The Finer Points of Singular they.

This post at the Log makes me very happy (the narrator is Bean):

My eight-year-old daughter in conversation with me last night:

Scene: I am giving her a sock, which she had brought home, only to find she already had both of her socks. So it logically must belong to some other girl (it’s obviously a girl’s sock).

Me: So, bring this lost sock back to school, and put it in the lost and found. Do you remember who was wearing it? Well, anyway if the other girl is looking for it she can find it. I’m assuming it was a girl so I’m going with “she”.

Daughter [scornfully]: You mean “they”.

I think this clearly illustrates the way the kids use “they”. We know it’s a girl, but since we’re not sure which girl, it becomes “they”. And it was such a firm rule in her mind she felt the need to sneer at me. 🙂

The girls (and, I think, us parents) also use this consistently in their all-girls’ hockey league, and in Brownies – both all-female pursuits. For example, I heard something along the lines of: Q. “Is the other goalie any good?” A. “I don’t know, I’ve never seen them play before.” Whereas if we were talking about our goalie, whose name and face we know, it would have been along the lines of “I don’t know, she hasn’t played much lately.”

Peevers, you might as well give up the hopeless struggle; singular they is not only of ancient and unimpeachable lineage, it is developing its own fine points of grammatical usage that are being enforced not by the futile injunctions of schoolteachers but by the young wielders of the language. They know what they mean when they say “they”!


  1. This is an interesting fine point. So singular “they” really doesn’t mean just “his or her”; it means “a nonspecific person, whether of known or unknown gender.”

  2. I’m 28 (so fairly “old”) and in my mind, too, a sentence like “I’ve never seen her play” would have to refer to a specific person who was mentioned earlier in the conversation. Using “him” or “her” to refer to a nonspecific person sounds kind of odd.

  3. There are counterexamples to this, but it’s definitely my usage (singular they for indefinites), and I’m no spring chicken.

  4. “him or her” is what I meant to say

  5. Squiffy-Marie von Bladet says

    Peevers, you might as well give up the hopeless struggle

    But as Hemingway famously said, “When the cause is lost, the losers get going”.

  6. She’s eight. No-one writing an obstetrics textbook is about to start phrasing things as ‘when someone is 12 weeks pregnant they conceived 10 weeks ago’ or ‘observation will tell if the mother is in pain, which suggests abruption or labour, and there may be visible blood on the bed or legs or floor. If they are pale, with low blood pressure and rapid pulse, there is probably hypovolaemic shock.’

    (Right, right, I’m sure it wasn’t meant seriously as a probable direction the language will move in, I’m throwing cold water on things.)

  7. Known-gender singular “they” even seems to go back to Shakespeare: “There’s not a man I meet but doth salute me / As if I were their well-acquainted friend.”

    @Aidan Kehoe: Honestly, those sound fine to me – especially in the case of “someone”, which would really ring off for me if paired with anything but “they”.

  8. I’m sure it wasn’t meant seriously as a probable direction the language will move in

    Of course it’s meant seriously as exactly that. Where are you getting your confidence about what no one is going to write in future textbooks?

  9. @Squiffy-Marie von Bladet: Judging from the remote hills to where Languagelog commenters have brought the discussion, you were right…

  10. Even if Aidan is right, that will merely represent a divergence between spoken and some forms of written English, which is nothing so strange.

  11. David Marjanović says

    ‘when someone is 12 weeks pregnant they conceived 10 weeks ago’

    I’m not sure I’d even notice this anymore – and that’s in spite of the fact that my native German has nothing comparable to singular they, and the fact that the few trans men who have become pregnant in recent years are not so commonplace that I wouldn’t associate pregnancy with she first.

    …OK, there’s the intriguing phenomenon in *handwave* northern Germany that indefinite and interrogative pronouns referring to persons take neuter (singular) agreement: jemand anderes “someone else”, wer alles as in “tell me everyone who did this”. That’s alien to me; all such words are masculine in Austria – jemand anderer, wer aller.

  12. David Marjanović says

    Known-gender singular “they” even seems to go back to Shakespeare: “There’s not a man I meet but doth salute me / As if I were their well-acquainted friend.”

