They, them, their for singular nouns
Today we look at how and when we use they, them and their as pronouns for singular nouns. In English grammar we call this the epicene “they” and it has been in use since 1375.
They, them and their are often used as pronouns to refer to certain singular nouns or to refer to indefinite pronouns. We do this when those words cannot be defined simply as he or she because we don’t know the gender of the subject and it would be horrible to use “it” because we are speaking of a person.
Let’s look at some practical examples:
- There is someone at the door. Please ask them what they want. We don’t know if that someone is a male or female, so we cannot say only he or only she, and it would be terrible to use it, so we use they/them. If you use he in this case as the pronoun and you say “There is someone at the door. Please ask him what he wants”, then your grammar will be perceived as wrong, sexist, and medieval.
- When a person talks too much, they learn little.
- Nobody in their right mind would do something so silly.
- Everyone has told me that they think I made the right decision.
- We need a manager who is generally flexible in their approach.
- A person can’t choose where they are born.
Please note that in these cases the verb agrees with the they pronoun:
- what they want (not “what they wants”)
- they think (not “they thinks”)
- they are born (not “they is born”)
It is possible to substitute the epicene “they” pronoun with nouns, but this is not always recommended because it often makes the reading heavy and repetitive. For instance:
- There is someone at the door. Please ask them what they want = There is someone at the door. Please ask him or her what he or she wants.
- When a person talks too much, they learn little = When a person talks too much, that person learns little.
In some cases a plural subject noun can be inserted instead of the epicene “they” pronoun with little or no change to the meaning of the sentence:
- When a client comes into my office I try to understand what services they need = When clients come into my office I try to understand what services they need.
Furthermore, gender non-conforming people may use ‘they’ ‘them’ and ‘theirs’ as personal pronouns. ‘They’ is a gender-neutral pronoun, compared to pronouns like ‘he/him’ or ‘she/her’ which are gendered terms. If someone tells us that they would like they/them/their to be used when referring to them in the third person, we do so. For example:
- Michael has exceeded their targets this year. They plan to apply for a promotion soon.
Remember: when we speak TO people in the second person who use they/them/their pronouns we use you:
- Hi Michael! How are you today?
When we speak ABOUT people in the third person who use they/them/their pronouns we use they/them/their:
- Michael said they were feeling well today.
Thank you very much and see you next time for more Peter’s Pills to improve your Legal English!
See more on the epicene “they” here: A brief history of singular ‘they’.
Legal English – Sommario delle Lezioni
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