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Singular They, and disputation of incorrectness[edit]

I would dispute that the usage notes section, and the use of the adverb "incorrectly" in describing its use as a third person gender-neutral singular. This is by no means indisputedly incorrect.
While the authors of grammar books and English teachers may call the use of "they" as a third person singular "incorrect," English is not a regulated language. As such, such persons have no right to try to define "proper grammar," simply as a result of disagreement in colloquial usage.
Certainly where I live, "they" as a third person singular is quite common.
It makes as much sense, in my mind, for one to dispute the use of "You" as a second person singular as inaccurate, as well as its use as the nominative. "Proper usage," after all once dictated that Ye/You as the plural, and Thou/Thee as the singular.
Languages do change, to the delight of linguists and horror of grammarians. Wictionary, I might also note, is an internet dictionary, and the internet is most surely a source of new words and uses, more than an obstruction to them.

I have checked the page history, and found that both of these items were [added] by a single anonymous user. For the reasons that I have set forth, I shall be bold and remove these items. I post this here as an explanation, and should anybody wish to dispute, post here and I shall most gladly debate the point.

--Quintucket 22:49, 6 Apr 2005 (UTC)

  • it may be noted that it is used as such, but it has not yet been widely accepted. In PROPER (as opposed to spoken English) they is only a third person plural. There is no well edited scholarly work that uses the word they in place of he or she or him or her. It is the equivalent of saying that ain't is proper. While it is used regularly, that doesn't make it part of widely accepted standard English, except when noted as slang.--Torourkeus 19:09, 25 June 2006 (UTC)
  • another thing I thought of: see usage notes on the singular "they" still using plural verbs.--Torourkeus 08:25, 26 June 2006 (UTC)
I know this is four years later, but I still feel obliged to give a response. As for the scholarly works, you're mistaken: see "everyone had their" Google scholar search for a quick look. And singular they is only singular in the sense that its antecedent is singular. It is semantically singular but inflectionally plural. There is nothing inherently contradictory about this. —Internoob (DiscCont) 01:16, 18 June 2010 (UTC)
You're wrong on two counts. First, there is no 'PROPER' English. Second, the third person singular 'they' isn't slang like "ain't", and is in fact quite common and unremarked upon in England at least. I'm guessing you're American? I vote to remove the 'disputed' - it is disputed, but I don't think we need to draw attention to the fact because the disputers are wrong! :-P 15:22, 6 December 2010 (UTC)
While I agree that singular they is acceptable usage, we still need the disputed tag for completeness (to explain to the readers what the fuss is about) and for WT:NPOV because it still goes against the grammar sensibilities of many individuals, whether we think they're wrong or not. —Internoob (DiscCont) 00:02, 7 December 2010 (UTC)

"improved" pronunciation[edit]

How exactly is it an improvement to remove the identifiers of what kind of pronunciation is given? Nohat 16:43, 10 Apr 2005 (UTC)

Basically because this way reduces clutter, keeps the various representations of one prounciation together on one line, freeing other lines to be useful for alternate pronunciations, each accompanied by any homophones and rhymes they might have. With the 3-on-1-line format becoming more common, it becomes a standard and thus not as shocking as the first time you see it.
On this article it's not clear that it helps much. But compare an article which has multiple pronunciations, homophones, and rhymes - such as trait. I hope you can see the improvement a little. — Hippietrail 02:25, 11 Apr 2005 (UTC)

Usage note[edit]

The usage note was inaccurate; many style guides approve of the singular they, especially when the antecedent is something like anyone or everyone. I think we should only briefly touch on the usage, and refer the reader to Wikipedia's article, which has a deeper discussion. Colin 05:07, 30 May 2005 (UTC)

  • I'd note that anyone and everyone are both plurals. --Torourkeus 19:09, 25 June 2006 (UTC)
Anyone and everyone are singulars. Nobody would think of saying "Everyone are here", or "Are anyone hurt?", would they? (or would he?) —Stephen 19:16, 25 June 2006 (UTC)
  • You have a point. I did think of something else earlier today though, one problem with using they as a singluar pronoun in formal english is that verbs are still plural. While you are right that nobody would say "Everyone are here," it is similarly unlikely that anyone would say "They is here."--Torourkeus 08:23, 26 June 2006 (UTC)

translation singular they[edit]

While the use of a "singular they" may be acceptable in English, it seems to me that many of the translations for it are not quite the exact same thing (I can only say so for sure about the French and German ones, but I suspect the same goes for several others).