    This can be interpreted as “a friend of all of them”, not just the one who doth salute him at the time.

  13. Mr. Wickham’s society was of material service in dispelling the gloom, which the late perverse occurrences had thrown on many of the Longbourn family. They saw him often, and to his other recommendations was now added that of general unreserve. The whole of what Elizabeth had already heard, his claims on Mr. Darcy, and all that he had suffered from him, was now openly acknowledged and publicly canvassed; and every body was pleased to think how much they had always disliked Mr. Darcy before they had known any thing of the matter. (Chapter 24)

    Plenty of similar examples can be quoted from Pride and Prejudice, from Jane Austen in general, and from other writers at least since Sir Thomas Malory (euery man losed other of their bondes) if not Chaucer. Otto Jespersen has a whole subchapter (5.56) devoted to the common-number/common-gender use of they, them, their in A Modern English Grammar, Syntax, Vol. I (1914). He regards it as frequent and perfectly natural usage.

  14. One more example from Oscar Wilde:

    Experience is the name everyone gives to their mistakes. (Lady Windermere’s Fan)

    And a known-gender they from G. B. Shaw:

    No man goes to battle to be killed. — But they do get killed.

  15. ‘Q. “Is the other goalie any good?” A. “I don’t know, I’ve never seen them play before.” ‘ – This use of ‘them’ could be someone saying they’d never seen that whole team play before, not just a specific goalie.

  16. Matthew 18:35

    King James Bible: So likewise shall my heauenly Father doe also vnto you, if yee from your hearts forgiue not euery one his brother their trespasses.

    The New International Version: This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.

    Sounds like Stan/Loretta from Monty Python’s Life of Brian.

  17. David: Antipholus of Syracuse is speaking, and the reason everyone likes him is that they assume he is his (unknown) twin brother, Antipholus of Ephesus. His following line is “And every one doth call me by my name”, so the context is firmly singular.

    Piotr: I don’t think the Shaw example will fly. Singular they can always be replaced by he or she with at most an error in gender, and by he or she in any case. But “No man goes to battle to be killed. But he does get killed<" is impossible; it would have to be "But men do get killed". So what we have here is not a singular they but a pronoun without an explicit antecedent, whose meaning must be (easily) glorked from context. It’s one thing to have an implicit antecedent, quite another to have an antecedent that is explicitly said not to exist: cf. the Red King’s confusion about Nobody:

    “Who did you pass on the road?” the King went on, holding out his hand to the Messenger for some hay.

    “Nobody,” said the Messenger.

    “Quite right,” said the King: “this young lady saw him too. So of course Nobody walks slower than you.”

    “I do my best,” the Messenger said in a sullen tone. “I’m sure nobody walks much faster than I do!”

    “He can’t do that,” said the King, “or else he’d have been here first.”

  18. This is yet another low-cost way to irritate people. Individuals will have their preferences on using he or they (both having long precedent in English to represent situations where gender is unclear), and people like me can decide whether I want to irritate my conversation partner by selecting deliberately the choice he or she does not like.

  19. > But “No man goes to battle to be killed. But he does get killed.” is impossible

    It is? Like, actual asterisk-the-quotation impossible? I don’t realize.

    Do others hear it that way?

  20. It would mean that the writer has a particular “man” in mind. But this is precisely the she/they situation from the original post: they is not only gender-free; it’s additionally indefinite.

  21. Aidan Kehoe:

    I’m 33 and not an obstetrician, but I would definitely use “they” in that context. And I agree with Lazar, pairing “someone” with anything other than “they” sounds off to me also. And what if the pregnant person is a trans man? Honestly, using “she” in that context is not only borderline ungrammatical (and it is, in my idiolect), it can be outright offensive.

  22. If I may quote someone who commented on Language Log, whose thoughts on this I agree with?

    “It occurred to me while reading this that people who default to “she” in this situation are actually doing an additional mental calculation before they speak, i.e. going through the logic of “this sock looks like a girl’s sock so the person it belongs to must be a girl”.

