Why do apps refer to singular users as ‘they’ instead of using ‘he’ or ‘she’?

using singular they in mobile apps - ux writing

Question: what do you do when you need to write a pronoun for a single person that can be of any gender?

For years, those were the alternatives:
  1. Change the structure of your sentence (not always possible).
  2. Use the name of the person (not always known, might be weird when used in a few sentences).
  3. Use just ‘he’ or just ‘she’ (might insult the other gender).
  4. Use ‘he/she’ or ’he or she’ (sounds clunky and too formal).
  5. Use ‘one’ (makes the sentence sound robotic).
  6. Use ’it’ (as if they were objects).
All of these options are either lame or potentially insulting, so UX writers and product managers had to find creative ways to bypass them.

Singular ‘they'

Lately, more and more applications have started to use the term ‘they’ as a pronoun for a single person. Here’s one example taken form Uber’s arrival notification. Notice how the entire sentence is written as if the driver is a “they”.
a push notification example using singular they - the mobile spoon
As I’m not a native English speaker, I thought I missed an English lesson back in fifth grade, but it turns up I didn’t miss it because it wasn’t always there: in 2015, the American Dialect Society approved the use of the word ‘they’ as a gender-neutral pronoun for a single person.

What led to this change?

I did some digging (4 minutes search to be honest, but they were pretty intense), and learned the following:  
  1. Younger generations (especially Gen Z), along with LGBTQ folks fighting for more social and legal recognition, were less than happy to align with the restrictive options of being a “he” or a “she”.
  2. People have been using it for years (i.e. “Every time someone tries to win this game, they end up losing.”) so it was only natural it will eventually be accepted as a standard.
In 2015, singular "they" was embraced by the Washington Post style guide, and was defined as 'the only sensible solution to English’s lack of a gender-neutral third-person singular personal pronoun’. Two years later, the Associated Press Stylebook - a widely used reference for journalists, followed the trend and embraced 'They' as singular, gender-neutral pronoun.


UI wise, it does make much more sense to have a simple way to relate to a single person without thinking about all the gender possibilities or having to select one hardcoded gender. With this change, many sentences can finally become more readable and simple to write.
Next time you run into a microcopy dilemma involving a singular person pronoun - use ‘they’.
It’s so widely used these days, most users will feel comfortable with it.
Here’s an example:
UX Writing - using a singular they
And if the image above seemed familiar to you, it’s Zoltar (by riddsorensen), a fictional character from Battle of the Planets (AKA G-Force).
They were the villain of the series and their gender was unknown (and that was my first use of the singular ’they’).

Before you leave - check out my ultimate microcopy guide for writing and designing text in websites and mobile apps. It has loads of visual design snippets that UX writers, designers, developers, and product managers must be familiar with:

40 UI rules for designing text in mobile apps - the mobile spoon

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