It typically occurs with an antecedent of indeterminate gender, as in sentences like:
- "Everyone returned to their seats.":378
- "Somebody left their umbrella in the office. Would they please collect it.":§528
- "If a person doesn't want to go on living, they are often very difficult to help.:§528
- "The patient should be told at the outset how much they will be required to pay.":493
- "But a journalist should not be forced to reveal their sources.":493
The term may also be applied to similar use of derived words such as themselves.
A reason for its use is that English has no dedicated singular personal pronoun of indeterminate gender. In some cases its use can be explained by notional agreement because words like "everyone", though singular in form, are plural in meaning. One reason for its increased use may be the movement to gender-inclusive language in the twentieth century, but it has been used by respected writers for centuries.
Though singular they has a long history of usage and is common in everyday English, its use has been criticized since the late nineteenth century, and acceptance varies. It may be more accepted in British English than in American English, or vice versa.:718:770
- 1 Inflected forms and derivative pronouns
- 2 Usage
- 2.1 Older usage by respected authors
- 2.2 Trend to prescription of generic he from 19th century
- 2.3 Contemporary usage of purportedly gender-neutral he
- 2.4 Trend to gender-neutral language from the 20th century
- 2.5 Contemporary usage
- 3 Acceptability and prescriptive guidance
- 4 Grammatical and logical analysis
- 5 Cognitive efficiency
- 6 Comparison with other pronouns
- 7 Comparison with other languages
- 8 See also
- 9 Notes
- 10 Sources of original examples
- 11 References
- 12 External links
Inflected forms and derivative pronouns
|Nominative (subject)||Accusative (object)||Prenominal possessive (dependent genitive)||Predicative possessive (independent genitive)||Reflexive|
|He||He laughs.||I hug him.||His hair grows.||I use his.||He feeds himself.|
|She||She laughs.||I hug her.||Her hair grows.||I use hers.||She feeds herself.|
|Prototypical they||When I tell my children a joke they laugh.||Whether they win or lose, I hug them.||As long as people live, their hair grows.||Most of my friends have cell phones, so I use theirs.||The children feed themselves.|
|Singular they||When I tell someone a joke they laugh.||When I greet a friend I hug them.||When someone does not get a haircut, their hair grows long.||If my mobile phone runs out of power, a friend lets me borrow theirs.||Each child feeds themself. (nonstandard)|
|Generic he||When I tell someone a joke he laughs.||When I greet a friend I hug him.||When someone does not get a haircut, his hair grows long.||If my mobile phone runs out of power, a friend lets me borrow his.||Each child feeds himself.|
Singular they has the same inflected forms as the "normal", plural they, i.e. them and their.
The reflexive form themselves is sometimes used but there is an alternative reflexive form themself, which some consider unacceptable.:491–5 Although themself has a long history and re-emerged in the 1980s, it is still fairly rare and is not currently considered standard English.:104:777 It is sometimes used when referring to a single person of indeterminate sex, where the plural form themselves might seem incongruous, as in
- "It is not an actor pretending to be Reagan or Thatcher, it is, in grotesque form, the person themself."—Hislop (1984);[i]:23 quoted in Fowler's:776, themself
They was already being used with a singular antecedent in the Middle English of the 14th century.:493–494:178 It is found in the writings of many respected authors, including Chaucer, Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Thackeray, and Shaw, as well as the United States Declaration of Independence:
- "And whoso fyndeth hym out of swich blame,
- They wol come up . . ."
- —Chaucer, The Pardoner's Prologue (c. 1395);[ii]:195 quoted by Jespersen and thence in Merriam-Webster's Concise Dictionary of English Usage.:734
- " 'Tis meet that some more audience than a mother, since nature makes them partial, should o'erhear the speech."— Shakespeare, Hamlet (1599);[iii]:105 quoted in Merriam-Webster's Concise Dictionary of English Usage.:735
- "If a person is born of a . . . gloomy temper . . . they cannot help it."— Chesterfield, Letter to his son (1759);[iv]:568 quoted in Fowler's.:779
- "Now nobody does anything well that they cannot help doing"— Ruskin, The Crown of Wild Olive (1866);[v]:44 quoted in Fowler's.:779
- "Nobody in their senses would give sixpence on the strength of a promissory note of the kind."— Bagehot, The Liberal Magazine (1910);[vi] quoted in Fowler's.:648
- "I would have every body marry if they can do it properly."— Austen, Mansfield Park (1814);[vii]:37 quoted in Merriam-Webster's Concise Dictionary of English Usage.:734
- Caesar: "No, Cleopatra. No man goes to battle to be killed."