Paul Willocx 10:37, 4 January 2006 (UTC)

They as impersonal[edit]

I am not sure, but it seems to me that they is also used as impersonal pronoun not only in cases described in point 3 (They should do something about this.). What about this:

Another essential domain in Russification policy was atheism. They tried to shape the minds of the youth to believe in god-denying and scientific concept of the world.

In this sentence, they would mean not somebody or everybody but those who tried to do it. Is this a correct usage? 18:47, 25 May 2007 (UTC)

Known-gender they[edit]

The second part of the usage note should be made less prescriptive; the use of "they" with known-gender referents goes back at least to Shakespeare and the King James Bible and is just as common as the any other use. —This unsigned comment was added by (talk) at 2007-08-31T02:54:56.

Thank you for that note. It would really help the article if you could point out a quote from Shakespeare or from the King James Bible. Do you happen to have any available? Rod (A. Smith) 05:46, 31 August 2007 (UTC)

Bad translations for singular?[edit]

I'm not positive, but if I'm not mistaken, on and man (for French and German respectively) don't convey the same meaning as singular they. I have only ever seen on or man used for a generic "you". For example, I couldn't imagine seeing On peut faire... translated as They can do..., only as One can do.... My main point is, as far as I know, on and man (although I'm more sure about on) are only used to refer to generic persons, whereas they is a specific person, except their gender is unknown/irrelevant. If I'm not mistaken, in French, you follow (the rule previously used in English) the rule of using masculine-dominant (as you do if there are multiple objects, at least one of which is masculine, you use the masculine plural, even if the feminine objects are more plentiful) making a person of indefinite gender, il. - Estoy Aquí 00:41, 30 October 2007 (UTC)

In English, we don’t use the construction "one does" or "one doesn’t" very often. It’s very formal and very stiff. Instead, we use "you" (you’re not supposed to do that), "we" (we don’t do that here), or "people" (people don’t write it that way...usually they write it like this), or "they" (they say it’s very good for you). The word they is not so often used in this sense, and, unlike "you" and "we", they usually (but not always) is used after first using people (as I did in the preceding example). Spanish handles these situations with se or with the third-person plural of the verb; Russian uses the third-person plural of the verb; German uses man and the 3rd-person singular of the verb; French likes to use on and the 3rd-person singular. —Stephen 01:11, 30 October 2007 (UTC)
Hmmm... I don't think the examples you've used there are the best. Both of your examples could be easily construed to be plural for one thing (e.g.: They all say it's very...). Maybe you didn't intend to, but it looks like you were trying to say that they, one and you are interchangeable, while the article explicitly says they aren't (with which I would agree). I know that using they to refer to people in general is correct to translate as on or man because you could recast that usage as one or you. Also, try recasting your example in a true singular and it doesn't make sense (which singular they always should be possible to do with). For example: He says it's very good for you. Then you're talking about a specific person, which you clearly weren't before. I think a better example of what I mean is:
Whoever it was, they're gone now.
While this unknown person, could be multiple persons, it can be recast in the singular without looking strange. If we knew it was one person, and that that person was male, it wouldn't look at all strange (to me) to write:
Whoever it was, he's gone now.
Now, if you try to recast that as one or generic you, I think you'd find it quite difficult. Also my German dictionary (Collins Gem) lists the following German translations for they (not limited to the following, just they are all that's relevant):
(people in general) man (unidentified person) er/sie
As I said, I wasn't disputing the former of those two. The latter is what I was disputing, which my dictionary confirms was the correct thing to do ;). - Estoy Aquí 11:50, 30 October 2007 (UTC)

Inanimate objects[edit]

Doesn't "they" also refer to inanimate objects? A sort of plural of "it" I suppose. As in "I have some apples, they are tasty". -- 01:44, 30 April 2008 (UTC)

