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Is it good English to say "They have just left", when talking about a single person (perhaps someone you don't know the gender of)?

(I am a native English speaker, I'm looking for the view held by lexicographers).

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I will quote one of our moderators: " Singular they enjoys a long history of usage in English [...]. However, 'singular they' also enjoys a long history of criticism. If you are anxious about being criticized (for what is in fact a perfectly grammatical construction) you are advised to reword to avoid having to use a gender neutral singular third-person pronoun." –  RegDwigнt Dec 15 '10 at 17:18
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I will let others decide if this is a dupe of the gender neutral pronoun question. I just wanted to mention that using one pronoun in another part of the paradigm is not totally off the wall. For example, in German, 3rd-person plural "Sie" is also used for formal 2nd-person (singular or plural), with the same verbal inflection; this is the standard. So, there is nothing inherently sloppy about using "they" for the gender neutral pronoun — but for whatever reason we consider it nonstandard in English. –  Kosmonaut Dec 15 '10 at 19:36
    
@Kosmonaut: Some people consider it nonstandard in English :) –  Mr. Shiny and New 安宇 Dec 15 '10 at 20:51
    
@Mr. Shiny and New: When I say "nonstandard", I mean not in anyone's notion of Standard English; a newspaper, magazine, journal article, or legal document would specifically avoid this usage. I don't think you could argue it is actually standard in that sense in any part of the world at this time. But certainly, if you mean "standard" in the sense of this being preferred by some people in casual speech, then that is certainly true (myself included). I think it ultimately will become standard. –  Kosmonaut Dec 15 '10 at 21:27
    
@Kosmonaut: I'd disagree that it's non-standard. A legal document might avoid it because legal documents should avoid anything which might introduce (unwanted) ambiguity, however those other publications you mention would certainly use it unless some style guide, or the author, feels strongly that it is "wrong". –  Mr. Shiny and New 安宇 Dec 16 '10 at 13:49

4 Answers 4

up vote 8 down vote accepted

Singular they has been used in English for a long, long time. Seriously, Shakespeare even used it.

Unfortunately, a significant number of English speakers think it's wrong. Why? No clue. I'd label it a hypercorrection.

I think the most important thing to think about is whether your audience will understand you. On this count, singular they really shines, as everybody — even those who pooh-pooh it — understand exactly what you're saying.

Another consideration is what alternatives you have. One sounds stuffy; he or she is too long; just he is inaccurate (and possibly offensive).

Singular they is really the best way to go.

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I dunno. All the purported examples I've seen of Shakespeare's use of singular they are better interpreted as examples of generic they. –  Marthaª Dec 15 '10 at 19:39
    
@Martha: what's a generic they as opposed to a singular they? –  Mr. Shiny and New 安宇 Dec 15 '10 at 20:54
    
@Mr. Shiny and New: I'm not sure I can explain it very well... Generic they refers to the whole group represented by the singular subject, not to that specific individual. 'Tis meet that some more audience than a mother, since nature makes them partial, should o'erhear the speech. -The pronoun refers to all mothers, and is hence plural, even though "a mother" looks singular. –  Marthaª Dec 15 '10 at 21:09
    
@Martha: Also, we know the gender in the case of mother, so she should be preferred anyway if it is not plural. –  Kosmonaut Dec 15 '10 at 23:28
    
As for "Why? No clue", there's a simple explanation: most people know of "they" as a plural pronoun, and are unaware that the same word is also acceptable as a singular pronoun. –  ShreevatsaR Dec 16 '10 at 5:35

When using the plural third-person pronoun to refer to a single person, grammatically you are introducing a disagreement in number. So this is technically an incorrect usage and, again technically (and historically), one is "supposed" to use the third-person singular masculine pronoun he where gender is non-specific.

All that is changing. Since the advent of the women's movement and feminism, people have felt uncomfortable substituting a masculine pronoun in such cases, as if women were some lesser beings wholly submerged by men. This led to some difficulties. It makes for painstaking sentences to always refer to "he or she" when you don't know the gender, as in

If someone were to look in the cupboard, he or she would find the plates.

That's fine for a simple sentence, but if you get into a paragraph where you constantly have to use "he or she" to refer to the subject of the paragraph, it makes for some tortured writing.

Informally people use "they" all the time to avoid this kind of thing. There was an effort some years ago to introduce a neuter set of pronouns ('tey', 'ter', 'tem'), but like all such manufactured language solutions it was destined to fail. Just because something may be a good idea doesn't mean anyone will actually use it.

I even find myself writing "someone ... they" and having to go back and edit. If someone uses it as you did, saying "They just left" to mean someone just left, I wouldn't worry about it at all.