    It’s obviously not a terribly complex or time-consuming calculation, but I still find it interesting that people who use “she” in this context are wired to automatically use available data to attempt to determine an unknown person’s gender, whereas people who default to “they” aren’t wired to do this at all, and are just going with “unknown person = they”.”

  23. And I agree with Lazar, pairing “someone” with anything other than “they” sounds off to me also.


    I never understand how people can hate on singular they. It’s so simple, elegant, practical and just all-around amazing.

    Okay, okay, I do get it, I have my share of pet peeves myself… But singular they… It just seems so easy to love!

  24. David Marjanović says

    No man goes to battle to be killed. — But they do get killed.

    Yes, they do, by the thousands – I interpret this one as plural, with an implicit (and subtle) change of referent between the sentences, as so often happens in real conversation.

    Indeed, it would be odd to use a singular pronoun here even in German; in more literary styles, you’d have to avoid the dangling new referent by making it explicit.

    I still find it interesting that people who use “she” in this context are wired to automatically use available data to attempt to determine an unknown person’s gender, whereas people who default to “they” aren’t wired to do this at all

    Now imagine having to determine an unknown person’s social status or distance in generations from you.

  25. I was about to point out that I have to do this occasionally with generational distance, and the first analogy that came to me was social status in some languages, but I kept getting database errors, and I gave up. This is the second website I frequent that was out for most of the day yesterday.

  26. Yeah, sorry about that. There’s some sort of memory issue that I haven’t wanted to bother Songdog about while he was on vacation.

  27. Even if Aidan is right, that will merely represent a divergence between spoken and some forms of written English, which is nothing so strange.

    And it’s as confusing as when ages ago one English speaker decided they should start using the second person plural pronoun to refer to the second person singular.

    (Yes, I know no one person actually decided anything.)

  28. “and that’s in spite of the fact that my native German has nothing comparable to singular they”

    As other people here are saying, I am also ‘fairly old’ (40).

    My children have grown up in Germany, and my wife and I are still slightly shocked by the things they say in English (their instant translations) due to the lack of terms that are genderless in German. (With the occasional opposite of calling a specific baby or young girl “it”.)

    As far as I know, I almost always use the ‘singular they’ when I am not talking about a known person.

  29. J.W. Brewer says

    I am not sure why having ones own usage “corrected” by someone else should be thought less irksome when the prescriptivism comes out of the mouths of children. Earlier this month I had the interesting experience of being, for the first time, on the receiving end of prescriptivism from my youngest child (aged approx 2.5 years). While reading aloud to him, I pronounced “lever” to rhyme with “never” (i.e. /ˈlɛ.vɚ/), which is the predominant AmEng pronunciation. He looked at me with what seemed a scornful expression and said with what seemed a disdainful tone “/’liː.vɚ/”, i.e. “lever” pronounced to rhyme with “beaver,” which (modulo rhoticism) is what I’m given to understand is the predominant BrEng pronunciation. It turns out that for some idiosyncratic reason (although I’d never previously noticed it), that variant pronunciation can be found in the idiolect of my wife (whose phonology is usually free of obvious British influence and is at least broadly consistent with her having spent her formative years in Southern California). One can hardly fault the boy for thinking his mother a more reliable source of information than his father in the event of apparent inconsistency, but we need to figure out how to educate him out of assuming there can be only One Right Way of handling such issues.

  30. Children’s prescriptivism is illustrated in their insistence that stories be told in exactly the same words every single time.

    When my wife’s friend’s daughter was about four, my wife was speaking to her and happened to use the normal Southern American tag question /ɪdənɪt/. The girl interrupted and said in tones of freezing scorn: “It’s not /ɪdənɪt/, it’s /ɪzənɪt/!” Unfortunately, her snob tendencies have remained intact to this day. Her mother being a speech pathologist may of course have had something to do with it.

  31. David Marjanović says

    Back to singular they:

    Well, it is possible that an author died in 1944 aged a hundred and that he had published his or her first book in their late teens in 1864.”

  32. That’s very odd indeed.

  33. “To start a local 4-H Club [American youth organization for those interested in farming], you need a leader. This may be a man or a woman or a combination of both.”