- Cleopatra: "But they do get killed"
- —Shaw, Caesar and Cleopatra (1901);[viii]:67 quoted in Merriam-Webster's Concise Dictionary of English Usage.:735
- "A person can't help their birth."— W. M. Thackeray, Vanity Fair (1848);[ix]:66 quoted in Merriam-Webster's Concise Dictionary of English Usage.:734
- "When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another . . ." —United States Declaration of Independence; quoted in Merriam-Webster's Concise Dictionary of English Usage.:527
Alongside they, however, it was also acceptable to use the pronoun he as a (purportedly) gender-neutral pronoun,:358 as in the following:
- "Suppose the life and fortune of every one of us would depend on his winning or losing a game of chess."— Thomas Huxley, A Liberal Education (1868);[x] quoted by Baskervill.:191
- "If any one did not know it, it was his own fault."— George Washington Cable, Old Creole Days (1879);[xi] quoted by Baskervill.:191
- "No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his nationality nor denied the right to change his nationality."— Article 15, Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948).[xii]
In Thackeray's writings, we find both
- "A person can't help their birth."—Rosalind in W. M. Thackeray, Vanity Fair (1848);[ix]:66 quoted from the OED by Curzan in Gender Shifts in the History of English.:77
- "Every person who turns this page has his own little diary."— W. M. Thackeray, On Lett's Diary (1869);[xiii]:189 quoted in Baskervill, An English Grammar.:410
And Caxton writes
- "Who of thise wormes shall be byten, He must have triacle; Yf not that, he shall deye."— Caxton, Dialogues in French and English (c. 1483)[xv]:11.
Trend to prescription of generic he from 19th century
A recommendation to use the generic he, rather than they, in formal English can be found as early as the mid-18th century, in Ann Fisher's A New Grammar, where she writes:
An 1895 grammar (Baskervill, W.M. and Sewell, J.W.: An English Grammar for the Use of High School, Academy and College Class) notes the common use of the singular they but recommends use of the generic he, on the basis of number agreement:
Another way of referring to an antecedent which is a distributive pronoun [e.g. everybody] or a noun modified by a distributive adjective [e.g. every], is to use the plural of the pronoun following. This is not considered the best usage, the logical analysis requiring the singular pronoun in each case; but the construction is frequently found when the antecedent includes or implies both genders. The masculine does not really represent a feminine antecedent, and the expression his or her is avoided as being cumbrous.—Baskervill, An English Grammar:Section 411
Baskervill gives a number of examples of recognized authors using the singular they, including
- "Every one must judge according to their own feelings."— Byron, Werner (1823),[xvi]:vi quoted as "Every one must judge of [sic] their own feelings.":Section 411
- "Had the Doctor been contented to take my dining tables as any body in their senses would have done . . ."— Austen, Mansfield Park (1814);[xvii]:200 :Section 411
- "If the part deserve any comment, every considering Christian will make it to themselves as they go . . ."— Defoe, The Family Instructor (1816);[xviii]:200 :Section 411
- "Every person's happiness depends in part upon the respect they meet in the world . . ."— Paley,[xix]:200 :Section 411
but prefers the use of he:
[. . .] when the antecedent includes both masculine and feminine, or is a distributive word, taking in each of many persons,—the preferred method is to put the pronoun following in the masculine singular [. . .]
—Baskervill, An English Grammar:Section 410
Use of the purportedly gender-neutral he remained acceptable until at least the 1960s,:358 though some uses of he were later criticized as being awkward or silly, for instance when referring to::735
- indeterminate persons of both sexes:
- "the ideal that every boy and girl should be so equipped that he shall not be handicapped in his struggle for social progress . . ."— C.C. Fries, American English Grammar, (1940).[xx]:215
- known persons of both sexes:
- "She and Louis had a game—who could find the ugliest photograph of himself."— Joseph P. Lash, Eleanor and Franklin (1971)[xxi]:454
- or an indeterminate person who can be pragmatically assumed to be a woman.
