They

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In Modern English, they is a third-person pronoun and a pronoun for a non-binary person.

Morphology[edit]

In Standard Modern English, they has five distinct word forms:[1]

History[edit]

Old English had a single third-person pronoun , which had both singular and plural forms, and they wasn't among them. In or about the start of the 13th century, they was imported from a Scandinavian source (Old Norse þeir, Old Danish, Old Swedish þer, þair), where it was a masculine plural demonstrative pronoun. It comes from Proto-Germanic *thai, nominative plural pronoun, from PIE *to-, demonstrative pronoun.[3]

By Chaucer's time the th- form has been adopted in London for the subject case only, whereas the oblique cases remain in their native form (hem, here < OE heom, heora). At the same period (and indeed before), Scots texts, such as Barbour's Bruce, have the th- form in all cases.[4]:176

The development in Middle English is shown in the following table. At the final stage, it had reached its modern form.

Three stages of they in Middle English[4]:121
I II III
Nominative þei þei þei
Oblique hem hem hem ~ þem
Genitive her(e) her(e) ~ þeir þeir

Singular they[edit]

Singular they is the use of they as a gender-neutral singular pronoun.[5] In this use, they follows plural agreement rules (they are, not *they is), but the semantic reference is singular. Unlike plural they, singular they is only used for persons. For this reason, it could be considered to have personal gender.

Word of the year[edit]

In December 2019, Merriam-Webster chose singular they as word of the year. The word was chosen because "English famously lacks a gender-neutral singular pronoun to correspond neatly with singular pronouns like everyone or someone, and as a consequence they has been used for this purpose for over 600 years."[6]

Syntax[edit]

Functions[edit]

They can appear as a subject, object, determiner or predicative complement.[1] The reflexive form also appears as an adjunct.

  • Subject: They're there; them being there; their being there; they allows for themselves to be there.
  • Object: I saw them; I pointed her to them; They connect to themselves.
  • Predicative complement: In our attempt to fight evil, we have become them; They eventually felt they had become themselves.
  • Dependent determiner: I touched their top; them folks are helpful (non-standard)
  • Independent determiner: This is theirs.
  • Adjunct: They did it themselves.

Dependents[edit]

Pronouns rarely take dependents, but it is possible for they to have many of the same kind of dependents as other noun phrases.

  • Relative clause modifier: they who arrive late
  • Determiner: Sometimes, when you think, "I will show them," the them you end up showing is yourself.
  • Adjective phrase modifier: the real them
  • Adverb phrase external modifier: Not even them

Semantics[edit]

Plural they's referents can be anything, including persons, as long as it doesn't include the speaker (which would require we) or the addressee(s) (which would require you). Singular they can only refer to individual persons. Until the end of the 20th century, this was limited to those whose gender is unknown (e.g., Someone's here. I wonder what they want; That person over there seems to be waving their hands at us.).[7]

Generic[edit]

The pronoun they can also be used to refer to an unspecified group of people, as in In Japan they drive on the left. or They're putting in a McDonald's across the street from the Target. It often refers to the authorities, or to some perceived powerful group, sometimes sinister: They don't want the public to know the whole truth.

Pronunciation[edit]

According to the OED, the following pronunciations are used:

Form Plain Unstressed Recording
they /ðeɪ/
female speaker with US accent
them (UK) /ðɛm/

(US) /ðɛm/

(UK) /ð(ə)m/

(US) /ðəm/

female speaker with US accent
their (UK) /ðɛː/

(US) /ðɛr/

(UK) /ðə/

(US) /ðər/

female speaker with US accent
theirs (UK) /ðɛːz/

(US) /ðɛrz/

female speaker with US accent
themselves (UK) /ð(ə)mˈsɛlvz/

(US) /ðəmˈsɛlvz/

/ˌðɛmˈsɛlvz/
female speaker with US accent
themself (UK) /ð(ə)mˈsɛlf/

(US) /ðəmˈsɛlf/

/ˌðɛmˈsɛlf/

In popular culture[edit]

  • Them is a Northern Irish band.

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ a b Huddleston, Rodney; Pullum, Geoffrey K. (2002). The Cambridge grammar of the English language. Cambridge University Press.
  2. ^ Lass, Roger, ed. (1999). The Cambridge history of the English Language: Volume III 1476–1776. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  3. ^ "they | Origin and meaning of they by Online Etymology Dictionary". www.etymonline.com. Retrieved 2021-03-20.
  4. ^ a b Blake, Norman, ed. (1992). The Cambridge history of the English Language: Volume II 1066–1476. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  5. ^ "'He or she' versus 'they'". Oxford University Press. Retrieved 2012-07-07.
  6. ^ Locker, Melissa (2019-12-10). "Merriam Webster Names 'They' As Its Word of the Year for 2019". Time. Retrieved 2019-12-10.
  7. ^ Lagunoff, Rachel (1997). Singular They (Doctoral dissertation). UCLA.