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This question already has an answer here:

Is the following sentence grammatically incorrect because the word "they" is plural when there is only one teacher? How can it be corrected?

Thomas may be afraid to speak to the teacher as he feels they hold prejudice against him.

Alternatives I concidered are

Thomas may be afraid to speak to the teacher as he feels he hold prejudice against him.

and

Thomas may be afraid to speak to the teacher as he feels the teacher hold prejudice against him.

but these seem even more awkward.

marked as duplicate by RegDwigнt May 7 '14 at 16:51

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  • Using they as a gender neutral singular pronoun isn't an error, although many people think it is. – Bradd Szonye Mar 17 '14 at 6:33
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    @BraddSzonye In the way it is used here, I don't think it is the singular 'they'. I sense that Thomas may think that all the teachers hold prejudice against him. – WS2 Mar 17 '14 at 7:52
  • I think it's supposed to be the singular "they", but my feeling is that you can't use it here because the speaker should know the sex of the teacher. If you changed "the teacher" to "a teacher", it works. – Peter Shor Mar 17 '14 at 17:39
  • @PeterShor "they" refers to a single, specific, unnamed teahcer. – Celeritas Mar 17 '14 at 18:59
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    @Celeritas: you're trying to make it refer to a single, specific, unnamed teacher. It doesn't work for me. Under what conditions would you say this sentence and not know the gender of the teacher? If you know the teacher's gender, you should use he or she. If you don't, why are you using the definite article? (I am somebody who grew up using the singular they, and by the rules I absorbed as a child, it can only be used for unnamed people whose gender you don't know.) – Peter Shor Mar 17 '14 at 20:58
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Thomas feels that they hold prejudice against him thus he is afraid to speak to the teacher.

  • I just read your first sentence. I was rewording the "Thomas" sentence and noticed the grammatical error. My reworded sentence does not address the grammatical error. Perhaps "teacher" should be plural. – Kyle Mar 17 '14 at 6:30
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Thomas may be afraid to speak to the teacher as he feels they hold prejudice against him.

This appears to use singular they and, as such, is technically grammatical if you accept the use of singular they.

The potential issue is that Thomas most likely knows the gender of his teacher and would be able to provide the appropriate gendered pronoun. But this is more of a contextual error than a grammatical error. (In theory, the narrator does not know the gender -- but this is unlikely.)

Thomas may be afraid to speak to the teacher as he feels he hold prejudice against him.

This is also technically correct but a little hard to read because of the double "he".

Thomas may be afraid to speak to the teacher as he feels the teacher hold prejudice against him.

"Hold" should be "holds" but otherwise this is also grammatical. It does feel awkward due to the double "teacher".


In my opinion, the easiest to read and understand is the first but you should check with relevant style guides (or teachers) about the usage of singular they. As the comments on your question note, many would find this usage contextually incorrect.


As for alternatives, there is one option that addresses all of the concerns:

Thomas may be afraid to speak to Mr. Roberts as he feels the teacher holds prejudice against him.

By referring to the teacher using his name, you can use "teacher" during the second reference and completely avoid the need for a pronoun.

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Ignoring psychognosy: Thomas may be afraid to speak to the teacher as he feels they hold prejudices against him. My edit: 'hold prejudices' or 'a prejudice'

Thomas may be afraid to speak to the teacher as he feels he hold prejudice against him. My edit: 'holds prejudice' or 'As he feels this teacher is prejudicial towards him, Thomas is afraid to opine.'

Thomas may be afraid to speak to the teacher as he feels the teacher hold prejudice against him. My edit: As he feels the teacher is prejudicially inclined, Thomas is likely afraid to voice any opinions

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Consider:

"Thomas may be afraid to speak to the teacher who, he feels, holds prejudice against him."

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