- ". . . everyone will be entitled to decide for himself whether or not to have an abortion."— Albert Bleumenthal, N.Y. State Assembly (1975).[xxii]
Contemporary usage of purportedly gender-neutral he
He is still sometimes found in contemporary writing as a purportedly gender-neutral pronoun.
This may refer to a probably male person or to occupations traditionally thought of as male:
- "The patient should be informed of his therapeutic options."— (in a text about prostate cancer(2004)),[xxiii]:147
- "It wouldn’t be as if the lone astronaut would be completely by himself.[xxiv]
- "Kitchen table issues . . . are ones the next president can actually do something about if he actually cares about it. More likely if she cares about it!"— Hillary Rodham Clinton,[xxv]
In other situations, the antecedent may refer to:
- an indeterminate person of either sex:
- "Now, a writer is entitled to have a Roget on his desk."—Barzun;[xxvi] quoted in Merriam-Webster's Concise Dictionary of English Usage:734
- "They're going to appoint a new manager. Well I hope he does a better job than the present one.":???
- "A Member of Parliament should always live in his constituency.":???
Even in 2010, we find the use of generic he recommended:
- " . . . when indefinite pronouns are used as antecedents, they require singular subject, object, and possessive pronouns . . ."
- "Everyone did as he pleased" . . .
- "In informal spoken English, plural pronouns are often used with indefinite pronoun antecedents. However, this construction is generally not considered appropriate in formal speech or writing.
- INFORMAL: Somebody should let you borrow their book.
- FORMAL: Somebody should let you borrow his book."
- INFORMAL: Somebody should let you borrow their book.
- —Choy, Basic Grammar and Usage:213
Trend to gender-neutral language from the 20th century
In the second half of the 20th century, feminists expressed concern at the use of "sexist" and male-oriented language.:1–9 Such usage included not only the use of man as a false generic but also the use of he as a generic pronoun.:11–61
It was argued that he could not sensibly be used as a generic pronoun understood to include men and women. William Safire in his On Language column in The New York Times approved of the use of generic he, mentioning the mnemonic phrase "the male embraces the female.:46–47 C. Adendyck from Brooklyn wrote to the New York Times in a reply:
"The average American needs the small routines of getting ready for work. As he shaves or blow-dries his hair or pulls on his panty-hose, he is easing himself by small stages into the demands of the day."
By 1980, the movement had gained wide support, and many organizations, including most publishers, had issued guidelines on the use of gender-neutral language.:1–9
Use for specific, known people
In some situations, an individual may be known but referred to using the pronoun they because their gender is unknown on unconventional; social media applications, for example, may permit account holders to select an unconvential gender such as "gender fluid" or "bigender" and a pronoun, including they/them which they wish to be used when referring to them.
The use of masculine generic nouns and pronouns in written and spoken language has decreased since the 1960s.:563 In a corpus of spontaneous speech collected in Australia in the 1990s, singular they had become the most frequently used generic pronoun.:563 The increased use of singular they may be at least partly due to an increasing desire for gender-neutral language. While writers a hundred years ago might have had no qualm using he with a referent of indeterminate gender, writers today often feel uncomfortable with this. One solution in formal writing has often been to write he or she, or something similar, but this is considered awkward when used excessively, overly politically correct, or both.
In contemporary usage, singular they is used—at least by some—to refer to an indeterminate antecedent, for instance when the sex or number of the antecedent is indeterminate, unknown or unrevealed. Examples include different types of usage.
