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Gender neutral pronoun.

In everyday use, I often use the pronoun "they" to refer to a unknown person if I do not know their sex. As in:

Bob: Who was it that emailed you about the company cutting back?

Sally: I don't know. They didn't say.

I remember using "they" this way in a paper for my college English 101 class, and my teacher marked off for it, saying that it is incorrect. So is it? It's definitely much easier to say than "he/she"...

Perhaps it's considered correct (or at least accepted) in speech but not in written form?

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marked as duplicate by Kosmonaut Feb 9 '11 at 22:43

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I would think that this is okay - at least in reported speech (and probably more so). I'd ask the teacher why they marked it as incorrect (but try not to be confrontational about it) - in my view, the teacher should have already explained that next to the mark. –  HorusKol Feb 9 '11 at 22:30
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"Singular they has long been part of the English language, and there are various posts on Language Log giving examples of it being used in the Bible, by Shakespeare, by the president, by the Canadian Department of Justice, etc. The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language's coauthor Geoff Pullum (a frequent Language Log contributor) calls the idea that they must never occur with a singular antecedent a myth." Source. Note that you is plural, too. Tell your teacher you'll stop using the singular they the day he stops using the singular you. –  RegDwigнt Jan 10 at 10:11

1 Answer 1

The reason it's considered incorrect is that "they" is plural and the unknown party presumably singular. It's still considered incorrect in formal writing, but becoming accepted in speech and, to a lesser extent, in less-formal writing.

English is blessed with a descriptive grammar, rather than prescriptive, but it sometimes takes a while for the rules to catch up....

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While singular "they" is still frowned upon by a lot of people, formally (that is, according to the dictionary) it is not incorrect. See the usage notes on Merriam-Webster.com (merriam-webster.com/dictionary/they) or, if you prefer, the more accessible Ask The Editor video Merriam Webster made about this topic: merriam-webster.com/dictionary/they So by the rules singular they is correct, and in this case it's not the rules but the grammar nazis that take a while to catch up. –  Raizin yesterday

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