  34. Impressive if real, but Google can find no trace of it. (In the search, I did turn up a great quote by Warren G. Bennis: “The factory of the future will have only two employees, a man and a dog. The man will be there to feed the dog. The dog will be there to keep the man from touching the equipment.”)

  35. David Marjanović says

    That’s very odd indeed.

    I bet it’s deliberate.

  36. yet another David says

    Does singular “they” require a singular verb?

    “They is the first violinist.”
    “They plays the violin very well.”

  37. No, singular they takes plural agreement (just like singular you, which has a plural origin too).

  38. In E(dith) Nesbit’s Five Children and It, the “It” of the title is a psammead, or sand-fairy, for which Nesbit uses a gender-neutral pronoun. However, she also uses it as her standard pronoun for the singular indefinite: “[…] each child suddenly found itself alone with three perfect strangers, all radiantly beautiful.” Nesbit (1858-1924) was a feminist, which is probably why she avoided he/him(self) in this and similar sentences; when reading her aloud, I translate these words automatically into they/them(selves). However, the fifth child, the (male) baby, is consistently called it, and I don’t change this to he/him/himself.

  39. All the examples above of singular they are wrong. They historically is plural. If it was said, “Everyone eats doughnuts. They like them a lot,” they is plural, for many people eating is meant. Everyone may be formally singular, but it refers to a plurality. This use can be interpreted as “they” having an assumed plural antecedent.

  40. What are the rules for use of singular they?

    Can I say now “they was”?

  41. @SFReader: It is construed as singular in meaning, but plural in construction. There is no, “They was.”

  42. January First-of-May says

    What are the rules for use of singular they?

    Can I say now “they was”?

    The same as for singular you – “they was” is just as incorrect as “you was”.

  43. I thought I read on one of these blogs that singular “you” originally took singular verbs.

  44. John Cowan says

    When I receive emails from persons such as headhunters, I now often find a notice like “(she/her/hers)” next to the signature. I am seriously considering replying with the notice “(I/me/my/mine)” and seeing if such a person will actually refer to me in the third person as “I”.

  45. Nesbit (1858-1924) was a feminist

    Nix. As Elaine Showalter writes in her TLS review of a couple of biographies:

    Along with Schreiner, Marx and Gilman, Nesbit was a writer as well as a political activist, but, remarkably, she was not a feminist. Like her husband, she even opposed women’s suffrage, explaining that “primarily my political interest is all for socialism, and I do not wish socialism to be endangered by an extension of the franchise to Conservative women”.

  46. David Eddyshaw says

    I recall reading in the 1980s that there would have been no Conservative governments in the UK since the War if women had not had the vote. I suspect things may have changed demographically since then, but am too idle to check.

  47. J.W. Brewer says

    The inauguration of nationwide women’s suffrage in the U.S. coincided with the blowout Republican victory of 1920 which swept Warren Harding to the White House. I have heard it claimed that political insiders in those days generally assumed that women in the various demographic groups (whether defined by region, religion, ethnicity, or class) that in those days heavily voted for Democrats would on balance (due to various cultural factors) be less likely to exercise their newly-awarded right to vote than would women in the various demographic groups that in those days heavily voted for Republicans. That factor eventually faded (perhaps male authority figures in the Democrat-supporting demographic groups realized that it was in their own self-interest to encourage their womenfolk to vote and did so?).

    OTOH there are all sorts of reasons to believe that an electorate with no more female participation than that of 1908 would likewise have put the GOP back in power after eight years of Woodrow Wilson had set the stage for an inevitable pendulum swing back, all during the 1896-1932 interlude when the GOP started with a strong structural advantage.

    ETA: Because history tends to be written by the winners, few Young People today know anything about such fascinating historical figures as the redoubtable Mary Augusta Ward CBE, who for decades presided over the U.K.’s Women’s National Anti-Suffrage League until her insufficiently strong-backboned erstwhile male allies like Lord Curzon gave up the fight.

  48. David Marjanović says

    I now often find a notice like “(she/her/hers)” next to the signature.

    That’s particularly common, though, in the signatures of people whose names aren’t unambiguous enough (at least in the culture in question).

  49. David Eddyshaw says

    “She/him/its” is surely the best version.

