Ostensibly, verb conjugation is plural vs singular: "The apple is big." vs "The apples are big."

But that doesn't match up with the centuries-old singular they.

"They is nice." vs "They are nice."

I believe only the latter is correct, not only for plural they but even for singular they.

Are there any other exceptions to the singular vs plural verb conjugation? Or is singular they a unique exception to English verb conjugation among all subjects?

Is plural vs singular still the way that grammarists explain English verb conjugation?

  • 1
    You is also conjugated in the plural (we are; you are; they are) even if you're only talking to one person. Commented Feb 27, 2021 at 21:39
  • (1) It's grammarian, not *grammarist. (2) English verbs don't really conjugate; except for be, verbs have only the Infinitive, the Past, the Gerund, and the 3rd Person Singular Present (3SgPr) forms, and many of those are identical. (3) Singular you has the plural inflection are with be, and has had it for centuries. (4) Singular they also has the plural inflection are with be, and has also had it for centuries. As far as verb agreement is concerned, it's not very important in English, and most of the time it's slurred over. But it makes good drills. Commented Feb 28, 2021 at 2:41

2 Answers 2


The use of singular (gender neutral) "they" is not by any means a new phenomenon. It has been around since the 14th century. I'd recommend the wikipedia article on it.

But I would suggest that there is a very obvious other example of this, namely the second person pronoun. In English it was originally thou for singular and you for plural. However, thou fell out of use in the 17th century, and was replaced with the plural equivalent "you", much as he/she is often replaced with their plural, they. So we use the "plural form" of the verb:

Thou art nice. / The statue is nice.

You are nice. / The statues are nice.


Speaking as a professional proofreader having to learn fast about a whole range of gender-neutral pronouns, when we use "they" with a singular meaning, verbs are always conjugated in the plural form as would be the case when referring to a plural "they."

"A candidate is expected to perform well at interview. If they are unable to do so, this will negatively reflect on their chances of proceeding to the next stage of the process."

This is for illustration only. It would obviously be better to start with "Candidates are expected."

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