I'm aware that (at least today's) English allows the use of a plural pronoun to avoid mentioning a gender of the subject. Example: _"Everybody can do what they want to" instead of "Everybody can do what he wants to." A typical use seems to be whenever the speaker does not know the sex of the actors and thus does not want to state it wrong or to let the phrase apply to both sexes alike.

As this example clearly shows, the numerus of the predicate then matches the numerus of the subject: "he wants" vs. "they want". This leads me to a dilemma if there are several predicates, associated to both the "everybody" and the neutral pronoun: "Everybody pays for what they get."

The first verb feels better to be in singular case ("pays"), the latter obviously must be in plural case ("get"), yet both refer to the same entity which can hardly be singular and plural.

To use plural case for both verbs ("Everybody pay for what they get") sounds strange in the beginning of the sentence, and the mixed numerus given before sounds a little as if it isn't reflexively meant, i. e. as if everybody has to pay for whatever some other group of individuals ("they") get.

What is the typical solution to my problem?

EDIT: To make this clear: I'm not asking about the singular they and its use, I'm asking about the "pay" vs. "pays" in my example (i. e. the verb of the "everybody") and about the observed or felt dichotomy of using a plural verb and a singular verb for the same actor in one sentence. Is there a more detailed answer to that besides "'they' can refer to a singular object and is to be used in plural form"?

  • 1
    "At least today's" need go back at least as far as Austen.
    – Jon Hanna
    Feb 4 '14 at 1:23
  • You can find an excellent, well sourced discussion of this at languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?cat=27 Feb 4 '14 at 1:57
  • Well, I've looked into the referred sources (as I looked up others before asking my question) but none of these seem to go into detail about my topic which is the plural case of the predicate, the verb. Often this is given the title "singular they" but if used, the "they" is then combined with a plural verb (e. g. "they have", "they get") or with a form which does not offer any hint about the plurality of the verb ("they can", "they should"). And my question was specifically about the plural form of the verb in use and the problems I've got with this.
    – Alfe
    Feb 4 '14 at 9:53
  • Sorry, I'm not asking what's answered in the Q which is the proposed duplicate ;-) Sure, the topic is very similar, but I'm asking about whether after "everybody" I can (or should) use a pluralized verb if(f) I'm using the "singular they" with a clearly pluralized verb. Also, no answer yet has given a clear advice on this :-/
    – Alfe
    Feb 4 '14 at 14:45

"Everybody" normally functions as equivalent to third person singular: "he pays, she pays, everybody pays".

Easiest way to build a complex sentence that uses both is to construct the subject and verb using one of the other third person singulars: "she", "he", or even "it" first, to get that part correct; "she pays ". Then build the adverbial phrase using "they", which takes a third-person plural verb: "they get", "they find", "they are", "they have". Then change "she" to "everybody", and add the adverbial phrase: "Everybody pays when they have enough money". (It's an adverbial phrase because we could replace it completely with an adverb: "everybody pays happily".)

The rule is "everybody" acts singular, "they" acts plural, and we're just accepting by fiat that "they" implies third person singular, but its actual third-person-plural nature is used to decide what verb to use.

  • And about my misgivings of combining two numeri for one actor in one sentence? As I said, that sounds misleading to me; as if the two actions do not apply to the same entity.
    – Alfe
    Feb 4 '14 at 14:43
  • They are not the same actor. "Everybody" is "each individual member of the set of all people" and "they" is "every member of the set of persons who get something". Feb 8 '14 at 1:45
  • That would make it even more complicated. If I assume what you say, then each of Alice, Bob, and Carol individually pays the price for what they all get. That's clearly not what the statement should express; it was meant that Alice pays for what Alice get, and that Bob pays for what Bob gets, and that Carol pays for what Carol gets. Did I make the logical difference clear?
    – Alfe
    Feb 10 '14 at 8:55
  • 2
    It's amazing how complex the concepts these words actually hide! The ambiguity comes from misinterpreting the "they" of the "what they get" as referring to "everybody" as a whole; this is a singular "they", meaning it applies to a single person - one member of the set "everybody". "Pays" is plural, because the number of members of the set named "everybody" is assumed to be at least two. So the final meaning is "each member of the set "everybody" pays (note the plural, we assume more than one element in this set by definition) the appropriate amount for whatever that person (singular) gets". Feb 13 '14 at 21:59
  • 1
    And despite the "meaning" of the word "they" being singular, it is a plural syntactically, so it requires a matching plural verb - "they get", not "they gets". Feb 13 '14 at 22:06

They in English is indeterminate to two things: gender, and number.

The sentence or wider expression in which it is used, may not be indeterminate in either, with the number or gender or both being clear. Indeed, we can combine the generic masculine where we use he for either gender with the generic they, though obviously those with a strong aversion to one will not be combing both.

The form of they though is plural. And so even if the use is clearly about one person, we use plural forms. Consider Romeo and Juliet: Act 3, Scene 3. First Friar Lawrence says:

Arise; one knocks; good Romeo, hide thyself.

The singular pronoun one is matched with the singular form of the verb; knocks.

But then, he says:

Hark, how they knock!—Who's there?—Romeo, arise;

The pronoun they is clearly used with the singular, and of someone for whom the singular has already been used, but because the form of the pronoun is plural even in this use, it is matched with the plural form of the verb; knock.

So, even if the meaning is clearly singular, the form to use is the plural.


If we where to combine the two then we would have:

One knocks and how they knock!

(It's not as nice as the original, but I'm neither Shakespeare nor striving for greatness).


Everybody pays for what they get.

The number of the verb follows the form of the noun or pronoun that is its subject, even when combined in a way that changes this from one pronoun to the next.

  • My question is rather not about the "they" and its predicate (why does everybody assume this?), but about the form of the predicate connected to "everybody" [in the case that there is a singular they with its own predicate around, yeah]. And about the obvious ugliness of using two different numeri for one actor in one sentence. Nevertheless: Thanks and ⁺¹ :)
    – Alfe
    Feb 4 '14 at 14:40

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