The 'Singular They'

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The 'Singular They'

Unread postby Petre » 7th October, 2017, 12:04 pm

As always, I'm bored—and, so, I thought I'd try to incite some insightful thoughts from my fellow grammar police.

If you were to read the title—which I'm guessing most of you did—I'm wondering what you guys think of the singular they. For those of you who have no clue as to what I'm talking, I'm talking about substituting singular subjects with 'they.' Take the following, for example:

[*] Everybody here wants something—and they deserve it.

The subject, everybody, is singular. 'They,' however, is plural, and its antecedent of 'everybody' is singular. Even though that's technically incorrect, it sounds better than the correct alternative:

[*] Everybody here wants something—and he or she deserves it.

Now, you may be thinking just use "he or she" and case closed. But imagine the aforementioned scenario but as an entire paragraph:

[*] Everybody here wants something—and he or she deserves it. He or she truly worked for what he or she desires, and he or she should get it. It's not like he or she is asking for a million dollars—he or she may, in fact, be asking for such, but who really knows what he or she wants?

It's not really the most enjoyable text to read. Now that all of that's over with: should the singular they become ingrained as a rule of thumb, or should another solution be put in place? Here are my three thoughts on this:
1) We should simply use the singular they.
2) When using the singular they, replace "are" with "is" ("they is" (and though that sounds so bad to my ears, it's a solution)).
3) Replace the singular they with "it."
Honestly, perhaps just allowing the singular they to become yet another exception to the rules of the English language is what should be done. In my opinion, it's the best of the three solutions that I thought of. To all those who care, please do let me know what your thoughts are on this. I also hope this was intellectually stimulating enough to be put in this section (sorry if it isn't).
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Re: The 'Singular They'

Unread postby Anonymous Boy » 7th October, 2017, 12:45 pm

In Dutch we tend to go with another option: just default to 'hij' ('he'). But I guess that's considered more sexist by English speakers.

I try to phrase things in ways that avoid the problem, but I do use the singular 'they' when there's no alternative that sounds good. Weird though it may be, it is a common and accepted practice.
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Re: The 'Singular They'

Unread postby Jacketh » 7th October, 2017, 1:23 pm

I know this isn't a thread about gender neutral people wishing to be called "they", rather than he or she, but this thread reminded me a lot this:

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For post #This post was deleted by Anonymous Boy on 7th October, 2017, 2:11 pm.
Reason: Double post

Re: The 'Singular They'

Unread postby Dolly » 7th October, 2017, 1:55 pm

There are three pronouns we use to either a male or female: "they," "it," and "one."

The singular usage of "they" is already ingrained in our vernacular. In its proper usage, however informal, we use it to refer to something or someone we do not know. For example, if someone rear ends you, you could yell "They just hit me!" because you would not know who the driver is.

"It" is used to refer to an object we perceive as not having a gender. I would have said "it" is used for non-living objects with no gender, but I remembered that a plant would still be referred to as "it" despite some being male, female, or both.

"One" is used in hypothetical scenarios or sentences. For example, in the sentence "One should brush his or her teeth in the morning.", "one" replaces "he or she."

To answer the question, I think should "are" should still follow "they," even if it is being used in a singular form.
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Re: The 'Singular They'

Unread postby Anonymous Boy » 7th October, 2017, 2:14 pm

Pity wrote:"One" is used in hypothetical scenarios or sentences. For example, in the sentence "One should brush his or her teeth in the morning.", "one" replaces "he or she."

"One should brush one's teeth in the morning.", even.

Pity wrote:To answer the question, I think should "are" should still follow "they," even if it is being used in a singular form.

Indeed.
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Re: The 'Singular They'

Unread postby ConnorM » 7th October, 2017, 6:28 pm

"They" used to be accepted as a singular in proper English. It wasn't until the influence of later grammaticians that it was no longer deemed acceptable. It was about the same time that "thou" was replaced with "you" in everything except the bible that "they" became acceptable. Shakespeare and Dickinson both used it in the singular. The only people who disagree with it are grammar nazis and your grade-school English teachers, and in both cases, they are wrong.
https://www.merriam-webster.com/words-at-play/singular-nonbinary-they
Last edited by ConnorM on 9th October, 2017, 7:10 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: The 'Singular They'

Unread postby Togetik » 7th October, 2017, 9:42 pm

Is using they as a singular... not a common thing, in informal conversation?
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Re: The 'Singular They'

Unread postby Vortex » 10th October, 2017, 12:37 am

The nature of language is change, let's just get that established right now. Every aspect of it is constantly shifting and changing. IN fact, let's look at the etymology of "they."
c. 1200, from a Scandinavian source (Old Norse þeir, Old Danish, Old Swedish þer, þair), originally masculine plural demonstrative pronoun, from Proto-Germanic *thai, nominative plural pronoun, from PIE *to-, demonstrative pronoun (see that). Gradually replaced Old English hi, hie, plurals of he, heo "she," hit "it" by c. 1400. Colloquial use for "anonymous people in authority" is attested from 1886. They say for "it is said" is in Milton.


So, it started off as a plural masculine pronoun. Not even pronouns are really exempt from change, as seen by she.

mid-12c., probably evolving from Old English seo, sio (accusative sie), fem. of demonstrative pronoun (masc. se) "the," from PIE root *so- "this, that" (see the). The Old English word for "she" was heo, hio, however by 13c. the pronunciation of this had converged by phonetic evolution with he "he," which apparently led to the fem. demonstrative pronoun being used in place of the pronoun (compare similar development in Dutch zij, German sie, Greek he, etc.). The original h- survives in her. A relic of the Old English pronoun is in Manchester-area dialectal oo "she." As a noun meaning "a female," she is attested from 1530s.


Funnily enough, when we compare this to German, "sie" has merged into meaning she, they, or the formal you. She meaning "a female", as seen above, is a(relatively) new addition to the English lexicon.

And for funsies, let's also examine the history of he.

Old English he, pronoun of the third person (see paradigm of Old English third person pronoun below), from Proto-Germanic *hi- (source also of Old Saxon, Old Frisian, Middle Dutch he, hi, Dutch hy, Old High German he), from PIE *ki-, variant of *ko-, the "this, here" (as opposed to "that, there") root (source also of Hittite ki "this," Greek ekeinos "that person," Old Church Slavonic si, Lithuanian šis "this"), and thus the source of the third person pronouns in Old English. The feminine, hio, was replaced in early Middle English by forms from other stems (see she), while the h- wore off Old English neuter hit to make modern it. The Proto-Germanic root also is the source of the first element in German heute "today," literally "the day" (compare Old English heodæg).


This site is your BFF for all things etymology.
So as you can see, the nature of language is constant, albeit gradual, change. So there's no reason at all that "they are" can't shift into meaning a singular person.
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