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Thank you for a very full answer. –  dan_waterworth Dec 15 '10 at 17:15
    
Of course, you can often work around the issue, by writing "If one were to you look in the cupboard, one would find the plates" or "If you were to look in the cupboard, you would find the plates", etc. :-) –  ShreevatsaR Dec 15 '10 at 17:26
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@ShreevatsaR: Yeah, but that's a different kind of trap. "If one were to look in the cupboard, one would find plates, and then one could take one of the plates and make oneself a sandwich. One might find that such a sandwich would satisfy one's hunger quite admirably." It all gets to sounding very boring and stilted in some way. –  Robusto Dec 15 '10 at 18:09
    
@Robusto: If I were writing about cupboards, plates, and sandwiches, I'd probably use "you", thereby avoiding both stilted-ness and the abomination of singular they. –  Marthaª Dec 15 '10 at 18:43
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Singular they is much older than the recent changes to eradicate gender-neutral he. It is not technically wrong. It only appears wrong if you constrain they to mean multiple people; if you look at its usage over the last few centuries you'll see that's not the case. –  Mr. Shiny and New 安宇 Dec 15 '10 at 20:53

It's considered wrong by some people and generally avoided by most, but I think it's going to become standard in the future as there aren't any other attractive alternatives and as non-traditional gender identification becomes more accepted and common, we will find ourselves needing such a pronoun more often.

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In the future? It's been around for centuries. See here: crossmyt.com/hc/linghebr/austheir.html –  Barrie England Sep 11 '12 at 17:36
    
People are saying it is non-standard, and I have heard some call it wrong, so I'm just saying I think this opinion will be diminished in the future as the news media finds itself addressing gender issues in a formal context. –  scleaver Sep 11 '12 at 17:59
    
@BarrieEngland [It's been around for centuries.] It seems to me they have been using only generic they. See here. –  ivanhoescott Apr 3 at 8:10
    
@ivanhoescott. I know. I've written about it here: caxton1485.wordpress.com/2013/07/18/… –  Barrie England Apr 3 at 9:37

The following quotes are from the wikipedia article. It seems to me that they all use "they" for a generic person. For example, in the Chesterfield's example: "If a person is born of a . . . gloomy temper . . . they cannot help it.", "a person" appears to be singular but it represents any person. It is essentially plural.

The following are similar examples.

'Tis meet that some more audience than a mother, since nature makes them partial, should o'erhear the speech."— Shakespeare, Hamlet (1599);

"If a person is born of a . . . gloomy temper . . . they cannot help it."— Chesterfield, Letter to his son (1759);

"Now nobody does anything well that they cannot help doing"— Ruskin, The Crown of Wild Olive (1866); "Nobody in their senses would give sixpence on the strength of a promissory note of the kind."— Bagehot, The Liberal Magazine (1910);

"I would have every body marry if they can do it properly."— Austen, Mansfield Park (1814);

Caesar: "No, Cleopatra. No man goes to battle to be killed." Cleopatra: "But they do get killed" —Shaw, Caesar and Cleopatra (1901);

"A person can't help their birth."— W. M. Thackeray, Vanity Fair (1848);

"When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another . . ." —United States Declaration of Independence;

On the other hand, I think the use of singular they in the following example is grammatically incorrect because it refers to a specific person hence it is essentially singular.

Someone was approaching my room. I could see that they were alone judging from their footsteps. They knocked on my door. I didn't answer. They knocked again. I still didn't answer so they left.

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I think you are splitting hairs in that last example. a generic person is just as singular as a specific person. Either the use of they for both is grammatically incorrect, or it isn't. –  tunny Nov 11 at 21:29
    
@tunny Why on earth do you think the difference between a generic person and a specific person is petty? The word "generic" has the opposite meaning of the word "specific" –  ivanhoescott Nov 11 at 21:38
    
And what is so different between your "they knocked" example and Shakespeare? "FRIAR LAURENCE Arise; one knocks; good Romeo, hide thyself. ROMEO Not I; unless the breath of heartsick groans, Mist-like, infold me from the search of eyes. FRIAR LAURENCE Hark, how they knock! Who's there?" –  Peter Shor Nov 11 at 21:44
    
@PeterShor I don't think the both examples of yours(Jane Austin and Shakespeare) refer to a specific person. –  ivanhoescott Nov 11 at 21:57
    
Shakespeare is using "they" to refer to the unknown person who is knocking at the door. This seems to me to be exactly the same situation as your last "grammatically incorrect". –  Peter Shor Nov 11 at 22:00

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