Use with a pronoun antecedent
The singular antecedent can be a pronoun such as everybody, someone, anybody, or an interrogative pronoun such as "who":
- with everybody, everyone etc.:
- "Everybody was crouched behind the furniture to surprise me, and they tried to. But I already knew they were there." Example given by Garner.:643
- "Everyone promised to behave themselves." Example given by Huddleston et.al.:493
- "Everyone returned to their seats." Example given by Pinker.:378
- with nobody or no one:
- with somebody or someone:
- "I feel that if someone is not doing their job it should be called to their attention."—An American newspaper (1984); quoted by Fowler.:776
- with anybody or anyone:
- "If anyone tells you that America's best days are behind her, then they're looking the wrong way." President George Bush, 1991 State of the Union Address;[xxvii]:100 quoted by Garner:175
- "Anyone can set themselves up as an acupuncturist."—Sarah Lonsdale "Sharp Practice Pricks Reputation of Acupuncture." Observer 15 December 1991, as cited by Garner:175
- "If anybody calls, take their name and ask them to call again later. Example given by Swan.":§528
- even where the gender is known or assumed:
- "Under new rules to be announced tomorrow, it will be illegal for anyone to donate an organ to their wife." Ballantyne, "Transplant Jury to Vet Live Donors", Sunday Times (London) 25 3. 1990, as cited by Garner:175 (In 1990 wives could be assumed to be female.)
- with an interrogative pronoun as antecedent:
- "Who thinks they can solve the problem?". Example given by Huddleston et.al.; The Cambridge Grammar of the English language.:1473
Use with a generic noun as antecedent
The singular antecedent can also be a noun such as person, patient, or student, used generically, for instance referring to any member of that class:
- with a noun (e.g. person, student, patient) used generically (e.g. in the sense of any member of that class or a specific member unknown to the speaker or writer)
- ". . . if the child possesses the nationality or citizenship of another country, they may lose this when they get a British passport." From a British passport application form; quoted by Swan.:§528
- "cognitive dissonance: "a concept in psychology [that] describes the condition in which a person's attitudes conflict with their behaviour".—Macmillan Dictionary of Business and management (1988), as cited by Garner.:175
- "A starting point would be to give more support to the company secretary. They are, or should be, privy to the confidential deliberations and secrets of the board and the company.— Ronald Severn. "Protecting the Secretary Bird". Financial Times, 6 January 1992; quoted by Garner.:175
- with representatives of a class previously referred to in the singular
- "I had to decide: Is this person being irrational or is he right? Of course, they were often right."—Robert Burchfield in U.S. News & World Report 11 August 1986, as cited in Merriam-Webster's Concise Dictionary of English Usage:734
- Even when referring to a class of persons of known sex, they is sometimes used.
- "I swear more when I'm talking to a boy, because I'm not afraid of shocking them". From an interview.:§528
- "No mother should be forced to testify against their child".
- They may also be used with antecedents of mixed genders:
- "Let me know if your father or your mother changes their mind." Example given by Huddleston et al.:493
- "Either the husband or the wife has perjured themself." Here themself might be acceptable to some, themselves seems less acceptable, and himself is unacceptable. Example given by Huddleston et al.:493
- Even for a definite known person of known sex, they may be used in order to ignore or conceal the sex.
- "I had a friend in Paris, and they had to go to hospital for a month." (definite person, not identified):§528
- The word themself is also sometimes used:
- "Someone has apparently locked themself in the office."[acceptability questionable]:493
Some uses are more acceptable than others, and in some case attempts to replace they with a (morphologically) singular pronoun can lead to absurd results, as can be tested with the above examples.
Acceptability and prescriptive guidance
Though both generic he and generic they have long histories of use, and both are still used, both are also systematically avoided by particular groups.:§5.222 Style guides that avoid expressing a preference for either approach sometimes recommend recasting generic expressions as plurals to avoid the criticisms of either party.
Some usage guides accept or recommend singular uses of they not just in cases where there is an element of semantic plurality expressed by a word such as "everyone" but also where an indeterminate person is referred to, citing examples of such usage even in formal speech. For instance, Casey Miller and Kate Swift, in The Handbook of Non-Sexist Writing, quote Ronald Reagan:
- "You must identify the person who has the power to hire you and show them how your skills can help them with their problems.":50
Usage guidance in American style guides
Garner's Modern American Usage (2003) recommends cautious use of singular they, and avoidance where possible because its use is stigmatized.
