:

This is a great restaurant. It has the best bread.

If using “it” feels awkward, then tweak your sentence. Rephrase. Maybe like this:

These folks run a great restaurant. They always have the best bread.

The rephrasing works because “folks” refers to more than one folk. We have multiples, making them “folks.” Now, we’re dealing with plurals. “Folks” is a “they” concept.


Words that involve “it” vs. “they” issues

By now, you’ve probably noticed that I’ve steered clear of using hard-core grammar talk. Grammar tends to scare people, which is why I’ve introduced you to it-vs.-they  in non-technical language.

But we need a bit of terminology, just a teeny new word: noun.

Students often seem surprised that most “they” words used in everyday conversation are actually “it” words when typed. This happens because the words fall into a grammar category called nouns — specifically, nouns which identify places, ideas or things.

When we talk these words, “they” comes naturally out of our mouths. And that’s totally fine! But when we type or write these words, make the mental switch. Be sure that “it” flows from your fingertips.

Here are some words that take “they” when we’re speaking but “it” when we’re writing: restaurant, cafe, bar, union, center, community, organization, museum, foundation, school, university, college, office, agency, fb (as in facebook), FBI, NYPD, Army, Navy, website, blog, committee, band, orchestra, quartet, hotel, building, theater, store, shop, boutique, film, book, DVD, gas station, temple, mosque, church, radio station, newspaper, website, network, department, government, party, park, festival, program, show, city, state, country, nation…

And here’s another way to look at the issue:




And now, a few words on identifying people

Note to reader: This entire post was written in 2009. But on July 30, 2018, I updated the section below to reflect our society’s evolving culture on gender issues. Everything else you’ve read up to this word still holds true.

In the last decade or so, our views have completely changed on the use of “it” vs. “they” for identifying people. Back in the prehistoric 20th century, I used to be so annoyed with social media site for sending out this kind of notification:

“Your Facebook friend X just posted their first Instagram photo.”  

Back then, it was considered wrong to refer to only one friend as “their.” In the past, the correct grammar for this notification should have been about a friend who “just posted his/her first Instagram photo.”

But that was the 1900s. The 21st century — especially in recent years — has been about evolving gender awareness. We all have new respect and options for individual choice in how we identify ourselves.

Today, “it” and “they” work just fine instead of “she,” “her,” “he” and “him.”

Well, you’ve survived this discussion — congratulations! You now possess a writing tool that instantly makes you a classier, more confident writer.


Comments 23

  1. Post

    i am freshening up this piece right now and made some edits to update it because….a student just turned in a paper that read “they” when the proper usage should’ve been “it.” aaaaugh!!!!!

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  2. “But basically, all we need to know is that we can use “they” when we’re talking. But in your writing, this becomes a social class issue. If you want people to see you as an educated person, then make sure you’re not writing “they” when it should be “it,” “he” or “she.””

    Awesome! I think a lot of people don’t realize that speaking grammar is not nearly the same as writing grammar, and acceptable grammatical errors in speech become unacceptable in writing. Thank you for mentioning the social class issue, too.

  3. My pet peeve is your vs. you’re. Even the most educated people get these two mixed up.

    Betty, thanks for the article. When you get a chance, can you do one with me vs. I? It’s not a common mistake when you have a group of people arguing about it should be “me” or “I”…

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  6. Great article…..thanks for bringing up a common error. One friendly note….as long as we’re on subject-verb-linking pronoun agreement, perhaps your first example should be preceded by “Here are two sentences,” and not “Here’s a sentence.”

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  7. There is an old prep school English book here. It gives the example:
    Girl 1: “What are they?” (girl pointing to objects)
    Girl 2: “They are bracelets.” Is using ‘they’ here correct??

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  10. What about with the use of a word that is plural even if singular. For instance, underwear or moose?

    Ex. I put my underwear in the dryer but it fell out.

    I put my underwear in the dryer but they fell out.

    Underwear is plural but it is also singular

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  11. Hi! Great explanation! I have just one more question. Which is the plural for “it” in objects? For example:
    It’s a ball,
    It’s an apple
    They are balls or these are balls
    They are apples or these are apples

    Thank you!

    1. Post

      Good question, Patricia. The answer:
      They’re balls (“they are balls” rather than “it’s a ball”).
      You can also use “these” depending on your preference — it depends on what feels most expressive to you in the context of using the sentence. :)

  12. “They” is perfectly fine to use as a singular pronoun when the gender is unknown.

    According to Merriam Webster:

    The use of they, their, them, and themselves as pronouns of indefinite gender and indefinite number is well established in speech and writing, even in literary and formal contexts. This gives you the option of using the plural pronouns where you think they sound best, and of using the singular pronouns (such as he, she, he or she, and their inflected forms) where you think they sound best.

    According to google’s dictionary:
    1. Used to refer to two or more people or things previously mentioned or easily identified.
    2. Used to refer to a person of unspecified gender.

    According to Oxford English Dictionary:

    1. Third person plural Used to refer to two or more people or things previously mentioned or easily identified.
    ‘the two men could get life sentences if they are convicted’

    2. Third person plural singular Used to refer to a person of unspecified gender.
    ‘ask a friend if they could help’


    I suggest you avoid docking points for singular ‘They’ before some student claims you’re being bigoted towards non-binary gendered individuals and you have a headache on your hands. (Or a headache on your neck, I suppose).

    “Your Facebook friend X just posted their first Instagram photo.” is completely valid and acceptable grammar.

    1. Post

      Adam, this comment is so helpful. I went back and read my 2009 post and realized, wow, a lot has changed in a decade! So thanks to you, I just updated the discussion related to people and how we self-identify. Readers like you keep my site on point. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

  13. As a journalist, I was taught that “they” or “their” only be used when referring to people, and “it” when referring to a thing or object.

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