    That‘ll keep correspondents on their toes …

    I have not so far encountered anybody who prefers different genders in different cases …

  50. Reinventing mˡˡᵉ.

  51. David Eddyshaw says

    Quite right! Mˡᵉ is the allative case of M! I never saw that before …

  52. J.W. Brewer says

    There was some young journalist/pundit whose short twitter biography at one point (jocularly?) said that his pronouns were he/he because he objected to being referred to in other than the nominative case. But if I’ve remembered correctly who it was (my memory is not what it once was …) that bit has now been omitted.

  53. She/him/its
    subjectification of women, objectification of men, and everyone is possessed.

    I. Me. Mine!

  54. @David Eddyshaw, J.W. Brewer: Examples like that are only a hair more mature than the, “I identify as an attack helicopter,” people.

  55. Eh, I don’t think anyone’s being hostile, they’re just playing around. If you feel personally insulted, by all means say so.

  56. One of the things that most turns people (normal, nonhostile people) against wokeness is being attacked for any attempts at humor.

  57. Some people are humorless. Aside from that, the perspective is different between a person making a pleasantry, and a person hearing that pleasantry for the thousandth time, touching on the same personal matter.

  58. David Eddyshaw says


    “Maturity” is overrated, but I would be sorry to cause actual offence.

  59. A singular patient, cured of multiple personality syndrome, should give themself a pat on the back.

  60. I’m not personally offended. Indeed, I found those kinds of jokes somewhat funny when I first encountered them, and, under different circumstances, maybe I still would. However, I am not somebody for whom the particularities of personal pronoun usage are a potentially contentious or emotional issue. For people who are personally affected, I can understand that those jokes may (or may not; it certainly depends upon the individual) come across as intransigent mockery. Personally, I think those people might be better off not being so strongly affected, but it is not my place to tell anyone (much less individuals who are, vis-a-vis the issue at hand, in a far less privileged position than myself) what they are allowed to find offensive.

  61. Then why did you feel the need to bring it up and call it immature? It frankly comes across as nannying and kind of kills the conversation. This has not historically been the kind of blog where people feel compelled to point out every possible failing of wokeness in their interlocutors (for that, there is MetaFilter). Of course actual bigotry should be called out (and I have on occasion done so), but that’s a lot higher bar than immature humor.

  62. David Marjanović says

    cured of multiple personality syndrome

    That does not seem to be possible. Current therapy tries to make the personalities aware of each other (where they aren’t already) and to reconcile them so they can work together.

  63. Stu Clayton says

    Sort of like polygamous marriage counselling ? Work together to whose ends? Going into politics might be another approach. After all, they all have something in common.

  64. J.W. Brewer says

    It seems potentially useful to focus on the existence of (at least) two distinct groups of pronoun-volunteerers. One group (let’s call them Group A) are people as to whom pronoun-volunteering is functionally useful, because the odds that ordinary well-intentioned people will “guess wrong” are high, either because of an unconventional gender identity or because of a given name that does not convey an accurate signal. The other group (Group B) are people for whom there is no direct functional benefit, because they have a perfectly conventional gender identity either M or F and a name that does not leave anyone (in the relevant cultural community) guessing at which it is. I take it that a common purported justification for the Group B’s providing redundant information in their signature blocks etc is the notion that if everyone routinely does it regardless of functional usefulness the Group A’s will feel less self-conscious about doing it for functional purposes. (There are certainly other rationales, but that seems the most moderate.) That rationale is not necessarily unreasonable but is certainly contestable* and some might think it mockable. (When mocked, the Group B’s may of course purport to think that the mockery is actually directed at the Group A’s and purport to take offense on their behalf.)

    *Highly imperfect analogy: there are people whose first names are routinely misspelled because they are (in context) rare names, or variant spellings of more common names, and/or odd spellings that don’t match the pronunciation per usual orthographic conventions. This can be a hassle for them, and they often get into the habit of preemptively volunteering the spelling. By contrast, my first name is a quite common one in the standard spelling. This makes life simpler both for myself and people who for whatever reasons need to write down my name after I say it. If I were to start preemptively volunteering the spelling whenever I introduced myself to someone I tend to think that I would be wasting everyone else’s time and that those with oft-misspelled names might not feel particularly comforted by my gesture of attempted solidarity. To the contrary, they might think I was play-acting at sharing their burden when I did not in fact share it, and find that irksome.

