Saturday, 23 May 2009

Grammar: Singular They

Singular "They"

Following the question I asked you guys in the Learning Psychology: Afraid of Speaking in English? entry, I have decided to post the answer here on a separate entry.

From the title, I guess you have already found the answer you want, but how do we actually use it?

Take a look at the following examples:
  1. "That's always your way, Maim—always sailing in to help somebody before they're hurt." — Mark Twain, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884)
  2. "Arise; one knocks. / ... / Hark, how they knock!" — Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet

From the above examples, you can see that the word "they" only refers to one person, but we use this to convey the point that:

a) you don't know what the person's gender is.

b) if doesn't matter what the person's gender is.

c) you don't want the readers to know what the person's gender is.

d) you don't want to use generic "he" to confuse others that the person is a male figure because of a) or c).

So, next time, if you are facing the problem of using he/she/it, you can use "they".


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