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.

'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;

My question Is the use of singular they in the following passage grammatically correct?

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.

  • @RossPresser If it's duplicate, where is the answer to my question in that thread? Apr 2, 2014 at 15:56
  • 1
    It's perfectly grammatical. Apr 3, 2014 at 1:13
  • @PeterShor Could you explain why you think so? Apr 3, 2014 at 1:33
  • 2
    @ivanhoescott: No, I don't see how it's different; nor do I see why it's so important to you to get an answer specifically to your instance. The answer to the generic "Should I use singular they?" is "Lots of people have used it and lots of people have criticized it. If you use it, you will be supported by many and criticized by many others. Please stop wasting our time on StackExchange." Apr 6, 2014 at 19:44
  • 1
    I'm not falling in that trap! :) As I said previously, in an exam and for formal correspondence, I'd avoid the singular they because as Ross Presser pointed out, people are divided on the issue. But if you were writing an email to a native speaker, the use of they to speak about someone is perfectly fine. Robusto's answer, I repeat, strikes the right balance. Your second quote from the author Chesterfield, is an example of they being used in informal correspondence, between "he or she", and "they" I'd opt for the latter in this case.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Apr 7, 2014 at 6:01


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