Yes, they is the plural of he, she and it. They may be masculine, feminine or neither, and may be animate or inanimate. It is a comprehensive 3rd-person plural. —Stephen 01:53, 30 April 2008 (UTC)

AAVE they=their[edit]

We need the AAVE sense meaning "their", e.g. "my boys never met they daddy". Equinox 13:27, 12 November 2011 (UTC)

It seems attestable. DCDuring TALK 23:42, 12 November 2011 (UTC)
So now poor grammar gets an entry? Shall we call is a plural form of "to be" since we can attest folks saying you is? --AnWulf ... Ferþu Hal! (talk) 19:10, 5 March 2012 (UTC)
This isn't bad grammar even; AAVE is non-rhotic like many British dialects. That is the final 'r" is not pronounced. So they are still saying "their" not "they" 04:31, 13 April 2012 (UTC)

That doesn't matter if it is also spelled "they" in works written in AAVE. By contrast, British dialects tend to use standard English spellings, even including r's in words in which they do not pronounce that sound. --Μετάknowledgediscuss/deeds 05:11, 13 April 2012 (UTC)

Not a Determiner[edit]

They is a subject (nominative) pronoun. It is NOT a determiner any more than you is a determiner in you two. They are subject pronouns. The byspels that are posted are poor grammar rather proper examples of it being a determiner. Darn'd if they Cockney Chaps can zee there worn't nort but lie in him. Really? How about claiming that worn't is a past tense of "to be"? It would be like posting you is and claiming that is is a valid 2nd person plural verb form and I could eathly find byspels of you is in books. Further, claiming it is a determiner could be befuddling. In "they both", the determiner is "both" not they. I am far from a prescriptist but even I have limits. --AnWulf ... Ferþu Hal! (talk) 19:10, 5 March 2012 (UTC)

I have to agree that the citations are both poor. I can't tell if the first one is an intentional use of "they" or a simple spelling error or typo (in the original work) for "the", and the second one is dialectal. But google books:"they people" does get a lot of hits. - -sche (discuss) 21:29, 16 January 2015 (UTC)
The following citation was determined to be clearly invalid in a WT:RFV discussion which will be archived to this page soon. - -sche (discuss) 08:54, 28 January 2016 (UTC)
  • 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...

Singular senses[edit]

I'm not sure if it makes sense to split the singular pronoun into two senses. This became especially noticeable to me after I changed the first definition from "but of unknown irrelevant gender" to "especially if of unknown or irrelevant gender" to reflect the IME fairly common use of they in reference to people of known (even known binary) gender. I wonder if a single sense à la what Timeraner suggested on Stephen's talk page would be best; for example, "A single person, previously mentioned, especially if of unknown, irrelevant or non-binary/genderqueer gender."
Separately, I notice that the plural sense includes "people or objects" while the first sense only includes "a single person". The plural sense can certainly also include animals (which are neither people nor objects), so its wording may need to be tweaked. And I think it would be informative to investigate whether the singular can also be found with an animal or an object as its referent; if it can, I think that might strengthen the case for having just one plural sense "a group previously mentioned..." and one singular sense "a single entity previously mentioned..." (plus the indefinite pronoun sense).
- -sche (discuss) 11:18, 16 January 2015 (UTC)

