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They is the third-person plural personal pronoun (subjective case) in Modern English. It is also used with singular meaning, sometimes to avoid specifying the gender of the person referred to: see gender neutrality in language.

Personal pronouns in standard Modern English
Person (gender) Subject Object Dependent possessive (determiner) Independent possessive Reflexive
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
Epicene they them their theirs themself
First we us our ours ourselves
Second you your yours yourselves
Third they them their theirs themselves

Special uses[edit]


The singular they is the use of this pronoun as a gender-neutral singular rather than as a plural pronoun. The Oxford Dictionaries have an article on the usage, saying that it dates back to the 14th century.[1]

The singular pronoun they can be 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))

In an article published in The New York Times Magazine in 2009, Patricia T. O'Conner and Stewart Kellerman wrote:

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. [2]


The pronoun they can also be used to refer to unspecified people in some often vaguely defined group, 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.


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 15th century 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").[3] By the 18th century the use of "their" - as in the possessive pronoun - was at times interchangeable with the usage of "there". Literature from 1767 has the phrase "...also somewhat otherwise be deduced from their being necessary to support the Honour of God..." which was acceptable. However, by modern Standard English terms, the phrase shows an incorrect use of the possessive pronoun "their", i.e., their being. The appropriate spelling is there being.[4]

Word of the year[edit]

In December 2019, Merriam-Webster chose "they" as word of the year for 2019. 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."[5]

Personal pronouns in Middle English
Below each Middle English pronoun, the Modern English is shown in italics (with archaic forms in brackets)
Person / gender Subject Object Possessive determiner Possessive pronoun Reflexive
First ic / ich / I
me / mi
min / minen [pl.]
min / mire / minre
min one / mi selven
Second þou / þu / tu / þeou
you (thou)
you (thee)
þi / ti
your (thy)
þin / þyn
yours (thine)
þeself / þi selven
yourself (thyself)
Third Masculine he
him[a] / hine[b]
his / hisse / hes
his / hisse
Feminine sche[o] / s[c]ho / ȝho
heo / his / hie / hies / hire
hio / heo / hire / heore
Neuter hit
hit / him
hit sulue
First we
us / ous
ure[n] / our[e] / ures / urne
us self / ous silve
Second ȝe / ye
you (ye)
eow / [ȝ]ou / ȝow / gu / you
eower / [ȝ]ower / gur / [e]our
Ȝou self / ou selve
Third From Old English heo / he his / heo[m] heore / her - -
From Old Norse þa / þei / þeo / þo þem / þo þeir - þam-selue
modern they them their theirs 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. [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]


  1. ^ "'He or she' versus 'they'". Oxford University Press. Retrieved 2012-07-07.
  2. ^ O'Conner, Patricia; Kellerman, Stewart (21 July 2009). "On Language - "All-Purpose Pronoun"". New York Times Magazine. Archived from the original on 30 May 2012. Retrieved 7 July 2012.
  3. ^ "They". Online Etymology Dictionary. Retrieved 6 October 2010.
  4. ^ Clarke, S. (1767). Discourse Concerning the Being and Attributes of God, the Obligations of Natural Religion... H. Woodfall, J. Beecroft, W. Strahan, J. Rivington, R. Baldwin, [and 5 others]. p. 100. Retrieved 8 July 2020. ...also somewhat otherwise be deduced from their being necessary to support the Honour of God......
  5. ^ Locker, Melissa (2019-12-10). "Merriam Webster Names 'They' As Its Word of the Year for 2019". Time. Retrieved 2019-12-10.