- "Where noun–pronoun disagreement can be avoided, avoid it. Where it can't be avoided, resort to it cautiously because some people will doubt your literacy . . .".:174
Garner suggests that use of singular they is more acceptable in British English:
- "Speakers of AmE resist this development more than speakers of BrE, in which the indeterminate they is already more or less standard.":718
and apparently regrets the resistance by the American language community:
- "That it sets many literate Americans teeth on edge is an unfortunate obstacle to what promises to be the ultimate solution to the problem.":718
He regards the trend toward using singular they with antecedents like everybody, anyone and somebody as inevitable:
- "Disturbing though these developments may be to purists, they're irreversible. And nothing that a grammarian says will change them.":643–644
In the 14th edition (1993) of The Chicago Manual of Style, the University of Chicago Press explicitly recommended use of singular use of they and their, noting a "revival" of this usage and citing "its venerable use by such writers as Addison, Austen, Chesterfield, Fielding, Ruskin, Scott, and Shakespeare.":76–77 From the 15th edition, this was changed. In Chapter 5 of the 16th edition, now written by Bryan A. Garner, the recommendations are:
- "The singular they. A singular antecedent requires a singular referent pronoun. Because he is no longer accepted as a generic pronoun referring to a person of either sex, it has become common in speech and in informal writing to substitute the third-person plural pronouns they, them, their, and themselves, and the nonstandard singular themself. While this usage is accepted in casual context, it is still considered ungrammatical in formal writing.":§5.46
- "Gender bias. . . . On the one hand, it is unacceptable to a great many reasonable readers to use the generic masculine pronoun (he in reference to no one in particular). On the other hand, it is unacceptable to a great many readers (often different readers) either to resort to non-traditional gimmicks to avoid the generic masculine (by using he/she of s/he, for example) or to use they as a kind of singular pronoun. Either way, credibility is lost with some readers.":§5.222
According to The American Heritage Book of English Usage, many Americans avoid use of they to refer to a singular antecedent out of respect for a "traditional" grammatical rule, despite use of singular they by modern writers of note and mainstream publications:
- "Most of the Usage Panel rejects the use of they with singular antecedents as ungrammatical, even in informal speech. Eighty-two percent find the sentence The typical student in the program takes about six years to complete their course work unacceptable. . . . panel members seem to make a distinction between singular nouns, such as the typical student and a person, and pronouns that are grammatically singular but semantically plural, such as anyone, everyone and no one. Sixty-four percent of panel members accept the sentence No one is willing to work for those wages anymore, are they?":178–179
The Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association explicitly reject the use of singular they and gives the following example as "incorrect" usage:
- "Neither the highest scorer nor the lowest scorer in the group had any doubt about their competence."
while also specifically taking a stand that generic he is unacceptable. The APA recommends using he or she, recasting the sentence with a plural subject to allow correct use of they, or simply rewriting the sentence to avoid issues with gender or number.:47
Strunk & White, the authors of The Elements of Style find use of they with a singular antecedent unacceptable:
- "They. Not to be used when the antecedent is a distributive expression, such as each, each one. everybody, every one, many a man. Use the singular pronoun. [. . . ] A similar fault is the use of the plural pronoun with the antecedent anybody, anyone, somebody, someone [. . . ] The use of he as pronoun for nouns embracing both genders is a simple, practical convention rooted in the beginnings of the English language. "
Their assessment, in 1979, was
- "He has lost all suggestion of maleness in these circumstances. [. . .] It has no pejorative connotation; it is never incorrect.":60
Joseph M. Williams, who wrote a number of books on writing with "clarity and grace", discusses the advantages and disadvantages of various solutions when faced with the problem of referring to an antecedent such as someone, everyone, no one or a noun that does not indicate gender and suggests that this will continue to be a problem for some time. He "suspect[s] that eventually we will accept the plural they as a correct singular" but states that currently "formal usage requires a singular pronoun".:23–25
According to The Little, Brown Handbook, most experts—and some teachers and employers—find use of singular they unacceptable:
- "Although some experts accept they, them, and their with singular indefinite words, most do not, and many teachers and employers regard the plural as incorrect. To be safe, work for agreement between singular indefinite words and the pronouns that refer to them [. . . ]"
It recommends using he or she or avoiding the problem by rewriting the sentence to use a plural or omit the pronoun:354
The Purdue Online Writing Lab (OWL) maintains that singular they is incorrect:
- "Remember: the words everybody, anybody, anyone, each, neither, nobody, someone, a person, etc. are singular and take singular pronouns."
