There are many (duplicate) questions about the acceptance, popularity and history of singular they (and their, them and themself) around here, it even got a tag of its own. If I didn’t miss anything, however, the proper verb form hasn’t been questioned yet.

As we all know, English third person singular pronouns (it, she, he and one, +body), names (Alice, Bob, …) and nouns (student, teacher, …) demand the +(e)s suffix be added to the finite verb form in simple present, where some auxiliary verbs have a “special” form (is < *bes / *ares and has < *haves). All other subjects don’t, including plural third person pronoun they.

When the plural you replaced thou (with thee, thy / thine), the other marked verb form that had remained in English – i.e. suffix +(e)st or +t – vanished, too. The first and second persons only ever appear as pronouns (I, we; you), not names or nouns, so there was no strong inclination to keep the verbal inflection.

The second person precedent would suggest that singular they be used with uninflected verb forms which is how it’s usually encountered in the wild. Assuming that they someday replaces he and she (and maybe it) it would lead to disagreement with the words the pronoun stands in for:

  1. Alice goes to her place by herself.
  2. Bob goes to his place by himself.
  3. Alice and Bob go to their place by themselves. – (common)
  4. Alice and Bob go to their places by themselves. – (separate)

  1. She goes to her place by herself.
  2. He goes to his place by himself.
  3. They go to their place by themselves.
  4. They go to their places by themselves.

  1. They ?goes to their place by themself.
  2. ditto
  3. They go to their place by themselves.
  4. They go to their places by themselves.

  1. They ?go to their place by ?themselves.
  2. ditto
  3. They go to their place by themselves.
  4. They go to their places by themselves.

So why doesn’t singular they afford s on present-tense verbs like all other third person singular subjects do?

I learned about singular they only long after I had been taught English as a second language in school. That’s why it’s still a conscious decision to use it and hence I could easily adapt to use s forms with it, but would that sound and look funny / strange / wrong to native speakers?

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    I’m not sure I follow your question at all. The second plural became a generic second person, but plural form of the verb was kept, which is what one would expect to happen. When French vous or German Sie started to be used for singular entities [ignoring the anachronism inherent in that statement], they didn’t take over singular agreement—they remain plural. Add to that the fact that second-person forms/pronouns are much more likely, typologically, to be ousted than a singular–plural distinction in the third person. I don’t see why they would ever take over from he/she/it [cont’d -->] – Janus Bahs Jacquet Nov 11 '14 at 9:07
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    To answer your question directly, yes, it would look 'funny, strange and wrong' to a native speaker. – WS2 Nov 11 '14 at 9:36
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    I’m aware that Sie is from the third person (like Spanish Usted, Portuguese você, Italian lei, Danish/Norwegian De, Hungarian ön, etc.). That doesn’t change that it still takes its original agreement. No pronoun has changed its agreement when usurping another in any language I can think of (excepting Old Norse við ‘we’, which took over plural agreement when its original dual inflection was lost entirely). And as I said, obliterating the singular–plural distinction is typologically much rarer in the third person than in the first and second. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Nov 11 '14 at 9:43
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    As a similar parallel, the pluralis maiestatis or ‘royal we’ uses the plural pronoun we to refer to a single person instead of the singular pronoun I; but Queen Victoria didn’t say “We am not amused”. I can’t see any reason why they should behave any differently from we and you when it is used with a singular referent. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Nov 11 '14 at 9:48
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    @Crissov I mean no offence, but I believe your question stems from the unconscionable negligence of inferior ESL texts&instructors who omitted from your education a standard pronominal form used by native speakers over the last 700 years. You are therefore acquiring it inorganically, out of its natural sequence and conditions. Because this path is so far removed from how native speakers acquire it during ages 1–3, your question seems super-bizarre to us, something we would never consider. It so clashes with how pronouns and verbs fit together for us that we cannot imagine it otherwise. – tchrist Nov 11 '14 at 11:10
up vote 15 down vote accepted

It is often said that verbs in English inflect to agree with the person and number of the subject. Now person here cannot be construed as an actual property of the subject. We cannot say for example that the first person is the person who's speaking and the second person is the person being spoken to or any ideas like that. If we do not use an actual pronoun to represent the person speaking, then the verb will not inflect in any way to agree with the 'speaker-hood' of the subject.

  • *Araucaria am writing this. (wrong)
  • *The reader are reading this. (wrong)

In the sentences above, even though Araucaria refers to the person who is currently speaking to you, in other words me, we cannot use a 'first person' form of the verb. Similarly, even though the reader refers to you, the 'listener', we cannot use a second person form of the verb. When we use common nouns we do not see agreement for person.

Although with common nouns, and proper nouns English verbs inflect to agree with number, they do not agree with any other property of the noun, including the relation to speaker or listener or third party. However, verbs do seem to inflect according to which pronoun is being used. In other words pronouns override the normal agreement of verbs with subjects:

  • I am writing this
  • You are reading this.

