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I am not sure whether these two examples using singular they to refer to a specific, singular referent are acceptable in educated speech:

  1. I had a friend in Paris, and they had to visit the doctor for a month.

    Here, they refers to a friend in Paris, so clearly a person well-known to the speaker and so of determinate gender.

  2. A teacher asked me to give their book to John.

    Here, their refers to a teacher of the speaker’s acquaintance, presumably also therefore of known gender.

Specifically, I’d like to know whether there’s any difference in acceptability between how speakers of American English view such usage compared with how speakers of British English view this.

Does the Atlantic change how this comes across, or doesn’t it?

(editorial additions for broader linguistic and sociolinguistic focus)

Does one side of the Atlantic Ocean find it pretty normal for educated speakers to use grammar like this, but the other side of the Atlantic Ocean finds it abnormal in educated speech?

Or does — if you would — the “Atlanticity” of locale have less importance on its acceptability than the register being used has, such as the varying registers of casual language versus formal language, or of the spoken language versus the written one, or of spontaneous dialogue versus curated text meant for an educated readership?

Might the acceptability of usage vary more by other factors than locale or register, such as by gender or age or education or class?

Has this usage’s acceptability or unacceptability remained relatively constant over time, or have we seen shifts in that? If so, are these shifts ones of centuries or of generations, or are they quicker than that, perhaps of decades or even of years?

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    If you know their gender, you can use he or she etc. Otherwise, they/them is fine. – Lawrence Sep 17 '17 at 8:05
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    It seems odd to me (BrE) to refer to a person you know as 'they' unless you have some reason for not wanting to disclose their gender. I would expect to see it used of an unknown or hypothetical individual. – Kate Bunting Sep 17 '17 at 8:15
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    To me these phrases are not "educated speech"--they're not how an educated AmE speaker would express these ideas. "I had a friend in Paris, who had to visit . ..etc. In the second case "their" suggests a couple of other people whose book is being given to John at the teacher's request. – Xanne Sep 17 '17 at 8:47
  • As @Kate says, your phrasing makes it sound like a) you’re deliberately going out of your way not to disclose the person’s gender, or b) you know and respect that they is the person’s preferred pronoun. Both cases are definitely marked, though. This way of phrasing things would never be seen as neutral or unmarked in most contexts. The default and unmarked way of referring to people you know (and whose gender you can therefore also be assumed to know) is by gendered pronouns, since they are used by the vast majority of the population. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Sep 17 '17 at 9:31
  • In those cases that’s lazy and unnecessary. If you didn’t know your friend’s gender, why not say … who had to visit the doctor…? If you couldn’t tell the teacher’s gender, why not … give the book to John…? I’m might be in a minority and I still hear the only correct use of ungendered they as when both speaker and audience are wholly ignorant, as in a crime mystery where we really have no idea of the number or gender of the crooks, whoever they were… and even then, I wish we wouldn't. – Robbie Goodwin Sep 19 '17 at 17:53
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In a comment, Janus Bahs Jacquet wrote that:

[Y]our phrasing makes it sound like a) you’re deliberately going out of your way not to disclose the person’s gender, or b) you know and respect that they is the person’s preferred pronoun. Both cases are definitely marked, though. This way of phrasing things would never be seen as neutral or unmarked in most contexts.

The default and unmarked way of referring to people you know (and whose gender you can therefore also be assumed to know) is by gendered pronouns, since they are used by the vast majority of the population.

  • @JanusBahsJacquet What do you mean by marked? Do you mean uncommon or infelicitous or stands out as different or unacceptable or nonstandard or informal or what? To say 'not neutral' or 'not default' doesn't help determine whether to use 'he' or 'she' vs 'they. – Mitch Sep 23 '17 at 16:23
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    @Mitch Potentially all of them, but not necessarily any one of them in particular. It means that, all things being equal, if a native speaker were to express the idea in question in a normal, neutral way, as they would say it without particularly emphasising or de-emphasising any part of it, and without any ‘special’ context to force any ‘special’ interpretation, this is not likely to be the way they’d say it, and there’s a good chance that listeners would notice it as sounding unusual. Informal does not generally mean marked per se, but archaisms, poetic language, infelicities, etc., do. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Sep 23 '17 at 18:13
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    Informal structures can be marked in special contexts (“Yo, wassup” would be highly marked in a speech by the Queen), and more generally marked factors like poetic language can be unmarked (for example in, well, poetry). But the most frequently occurring context is normal face-to-face conversation between people who know each other and have no reason to be either overly familiar or overly formal. If something would sound unnatural to a majority of speakers in such a situation, it’s generally marked. Otherwise, it’s unmarked. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Sep 23 '17 at 18:16
  • @JanusBahsJacquet OK. Markedness is not what I would call that situation (but I 'm not sure what it is you're trying to say about it, or what I myself would say about it), but I respect that that is what you intend. – Mitch Sep 23 '17 at 20:25

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