Usage guidance in British style guides
In the first edition of Fowler's Modern English Usage (published in 1965) it is stated that singular they is disapproved of by grammarians and should be avoided in favour of the generic he. Examples of its use by eminent writers are given, but it is suggested that "few good modern writers would flout [grammarians] so conspicuously as Fielding and Thackeray", whose sentences are described as having an "old-fashioned sound".:648
In the second edition of Fowler's, A Dictionary of Modern English Usage (edited by Sir Ernest Gowers and published in 1965), it is stated that singular they is disapproved of by grammarians and, while common in colloquial speech, should preferably be avoided in favour of the generic he in prose. Numerous examples of its use by eminent writers are given, but it is still suggested that "few good modern writers would flout [grammarians] so conspicuously as Fielding and Thackeray".:635
According to the third edition of Fowler's (The New Fowler's Modern English Usage, edited by Burchfield and published in 1996) singular they has not only been widely used by good writers for centuries, but is now generally accepted, except by some conservative grammarians, including the Fowler of 1926, who ignored the evidence:
- "Over the centuries, writers of standing have used they, their, and them with anaphoric reference to a singular noun or pronoun, and the practice has continued in the 20C. to the point that, traditional grammarians aside, such constructions are hardly noticed any more or are not widely felt to lie in a prohibited zone. Fowler (1926) disliked the practice [. . .] and gave a number of unattributed 'faulty' examples [. . . ] The evidence presented in the OED points in another direction altogether.":779
The Complete Plain Words was originally written in 1948 by Sir Ernest Gowers, a civil servant, in an attempt by the British civil service to improve "official English". A second edition, edited by Sir Bruce Fraser), was published in 1973. It refers to they or them as the "equivalent of a singular pronoun of common sex" as "common in speech and not unknown in serious writing " but "stigmatized by grammarians as usage grammatically indefensible. The books advice for "official writers" (civil servants) is to avoid its use and not to be tempted by its "greater convenience", though "necessity may eventually force it into the category of accepted idiom".:140
The Times Style and Usage Guide (first published in 2003 by The Times of London) recommends avoiding sentences like
- "If someone loves animals, they should protect them."
by using a plural construction:
- "If people love animals, they should protect them."
The Cambridge Guide to English Usage" (2004) finds singular they "unremarkable":
- "For those listening or reading, it has become unremarkable—an element of common usage.:538
It expresses several preferences.
- "Generic/universal their provides a gender-free pronoun, avoiding the exclusive his and the clumsy his/her. It avoids gratuitous sexism and gives the statement broadest reference . . . They, them, their are now freely used in agreement with singular indefinite pronouns and determiners, those with universal implications such as any(one), every(one), no(one), as well as each and some(one), whose reference is often more individual . . .":538
The Economist Style Guide refers to the use of they in sentences like
- "We can't afford to squander anyone's talents, whatever colour their skin is."
as "scrambled syntax that people adopt because they cannot bring themselves to use a singular pronoun".:117
The New Hart's Rules is aimed at those engaged in copy editing, and the emphasis is on the formal elements of presentation including punctuation and typeface, rather than on linguistic style but—like The Chicago Manual of Style—makes occasional forays into matters of usage. It advises against use of the purportedly gender-neutral he, and suggests cautious use of they where he or she presents problems.
- ". . . it is now regarded. . . as old-fashioned or sexist to use he in reference to a person of unspecified sex, as in every child needs to know that he is loved. The alternative he or she is often preferred, and in formal contexts probably the best solution, but can become tiresome or long-winded when used frequently. Use of they in this sense (everyone needs to feel that they matter) is becoming generally accepted both in speech and in writing, especially where it occurs after an indefinite pronoun such as everyone or someone, but should not be imposed by an editor if an author has used he or she consistently.":27
The 2011 edition of the New International Version Bible uses singular they instead of the traditional he when translating pronouns that apply to both genders in the original Greek or Hebrew. This decision was based on research by a commission that studied modern English usage and determined that singular they (them/their) was by far the most common way that English-language speakers and writers today refer back to singular antecedents such as whoever, anyone, somebody, a person, no one, and the like."
