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On a Wiki-walk the other day, I stumbled across the movie poster for Devil. The tagline on the poster is:

Five strangers trapped. One of them is not what they seem.

The writer was obviously using a singular "they" to avoid specifying the gender of the Mole, so as not to give away part of the plot. Sometimes singular "they" works for me, sometimes it doesn't. In this case, it really struck me as jarring, but I can't come up with a better alternative.

Can you?

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Any moment now, you'll find answers explaining to you that "singular they" is perfectly grammatical, and the grammar you have in mind is too puny. :-) Maybe if you rephrased your question to just say you want to avoid it, without talking of grammar, you may get answers to the question you really want to ask. – ShreevatsaR Sep 24 '10 at 19:56
@ShreevatsaR Thanks for the advice. I reworded it along the lines of your suggestion. A follow-up question might be: why does this example feel so awkward (to me, anyway), but other examples don't? – Doug Sep 24 '10 at 20:49
@ShreevatsaR: oh well, using the singular they is one thing, but mixing it with the plural they in such quick succession is amusing to say the least. – RegDwigнt Sep 24 '10 at 20:56
up vote -1 down vote accepted

I think RegDwight’s observation that using singular they so close to plural them is jarring. I would have just rephrased it by avoiding the first them:

Five strangers trapped. One is not what they seem.

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Personally, I think the "one is" is the part that is jarring in combination with "they seem". "They are not what they seem" sounds perfectly fine to me (of course, it doesn't really work in the tagline). – Kosmonaut Sep 25 '10 at 2:46
Unfortunately, I don't think any of the rewrites captures the spirit of the original, though they are all more satisfying grammatically. I'm choosing nohat's answer as the best because it at least answers my secondary question: why is this so jarring? I think it is because of the plural "them" in the same sentence. Thanks everyone! – Doug Oct 1 '10 at 13:42

At the cost of changing the meaning, we can avoid saying something awkward:

Five strangers trapped. Not all of them are what they seem.

Would this change make the film seem less or more exciting? :-)

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Maybe if you change it to a question: "Are they all what they seem?" – Doug Oct 1 '10 at 13:39

Five strangers trapped, and four of them are just what they seem.

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Heh, it's logically equivalent. :-) (Sounds a bit better as "Five strangers trapped. Only four of them are what they seem.") – ShreevatsaR Sep 25 '10 at 6:46
Logically equivalent indeed, but a terrible tagline. – Noldorin Sep 25 '10 at 15:01
They're not logically equivalent. – avakar Sep 25 '10 at 15:12
Five strangers trapped, and four of them are just what they seem. The remaining one is not like the others. – Benjamin Manns Sep 25 '10 at 21:58
@avakar, @Mr. Shiny: I'm perfectly familiar with mathematical convention, but considering the movie tagline (and the fact that it's a movie tagline!), do you really think it suggests the possibility that there may be two who are not what they seem? – ShreevatsaR Sep 28 '10 at 3:43

That's really awkward. Using "he or she" (or something similar) just isn't as catchy:

One of them is not what he or she seems.

Alternatively, it may require rewriting a little:

One of them is not as expected.

One of them is different from the rest.

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+1 for rewording it to approach the sentence from another angle. – pkaeding Sep 24 '10 at 23:08
The rewritten statements are horribly uncatchy though! – Noldorin Sep 24 '10 at 23:13
One of these things is not like the others... :-) – kindall Sep 24 '10 at 23:25

Five strangers trapped. One of them is not what they seem.

You note that the second sentence is “jarring”, and you claim “the writer was obviously using a singular they”. Compare ShreevatsaR's suggestion, “... Only four of them are what they seem”, where they, like them, clearly is plural. If you think of them and they as plural in ShreevatsaR's version, you may find it easier (and a little less jarring) to think of them and they as plural in the original version. (That is, in both cases “what they seem” refers to how the group seems, not the one.) In short, it is not obvious that the writer was using a singular they.

For a better version, I think ShreevatsaR's suggestion is good, but I think leaving out “Only” and changing “what” to “who” improves the dramatic impact:

Five strangers trapped. Four of them are who they seem.

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"One of them is not what thon seems".

If we really wanted to go down the route of a proper gender-neutral pronoun. Though in this example, the singular "they" really doesn't strike me as jarring. In fact I had a read it a few times to realize your complaint.

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I would say that 'one of them is not what he seems' is perfectly acceptable. It depends to whom one is trying to appeal. If one is trying to appeal to modern society, they would be best, but if one is just trying to have a grammatically defensible position, he, which was previously used as the gender neuter pronoun, is absolutely correct.

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The highlighted sentence is perfectly grammatical in standard modern English, though you probably acknowledge this.

If you want to avoid the usage of the singular genderless pronoun 'they', then perhaps it would be appropriate (and near equivalent) to say:

One of them is not what it seems.

where 'it' is the expletive pronoun and does not refer to any particular object/noun.

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That sounds a little strange. You can't refer to a person as "it". – Steve Melnikoff Sep 24 '10 at 21:37
@Steve: I'm not, and I clarified that in my post! Please read carefully. – Noldorin Sep 24 '10 at 23:12
@Noldorin: If you mean you don't know what the term is for the "it" you are talking about, it is expletive-it: ling.upenn.edu/~beatrice/syntax-textbook/box-expletives.html – Kosmonaut Sep 27 '10 at 12:18
What makes it grammatically incorrect is that syntactic expletive pronouns have no antecedent. The "it" in your sentence has an antecedent: "One." Since "one" refers to a person, "it" is incorrect. But thanks for introducing me to that great term! The Wikipedia article you linked to linked to another great one on minced oaths that was a lot of fun as well. – Doug Oct 1 '10 at 13:36
@Doug: Glad it's helped in some way at least. I still maintain that it's grammatically correct, since the fact that "one" is used does not necessarily imply that it is the antecedent of the "it". However, it is quite natural to interpret it that way, which perhaps makes it read odd... – Noldorin Oct 1 '10 at 14:08

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