The singular they

The English language makes it relatively easy to write in a gender-neutral way because nouns in general do not have a gender; a gender is only specified when referring to people or animals. Hence, there is only one indefinite article (the) and two definite articles (a or an, see here). Compare this to German, where almost every noun has a clear male or female form that requires to chose the correct definite (der, die, das) or indefinite (ein, eine) article. This has inspired concepts such as the Binnen-I to avoid discrimination. However, there are occasions where even in English you would be tempted to write “he/she” or “his/her” in order to not imply that a person is male or female. As an example, consider the sentence

A reader of this post spent five minutes of his/her time to learn about the singular they.

To avoid such rather ugly constructions, the English language offers the so-called singular they. For our example, it allows us to write

A reader of this post spent five minutes of their time to learn about the singular they.

That’s pretty neat, isn’t it? I suggest you follow this link to see a few more examples. Using the singular they may feel awkward in the beginning but is perfectly correct. (Amusingly, I once overheard a German explaining to a native English speaker that it was wrong.)


Data is plural, or is it?

Whenever I attend a scientific talk, or read scientific publications, there is a significant chance that somebody forgets about the fact that data is the plural of datum. Hence, strictly speaking, it is wrong to say

This data shows that…

Instead, you should say

These data show that…

Because the mistake is so common, some people even argue that regarding data as singular is actually acceptable, see the discussion here . The use as a singular is also mentioned in Oxford English, but apparently does not apply to technical English. However, the journal editors I work with do not agree with that, and insist that data is plural.

Regardless of whether you consider data as a singular or plural noun, you should never use the word datas because it does not exist in English.