  65. David Eddyshaw says

    My feeling about this is that proper etiquette may well entail complying with restrictions which are objectively pretty silly; an analogy is the “Eskimo” thing: it doesn’t mean “eater of raw flesh”, and its real etymology is in no way actually derogatory*, but if enough Eskimo people genuinely do believe the contrary it is boorish to persevere in using the term with them, whatever one’s personal opinion on the matter may be.

    What I was myself getting at was the oddity of spelling out all possible case forms of the preferred pronoun like that. It would be helpful to those whose command of English had not progressed as far as personal pronoun declension, I suppose. (On reflection, I suppose that just putting, say, “she” or “they”, after your signature might leave people rather mystified as to what you meant by it.)

    * Unless you have a particularly low opinion of snowshoe-makers.

  66. John Cowan says

    It would be helpful to those whose command of English had not progressed as far as personal pronoun declension, I suppose.

    It would be a bit baffling to see mere ae, e, ey, fae, per, ve, xe, ze, zie in parentheses after a signature; how many of us know that the accusative forms are aer, em, em, faer, per, ver, xem, hir, hir respectively? The possessive pronouns regularly end in s except for eir. vis, xyr, but whether the reflexives are based on the accusative or possessive form is likewise unpredictable.

  67. January First-of-May says

    hir, hir respectively?

    Definitely not what I would have guessed, though I do vaguely recall seeing it somewhere. I suspect that variants exist.

    The possessive pronouns regularly end in s except for eir, vis, xyr

    I’m not familiar with fae as a pronoun but if I had to guess I’d have assumed that the possessive was faer.
    I’ve definitely seen the (somewhat more regular?) possessives ver, xer for ve, xe, and IIRC both hir and zer, zier for ze, zie but definitely not *zes, *zies (but, again, I’m not as familiar with those last two).

    IIRC there’s one or two other irregular case forms (per pronoun) to worry about…

  68. David Eddyshaw says

    David Lindsay’s A Voyage to Arcturus introduces a character who

    although clearly a human being, was neither man nor woman, nor anything between the two, but was unmistakably of a third positive sex, which was remarkable to behold and difficult to understand. In order to translate into words the sexual impression produced in Maskull’s mind by the stranger’s physical aspect, it is necessary to coin a new pronoun, for none in earthly use would be applicable. Instead of “he,” “she,” or “it,” therefore “ae” will be used.

    Lindsay goes on to use aer for both object and possessive.

  69. Why, I just started reading A Voyage to Arcturus last night!

    Of course the three sexes in The Gods Themselves are referred to positionally, as “left,” “right,” and “center.” It is not explained whether these pronouns mean anything in terms of the biology of the Hard Ones, although one may speculate.

  70. Stu Clayton says

    Sounds like a political biology, characterized by short-lived coalitions of opportunistic convenience. Not so far from what we know already from apolitical biology.

  71. In The Gods Themselves, they are short-lived combinations, until they are permanent.

  72. Seen on Twitter (now called X, though not by me), though not by me:

    @Yes2HomeSchool (whose name is YesWeHomeSchool): Any English teacher who uses “they/them” as a singular pronoun should lose their teaching license.

    Neil Gaiman: That’s beautiful.

    So it is, but it is not inconsistent. There’s nothing unreasonable in the idea that teachers should not do things that mere citizens may do, such as showing up to work at 9 AM.

  73. David Eddyshaw says

    I presume that YesWeHomeSchool is not actually concerned with the absence of a sex-neutral singular human-reference third person pronoun in English, or indeed with anything so rarefied and intellectual as grammar, but rather with the Radical Socialist Cultural Marxist threat to Our Children from Commie Deviant Teachers masterminded by George Soros.

  74. Lars Mathiesen (he/him/his) says

    It only gets funny when we consider that YesWeHomeSchool is ipso facto a teacher themself. But of course they don’t see themself as a member of the Radically Deviant Cultural Threat. (Doubt).

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