Australian usage guidance
The Australian Federation Press Style Guide for use in preparation of book manuscripts recommends "Gender-neutral language should be used", stating that use of they and their as singular pronouns is acceptable.
Usage guidance in English grammars
According to A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language (1985):
- "The pronoun they is commonly used as a 3rd person singular pronoun that is neutral between masculine and feminine. . . . At one time restricted to informal usage. it is now increasingly accepted in formal usage, especially in [American English].:770
The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language discusses the prescriptivist argument that they is a plural pronoun and that the use of they with a singular "antecedent" therefore violates the rule of agreement between antecedent and pronoun, but takes the view that they, though primarily plural, can also be singular in a secondary extended sense, comparable to the purportedly extended sense of he to include female gender.:494
Use of singular they is stated to be "particularly common", even "stylistically neutral" with antecedents such as everyone, someone, and no one, but more restricted when referring to common nouns as antecedents, as in
- "The patient should be told at the outset how much they will be required to pay.":493
- "A friend of mine has asked me to go over and help them . . .":494
Use of the pronoun themself is described as being "rare" and "acceptable only to a minority of speakers", while use of the morphologically plural themselves is considered problematic when referring to someone rather that everyone (since only the latter implies a plural set).:494
There are also issues of grammatical acceptability when reflexive pronouns refer to singular noun phrases joined by or, the following all being problematic:
- "Either the husband or the wife has perjured himself." [ungrammatical]
- "Either the husband or the wife has perjured themselves." [of questionable grammaticality]
- "Either the husband or the wife has perjured themself." [typically used by only some speakers of Standard English].:494
On the motivation for using singular they, A Student's Introduction to English Grammar states
- "this avoidance of he can't be dismissed just as a matter of political correctness. The real problem with using he is that it unquestionably colours the interpretation, sometimes inappropriately. . . he doesn't have a genuinely sex-neutral sense".:104
The alternative he or she can be "far too cumbersome", as in
- "Everyone agreed that he or she would bring his or her lunch with him or her.
or even " flatly ungrammatical", as in
- "Everyone's here, isn't he or she?:104
"Among younger speakers", use of singular they even with definite noun-phrase antecedents finds increasing acceptance, "sidestepping any presumption about the sex of the person referred to", as in
- "You should ask your partner what they think."
- "The person I was with said they hated the film." Example given by Huddleston et al.:104
Grammatical and logical analysis
Distributive constructions apply a single idea to multiple members of a group. They are typically marked in English by words like each, every and any. The simplest examples are applied to groups of two, and use words like either and or—"Would you like tea or coffee?". Since distributive constructions apply an idea relevant to each individual in the group, rather than to the group as a whole, they are most often conceived of as singular, and a singular pronoun is used.
- "England expects that every man will do his duty."—Nelson (1806, referring to a fleet crewed by male sailors)}}
- "Every dog hath his day."—John Ray A Collection of English Proverbs (1670), originally from Plutarch, Moralia, c. 95 AD, regarding the death of Euripides}}
However, many languages, including English, show ambivalence in this regard. Because distribution also requires a group with more than one member, plural forms are sometimes used.[a]
Referential and non-referential anaphors
According to the traditional analysis, English personal pronouns (e.g. his, her, their) are typically used to refer backward (or forward) within a sentence to a noun phrase (which may be a simple noun). This reference is called an anaphoric reference, and the referring pronoun is termed an anaphor.[b]:1455–1456
The so-called singular they' is morphologically plural, and is accompanied by a plural verb. However, it is often used in circumstances where an indeterminate antecedent is signified by an indefinite singular antecedent; for example,
- "The person you mentioned, are they coming?"
