They

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This article is about the English personal pronoun. For other uses, see They (disambiguation).

They /ð/ is the third-person plural personal pronoun (subjective case) in Modern English.

Personal pronouns in standard Modern English
Person (gender) Subject Object Possessive determiner Possessive pronoun Reflexive
Singular
First I me my mine myself
Second you your yours yourself
Third Masculine he him his himself
Feminine she her hers herself
Neuter it its itself
Plural
First we us our ours ourselves
Second you your yours yourselves
Third they them their theirs themselves

Usage[edit]

Main article: Singular they

The "singular" they is the use of this pronoun as a gender-neutral singular rather than as a plural pronoun. The correctness of this usage is disputed.[1][2] The Oxford Dictionaries have an article on the usage, saying that it dates back to the 16th century.[3]

The singular pronoun they is even found in formal or official texts. For example, a 2008 amendment to the Canadian Criminal Code contains the following text:

if a peace officer has reasonable grounds to believe that, because of their physical condition, a person may be incapable of providing a breath sample... (subparagraph 254(3)(a)(ii))

Which contrasts, for example, with subsecti evidence to the contrary, proof of an intent or criminal liability.

In an article published in The New York Times Magazine by Patricia T. O'Conner and Stewart Kellerman, they read:

Anne Fisher (1719-78) [an 18th-century British schoolmistress and the first woman to write an English grammar book] was not only a woman of letters but also a prosperous entrepreneur. She ran a school for young ladies and operated a printing business and a newspaper in Newcastle with her husband, Thomas Slack. In short, she was the last person you would expect to suggest that he should apply to both sexes. But apparently she couldn’t get her mind around the idea of using they as a singular.

...

Meanwhile, many great writers — Byron, Austen, Thackeray, Eliot, Dickens, Trollope and more — continued to use they and company as singulars, never mind the grammarians. In fact, so many people now use they in the old singular way that dictionaries and usage guides are taking a critical look at the prohibition against it. R. W. Burchfield, editor of The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage, has written that it’s only a matter of time before this practice becomes standard English: “The process now seems irreversible.” Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) already finds the singular they acceptable “even in literary and formal contexts,” but the Usage Panel of The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) isn’t there yet. [1]

Etymology[edit]

In Old English, hīe was used as the third-person, personal pronoun (in the nominative and accusative case). It was gradually replaced by an Old Norse borrowing, þeir (nominative plural masculine of the demonstrative, which acted in Old Norse as a plural pronoun), until it was entirely replaced in around the 1400s in Middle English. Þeir, in turn, became they as it is known in Modern English today. Þeir originates from Proto-Germanic *þai-z ("those"), from Proto-Indo-European *toi ("those").[4]

Personal pronouns in Middle English
The Modern English is shown in italics below each Middle English pronoun
Person (gender) Subject Object Possessive determiner Possessive pronoun Reflexive
Singular
First
modern
ic / ich / I
I
me / mi
me
min / minen [pl.]
my
min / mire / minre
mine
min one / mi selven
myself
Second
modern
þou / þu / tu / þeou
you
þe
you
þi / ti
your
þin / þyn
yours
þeself / þi selven
yourself
Third Masculine
modern
he
he
him[a] / hine[b]
him
his / hisse / hes
his
his / hisse
his
him-seluen
himself
Feminine
modern
sche[o] / s[c]ho / ȝho
she
heo / his / hie / hies / hire
her
hio / heo / hire / heore
her
-
hers
heo-seolf
herself
Neuter
modern
hit
it
hit / him
it
his
its
his
its
hit sulue
itself
Plural
First
modern
we
we
us / ous
us
ure[n] / our[e] / ures / urne
our
oures
ours
us self / ous silve
ourselves
Second
modern
ȝe / ye
you
eow / [ȝ]ou / ȝow / gu / you
you
eower / [ȝ]ower / gur / [e]our
your
youres
yours
Ȝou self / ou selve
yourselves
Third
modern
heo / he / þa / þei / þeo / þo
they
þem / his / heo[m] / þo
them
heore / þeir / her
their
-
theirs
þam-selue
themselves

Many other variations are noted in Middle English sources due to difference in spellings and pronunciations. See Francis Henry Stratmann (1891), A Middle-English dictionary (A Middle English dictionary ed.), [London]: Oxford University Press  and A Concise Dictionary of Middle English from A.D. 1150 TO 1580, A. L. Mayhew, Walter W. Skeat, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1888.

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ a b O'Conner, Patricia; Kellerman, Stewart (21 July 2009). "On Language - "All-Purpose Pronoun"". New York Times Magazine. Archived from the original on 2012-07-07. Retrieved 7 July 2012. 
  2. ^ "they (definition and usage)". Dictionary.com LLC. Retrieved 7 July 2012. 
  3. ^ "‘He or she’ versus ‘they’". Oxford University Press. Retrieved 2012-07-07. 
  4. ^ "They". Online Etymology Dictionary. Retrieved 6 October 2010.