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

betty ming liu Writing how-to's 25 Comments

People who care about writing have a fool-proof test for evaluating how much you know about the form. This test tells them a lot about your ability to pay attention to details and how well you were educated in your English classes.

Unfortunately, many students come into my class failing this test — even the ones from “good” schools. But the problem is easy to fix. Learning this simple grammar  trick shows that you understand how to write like a polished professional.

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

We begin by wrapping our brains around two tiny words. It. They.

 

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.”

But once we go through the issue, everyone gets it. The pay-off comes comes at the end of the semester, when my students are writing like professionals, which helps them to find work and even land great gigs.

Let’s go through a few examples to show you how this works.

 

Examples using “it” vs. “they”

Okay. Here are two sentences. They sound just fine if we’re talking to a friend because these sentences reflect conversational English. But when it comes to writing, there’s something wrong with the second sentence. See if you can spot the issue:

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

Here’s the problem with Sentence #2 above: There’s only one “great 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.

Of course, this sounds awkward. You would never say that. And you probably would find it too awkward to write — even though it’s accurate. So this is the next step: Rephrase the sentence. 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 using words like “restaurant,” referring to them as “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…

 

ITvsTHEY

 

When we write about human beings 

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 sites 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 brought a new awareness about gender choices. In our LGBTQ+ world, we show respect for gender-fluid ways to identify ourselves.

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

And that’s it! You’ve survived this discussion. Congratulations! You now possess a writing tool that instantly makes you a classier, more confident writer.

 

Comments 25

  1. Post
    Author

    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!!!!!

      1. Post
        Author
  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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      Author
  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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      Author
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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

    1. Post
      Author
  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
      Author

      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
      Author

      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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      Author
  14. A little late to the party but I have important question. When speaking for “It” and “They” how do you distinguish the difference between the two? For example a photo of bread appears in front of a child. They ask “What are they?” Immediately I think to ask myself well, is it one type of bread? Or many types of breads?

    In which case I feel for the first one you answer it is bread. Perhaps the child meant what food are they? They are bread.
    I’m stuck in a maze of my own thoughts here.

    1. Post
      Author

      Oh my goodness, Jay. I am stuck in your maze, too. I think the I would just see how me and the kid feel in the moment. Especially with kids — it’s all about going with what they’re conveying emotionally. Sometimes, they don’t have the words yet because they’re young. Just keep it simple and fun!

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