I notice you changed the definition to say "especially" partly based on the Shakespeare quote—but I don't think the Shakespeare quote is such clear evidence. Rather, I think Shakespeare is using sense 3 of man ("a person of either gender"). It's hard for me to think of a situation where I would use "they" for a single person of known, relevant binary gender—are there any other quotations that support that change to the definition?
I think the reason I prefer to have them as separate senses is that a speaker's idiolect can easily include one but not the other. I naturally use singular they for people of unknown gender all the time, but I still have to consciously remind myself to use "they" for an acquaintance of mine who's genderqueer. (I don't feel too strongly, though—maybe a single sense would be better.)
I would also be interested to see if citations can be found for singular they applied to an animal or object. —Mr. Granger (talkcontribs) 13:12, 16 January 2015 (UTC)
I brought this up in the tea room. Timeraner (talk) 17:00, 16 January 2015 (UTC)
I suppose things partially hinge on what "relevant" / "irrelevant" means in the definition. (The easiest interpretation might be "if a speaker used they to refer to a known-gender person, the speaker must've deemed the person's gender irrelevant", but that'd be circular / self-fulfilling.) Here are two citations of "their dick" where the "them" in question is one "guy", explicitly so labelled (by the context and in one case by the title of the citations). And here is one citation of "their pussy" with a singular referent.
Also, in the Community citation, the gender of the referent is known to the speaker, the speaker is simply choosing not to disclose it, which is another common use of they — think of closeted gay people playing the pronoun game.
I'm not sure if the fact that you have to remind yourself to use "they" of a certain person in indicates different sense, as opposed to a tendency to parse the person a certain way (namely, as a male or female, who would be appropriately described as "he" or "she") and then have to remind yourself "oh, but that's not it". (Kudos to you for making an effort to use the right pronoun!) I've seen people struggle in the same way to correctly refer to a trans woman as "she", a "woman", a "girl", a "waitress" (rather than "waiter"), etc, but that's not a sign we should split all those words into "cis" and "trans" senses.
- -sche (discuss) 21:26, 16 January 2015 (UTC)
Good point—the "their dick"/"their pussy" examples convince me that the word "especially" was a good addition.
As for whether to have one or two singular senses—the trans woman example makes it seem that my difficulty with my acquaintance's pronouns doesn't really prove much. The two meanings still feel different to me somehow—in one, you're omitting the person's gender, whereas in the other, you're acknowledging it. But that's probably not enough of a difference to merit two separate senses. —Mr. Granger (talkcontribs) 22:30, 16 January 2015 (UTC)
Ah, the pronoun game! I played that in high school without consciously realizing it.. it was something ingrained to avoid harassment. Timeraner (talk - contribs) 13:53, 17 January 2015 (UTC)
Re omitting gender vs acknowledging gender: that's a good point, but the phenomenon is "language-wide" (extends to all gendered words, not just pronouns), which is why I tend to think the pronoun only has one singular sense. For example, I might refer to a laconic man by saying "he's a man of few words"; I'd refer to a genderqueer person by saying "they're a person of few words", the same thing I'd remark if I didn't know the gender of e.g. the author of some overly-short instruction manual.
Also, it's worth noting that the other non-he/she third-person pronouns can be used the same way. The 2011 citation of sie has someone self-identifying (and being identified by someone else) using it, while in the 1993 citation it refers to 'any child, of whatever gender'. And the 1997 citation of ey is 'any mobile user', while I could probably find people on [non-durable] Tumblr (and possibly on durable Usenet) who self-identified with it, if the need arose. I think both kinds of use represent the same underlying phenomenon of not gendering the referent (whether because one doesn't know which if any binary way of gendering the referent would be correct, or because one knows that neither way would be correct).
I've taken a stab at rewriting the definitions, including the plural one, which needed to acknowledge the frequent and AFAIK standard use in reference to animals. They may need to be modified further. - -sche (discuss) 20:08, 19 January 2015 (UTC)
As to the question of whether "they" can refer to a single animal, it seems so, although I imagine prescriptivists' heads will explode upon seeing the citations ("but... why not use it's...?! ggaacckk"). google:"bird their beak" has some more examples, though they're not "durable". - -sche (discuss) 23:35, 16 January 2015 (UTC)
Pets are frequently discussed in terms of binary gender roles and with gendered pronouns, but they're still animals and cannot have a gender. I support singular "they" because animals are living beings that should be treated humanely. Timeraner (talk - contribs) 13:53, 17 January 2015 (UTC)

Incorrectly broad regarding singular senses[edit]

The entry currently says "A single person, previously mentioned, especially if of unknown or non-binary gender", and this works in the examples such as:

  • Someone brushed passed me. They made no effort to avoid me. (Here it's replacing "That person")

But doesn't work in a sentence like:

  • Mary was a lovely child. They went to school up the road.

Or even if the gender is unknown, it still doesn't work:

  • The tall kid was delightful. They went to school up the road.

