What is ‘They’?
“They” is a common word, right? It is taught that “he” is for a male and “she” is for a female. If it’s me and you, then it is “we.” And if it’s multiple others, then it’s “they.” But English speakers have this funny habit of “they” that can be tricky for second-language students. “They” is often used to talk about one person. But normally, it is used to refer to a group of people whether all male, all female, and any other possible mixture of genders. Technically, it’s also used to refer to a group of nouns in general, but we’re focusing on people here.
- There are a lot of people at the door, and they don’t look happy.
- The tree was full of apples, but they all fell down
The Singular ‘They’
Informally though, “they” can be used to refer to just one person. That’s what we call “they” as a singular pronoun. This may be for a couple of reasons.
This can happen a lot in English because many professions and occupancies don’t denote a specific gender (e.g. teacher, classmate, student, doctor). In other words, we don’t know just from hearing the word if that person is a male or female.
At this point, it’s more a choice of respect for that individual, but this is probably the least common instance of using “they” for a single person.
He or She – She or He
Normally, the grammatically correct way to refer to someone whose gender is yet to be revealed is by saying “he or she/she or he.”
-“I met with my new doctor yesterday.”
-“Really? Were they nice to you?”
-“I met with my new doctor yesterday.”
-“Really? Was he or she nice to you?”
The same goes for the object position where it changes to “them.”
- “What about your cousin? Are you going to the festival with them?”
- “What about your cousin? Are you going to the festival with her or him?”
I’m sure this might sound really weird if you’re learning, but that’s what lots of English speakers do. It doesn’t quite look correct on paper, but this is a very common habit.
We also do the same for possessive cases, using “their.”
- “One of my classmates left their bag in the lunch yard.”
- “One of my classmates left his or her bag in the lunch yard.”
Using the Right Pronoun
Again, this is normally used when we don’t know the gender of the person or if we intentionally want to hide it. When we do know the person’s gender, then we use whatever the correct pronoun is.
Incorrect (assuming John is a male):
- “What about your cousin, John? Are
theytaking you to the festival?”
- “What about your cousin, John? Is he taking you to the festival?”
Even though saying “his or her/her or his” is more grammatically correct, it sounds unusual or very formal to many English speakers, especially in a casual setting. It might be preferred in more formal settings though, like on the news, in business meetings, or in formal papers and articles. Otherwise, it’s completely normal to do this, even if grammar teachers won’t like it.
I wrote the examples as Habit and More Correct because saying “they/them” in this way is so common in English that it’s almost an accepted rule despite being technically incorrect. If you’re talking casually, I would urge you to use this form instead of “he or she/she or he” because it sounds very formal. It may be the better option for formal settings though, so keep that in mind. Don’t worry too much about it though. If you’re learning English, no one should hold it against you if you use one or the other.
- “We hired a new employee at the company, but I still haven’t met them.” (gender is unknown)
- “Your friend bought you flowers? They sound like such a sweet person!” (gender is unknown or is irrelevant)
- “My son got a new principal at his school, but I still don’t know their name. They don’t start until Thursday though.” (gender is unknown)
- — “My cousin started their new job yesterday.” — “Really? Is your cousin a he or a she?” — “Does it matter?” (gender is intentionally hidden)
- “Dannika is my gender-fluid friend, remember? They’re a big fan of the Red Hot Chili Peppers.” (the person in reference is gender-fluid, identifies as “they”)
**Thank you for reading and wanting to learn these fun English habits! If you want to read more on this subject, check out this article on APA Style. Read about other English-speaker habits on the Blog. As always, take care and keep up your studies! They will certainly pay off. Peace.