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The term was borrowed by Middle English (as they, thei) in the mid 1200s from Old Norse þeir, the nominative plural masculine of the demonstrative , which acted in Old Norse as a plural pronoun. The Norse term derives from Proto-Germanic *þai (those), from Proto-Indo-European *to- (that). It gradually replaced Old English and hīe (they).

Cognate to Old English þā (those) (whence Modern English tho), Scots thae, thai, thay (they; those), Icelandic þeir (they), Faroese teir (they), Swedish de (they), Danish de (they), Norwegian de (they), Norwegian Nynorsk dei (they), and German die (the; those, plural article and pronoun). See also tho.

The earliest uses of the term as a singular pronoun are from 1325 (a use of þer) and 1478 (a use of they).



they (third-person, nominative case, usually plural, sometimes singular, objective case them, possessive their, possessive noun theirs, reflexive themselves, or, singular, themself)

  1. (the third-person plural) A group of people, animals, or objects previously mentioned. [since the 1200s]
    Fred and Jane? They just arrived.
    I have a car and a truck, but they are both broken.
    • 2010, Iguana Invasion!: Exotic Pets Gone Wild in Florida (ISBN 1561644684), page 9:
      There is no reason to be scared of iguanas. They do not attack humans.
  2. (the third-person singular, sometimes proscribed) A single person, previously mentioned, especially if of unknown or non-binary gender. [since the 1300s]
  3. (uncommon) A single person, previously mentioned, who is genderqueer or prefers not to be referred to as he or she.
  4. (indefinite pronoun, vague meaning) People; some people; someone, excluding the speaker.
    They say it’s a good place to live.
    They didn’t have computers in the old days.
    They should do something about this.
    They have a lot of snow in winter.
  5. Eye dialect spelling of there.
    • 2000, Janice Giles, Hill Man, page 58:
      They ain’t nothin’ wrong with that.
    • 2008, Christian Carvajal, Lightfall, page 82:
      But they ain’t nothin’ in there you didn’t already have.
    • 2010, Alessandro Portelli, They Say in Harlan County: An Oral History, page 207:
      Well, they’s a lot of ‘em didn’t survive, if you believe me.

Usage notes[edit]

  • (singular pronoun): They began to be used as a singular pronoun in the 1300s. This usage has been common ever since, despite attempts by some grammarians, beginning in 1795,[1] to condemn it as a violation of traditional (Latinate) agreement rules. Some other grammarians have countered that criticism since at least 1896.[2] Fowler's Modern English Usage (third edition) notes that it "is being left unaltered by copy editors" and is "not widely felt to lie in a prohibited zone." See Wikipedia's article on singular they for a more in-depth discussion.
  • (singular pronoun): Infrequently, they is used of an individual person of known, binary gender. See citations.
  • (singular pronoun): Infrequently, they is used of an individual animal which would more commonly be referred to as it. See citations.
  • (indefinite pronoun): One is also an indefinite pronoun, but the two words do not mean the same thing and are rarely interchangeable. "They" refers to people in general, whereas "one" refers to one person (often such that what is true for that person is true for everyone). A writer may also use "you" when talking to everyone in the audience.
    They say, "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder."
    One may say, "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder."
    You may say, "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder."


See also[edit]



  1. (archaic or dialectal) those (used for people)
    • 1802 Swedenborg, E. Arcana cœlestia: or Heavenly mysteries contained in the sacred Scriptures, or Word of the Lord, manifested and laid open [an exposition of Genesis and Exodus]. J. & E. Hodson
      Whereas they are called nations, who are principled in charity and they people who are principled in faith, therefore the priesthood of the Lord is predicated of nations as relation to things celestial, which are goodnesses...
    • 1883 Judy, or the London serio-comic journal, Volume 33 Harvard University [2]
      Darn'd if they Cockney Chaps can zee there worn't nort but lie in him.





  1. ^ Anne Bodine, Androcentrism in Prescriptive Grammar: Singular `they', Sex-indefinite `he', and `he or she', in Language in Society, v. 4 (1975), pages 129-146
  2. ^ William Malone Baskervill and James Witt Sewell's An English Grammar (1896) says singular they is "frequently found when the antecedent includes or implies both genders. The masculine does not really represent a feminine antecedent"; it furthermore recommends changing it to he or she "unless both genders are implied". (Italics in original.)