In some sentences, typically those including words like every or any, the morphologically singular antecedent does not refer to a single entity but is "anaphorically linked" to the associated pronoun to indicate a set of pairwise relationships, as in the sentence::1455–1456
- "Everyone returned to their seats." (where each person is associated with one seat)
One explanation given for the use of they to refer to a singular antecedent is notional agreement, when the antecedent is seen as semantically plural, as in the Shaw quotation
- "No man goes to battle to be killed." . . . "But they do get killed. [Merriam-Webster's Concise Dictionary of English Usage]:735
In other words, in the Shaw quotation no man is syntactically singular, demonstrated by taking the singular form goes; however, it is semantically plural (all go [to kill] not to be killed), hence idiomatically requiring they.:736
Linguists like Pinker and Huddleston explain sentences like this (and others) in terms of bound variables, a term borrowed from logic. Pinker prefers the terms quantifier and bound variable to antecedent and pronoun.:378
The word reference is traditionally used in two different senses:
- the relationship between an anaphor (e.g. a pronoun) and its antecedent;
- the relationship between a noun phrase and the real-world entity (the referen).:1455–1456
With a morphologically singular antecedent, there are a number of possibilities, including the following::1455–1456
- coreferential, with a definite antecedent (the antecedent and the anaphoric pronoun both refer to the same real-world entity):
- "Your wife phoned but she didn't leave a message."
- coreferential with an indefinite antecedent:
- "One of your girlfriends phoned, but she didn't leave a message."
- "One of your boyfriends phoned, but he didn't leave a message.
- "One of your friends phoned, but they didn't leave a message."
- reference to a hypothetical, indefinite entity
- "If you had an unemployed daughter, what would you think if she wanted to accept work as a pole dancer?"
- "If you had an unemployed child, what would you think if they wanted to accept work as a mercenary or a pole dancer?"
- a bound variable pronoun is anaphorically linked to a quantifier (no single real-world or hypothetical entity is referenced):
- "Nobody knew where they were."
- "Every woman present sat with their breasts in full view."
In the light of increasing use of the plural pronoun they to refer to morphologically singular antecedents, there have been a few studies that have attempted to determine whether such usage is more "difficult" to understand. One such study, "In Search of Gender Neutrality: Is Singular They a Cognitively Efficient Substitute for Generic He?" by Foertsch and Gernsbacher found that "singular they is a cognitively efficient substitute for generic he or she, particularly when the antecedent is nonreferential" (e.g. anybody or a nurse) rather than referring to a specific person (e.g. a runner I knew or my nurse). Clauses with singular they were read "just as quickly as clauses containing a gendered pronoun that matched the stereotype of the antecedent" (e.g. she for a nurse and he for a truck driver) and "much more quickly than clauses containing a gendered pronoun that went against the gender stereotype of the antecedent".
Comparison with other pronouns
The singular and plural use of they can be compared with the pronoun you, which originally was only plural, but by about 1700 replaced thou for singular referents,:538 while retaining the plural verb form.
Comparison with other languages
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If, following Pinker's proposal, they is considered as a pair of homonyms, this would be analogous to a language like Basque, which uses the word nork both as an indeterminate pronoun meaning "who" and also as a marker in distributive constructions.
Basque has two ways of expressing universal distributive quantifications: (i) lexically, through the quantifier bakoitz 'each'; (ii) configurationally, through the construction exemplified in (1).
(1) Nork/zeinek bere ama ikusi du who-erg/which-erg his/her mother seen has 'Everyone saw his/her mother'
In (1), an indeterminate pronoun takes on a universal distributive value. Such a value is not a lexical property of the relevant indeterminate pronouns.
Basque is far from the only example of this. S.-Y. Kuroda considered it typical of East Asian languages, Japanese and Korean in particular. Yet other languages have even more particular ways of expressing distribution and quantification. Sumerian, structurally similar to Basque, uses a nominal suffix, dedli, to indicate "each individual". Some suggest that such a linguistic dispute is typical of Indo-European languages, especially Slavic languages such as Russian, Polish or Bulgarian where the system of singular and plural nouns is quite complex.
- Agreement (linguistics)
- Bound variable pronoun
- English personal pronouns
- Gender-neutral language in English
- Gender-neutral pronoun
- Gender-specific and gender-neutral pronouns
- Notional agreement
- Spivak pronoun
- "Either the plural or the singular may be acceptable for a true bound pronoun. . . .": "Every student thinks she / they is / are smart.":144
- The more usual case, where the pronoun follows the antecedent, it is called a retrospective anaphor. The less usual case, where the pronoun precedes the antecedent (as in the sentence "When he saw the damage, the headmaster called the police.") [example from cited source] is called an anticipatory anaphor. Some writers use the term anaphor only for retrospective anaphors and use the term cataphor for anticipatory anaphors. The word endophor may also be used for both.
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