The examples above are fine, not because I refers to the person who is speaking, and you are the person reading, but because verbs inflect in accordance with specific pronouns, and these pronouns override the normal agreement that we see with common nouns.

In the Original Poster's question, this issue is disguised, because when verbs agree with third person singular and plural pronouns, they mimic their behaviour with common nouns. However, this is just an illusion. As with the pronouns I, you and we, 'they' also overrides the normal agreement of verbs with common nouns. Whether used with singular or plural meaning, pronouns always dictate the agreement of the verb according to which actual pronoun they are. They always takes a 'third person plural' form of the verb.

This same phenomenon can be seen with the pronoun one. Whether used to reflect first person, second person, or people in general, one always takes the same verb agreement, the one we wrongly describe as 'third person singular'. The same also applies to royal we.

The answer to the Original Poster's question, therefore, is that verbs won't inflect to reflect the singularity of singular they, because although verbs agree with number when they have common noun subjects, using a pronoun as subject will override the normal common noun agreement and cause the verb to agree according to which specific pronoun is being used. It wouldn't be a good idea to use 'third person singular' forms with they, because it would just be ungrammatical. It wouldn't reflect anything about the meaning of they. The agreement of English verbs with pronouns never reflects any semantic property of the pronoun in the first place!

Will the agreement taken by they change in the future? I don't think so, but I don't know, and I don't know anyone who really does!

[Readers who are interested in this question might also be interested in: Why is "be" the only English verb that inflects for grammatical person, not just for grammatical number like all the rest of them? - although it is a slightly strange question!]

  • What exactly is relecft a typo of? Relate?! – Janus Bahs Jacquet Nov 11 '14 at 13:50
  • @JanusBahsJacquet Thanks! I thought you'd disappeared! - or were getting on with uni stuff or something (- like I'm meant to be ...) – Araucaria Nov 11 '14 at 13:53
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    I’m supposed to be … that and work has been keeping me ridiculously busy. So busy, it seems, that I can’t even seem to properly offset an f in a typo three places to the left! – Janus Bahs Jacquet Nov 11 '14 at 13:54

To put it simply: "singular they" is syntactically plural, and semantically singular. Just like trousers. This occasional disconnect between semantics and syntax is not unique to English.

Sometimes these things do change, especially when not very recognisable (such as data moving from being plural to being singular). But the change is in general slow due to conventionality of language (tendency of native speaker community that keeps the language stable).

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    I feel like you're missing a conclusion here. You lay out some evidence, and then do not draw an answer from it. “‘singular they’ is syntactically plural, and semantically singular [...] just like trousers,” sooo.... what? Which verb form should be used? You rely on the reader to supply the actual conclusion, presumably based on knowledge of which verb form is used with trousers. – KRyan Nov 11 '14 at 19:11
  • @KRyan: The OP already knows which form is currently correct in Standard English ("So why doesn’t singular they afford s on present-tense verbs like all other third person singular subjects do?"). The question was "why", not "which". – Amadan Nov 12 '14 at 0:13

When we use singular they, this does not change the fact that the word is they. The word they, like the words I (singular) and you (singular and plural), is followed by the uninflected verb-form.

  • You’re arguing, like @JanusBahsJacquet above, that verbal inflection is bound to the lexemic nature of a word (or at least of a pronoun) and not its syntactic function (“logical reference”). That may well be so. I’m just arguing that the fact that all other proposed gender-neutral alternatives to s/he and all singular nouns and names agreeing with he/she/it would suggest otherwise. I also argued that unified you doesn’t form a true precedent. – Crissov Nov 11 '14 at 10:13
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    Whatever you argue, the fact is that they" does take an uninflected verb-form. Singular *you seems to be to be a reasonable example of such a thing happening previously. The singularity of proposed gender-neutral terms is irrelevant - they have been devised as singular forms. – tunny Nov 11 '14 at 10:34
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    @tunny It doesn't really seem to make sense to say that they is followed by an uninflected verb form. For example in the present simple, BE has three different forms according to which pronoun or noun is being used. The fast that several subjects take the same form of verb doesn't mean that those forms are uninflected! (Same goes by extension for normal verbs in the present simple) – Araucaria Nov 11 '14 at 11:45
  • @Araucaria - The first form/base form/dictionary entry form of the all verbs has no inflections for mood, tense or number. Don't you think that it's reasonable to say that it is this uninflected form of all verbs (except BE) that is used for all persons in the present simple except the third person singular? – tunny Nov 11 '14 at 12:06
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    @tunny Not quite really, imo, because there's too many excepts in there. But more importantly, inflection really means to have some kind of contrastive form in relation to other forms. And especially in the third person in particular, there are two contrasting forms in the present simple ... Though I get completely why you put it that way. :) – Araucaria Nov 11 '14 at 12:26

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