I'd like to fix the entry but I'm struggling to define where it works and where it doesn't. How about "Can replace "someone" or "that person", when either has been previously mentioned"? This is at least consistent with the examples given. Gronky (talk) 17:16, 30 July 2015 (UTC)

Is it something about non-specificity? Mary and the tall kid could both be identified again by their characteristics, whereas "someone" is totally vague. Equinox 17:24, 30 July 2015 (UTC)
Actually, I think I was wrong about "someone". All the examples use it as "that person", not "someone" (but in most examples, the "that person" is someone previously referred to as "someone"). I'm still looking for a better way to explain it.
Seems okay to me. Google Books: "But she knew someone was there. They must be."; "If someone was there they could have prevented the accident." Equinox 17:39, 30 July 2015 (UTC)
Hmm, have to think about this one. I'm pretty sure in your second example, "they" replaces "that person" ("that person" refers to the previously mentioned "someone", but replacing "they" with "someone" would make a different sentence). For your first example, I'm less sure, but I'm also leaning toward saying the same thing ("they" refers to the previously mentioned "someone", but what it replaces is a "that person"). Yes? No? Gronky (talk) 19:47, 30 July 2015 (UTC)
In addition, I think the "non-binary gender" bit is a red herring. Some people use "they" as a gender-neutral pronoun, but that's a separate issue, isn't it? Equinox 17:23, 30 July 2015 (UTC)
Yes, I think the "non-binary gender" bit was unrelated. None of the examples give a reason for it to be there in the definition. Gronky (talk) 17:34, 30 July 2015 (UTC)
See the section just above this. My rationale is that if (as I think) the use of they in a way that doesn't specify gender and the use of they to 'specify' (non-binary) gender are grammatically identical/interchangeable, then it doesn't make sense to split them. - -sche (discuss) 17:43, 30 July 2015 (UTC)
Is that not a separate issue? The problem raised here is that the current definition is so broad that it includes clearly-wrong uses of "they" such as "Mary was a lovely kid. They went to school up the road.". Gronky (talk) 18:19, 30 July 2015 (UTC)
IMO, the citations indicate that singular they can be used in the same circumstances as plural they except with singular referent rather than plural referent. It especially works in your last example ("the tall kid"), but it also works with named people if the people are non-binary or the speaker is lax about using gendered pronouns; for the former, see Citations:they#Pronoun:_single_person_of_non-binary_gender, and for the latter, compare Citations:they#Pronoun:_single_person_of_specified_gender. Indeed, it can be replaced with "that person"-type constructions in each kind of example (although English would find the use of the same noun more natural: "Mary was a lovely child. that child went to school up the road", "the tall kid was delightful. that kid went to school up the road"). - -sche (discuss) 17:43, 30 July 2015 (UTC)
With all due respect to the participants, the previous discussion is long and from a quick reading I don't see an obviously right definition. I don't think the old discussion is sufficiently conclusive for "Please see previous discussion" to be of much use. If there were conclusive points made in that previous discussion that would help conclude this current discussion, can you summarise them?
"Non-binary gender" sounds like a reference to intersex or transsexuals, is that the intention? If so, there's nothing in the examples to back this up.
Then, the issue which is unrelated to non-binary genders, is that the current definition is too broad because it fails to exclude my "Mary was a lovely kid. They went to school up the road" example. Do you agree the current definition is too broad, and do you have any suggestions for correcting it? Gronky (talk) 18:15, 30 July 2015 (UTC)
I think the former definition was correct and the current definition incorrectly suggests there is a difference, besides singularity/pluralness, in the singular and plural uses of they. "They" works for me in all of the examples you've given. One would would expect "she" after "Mary" because one would socially expect Mary to be female and that femaleness to be reflected in pronouns, but "they" can be used after names, as in these quotations (one of the quotations is of someone whose name, Sean, is typically considered to be gendered like Mary also is). - -sche (discuss) 21:05, 30 July 2015 (UTC)
None of those examples use "they" to refer to a named person. In the Sean example the author adds a preface to explain that he/she is writing in a special way as a concession to Sean's preferences. Gronky (talk) 22:03, 30 July 2015 (UTC)
The circumstances is which singular "they" is not used seem to be quite narrow. What about:
  1. (the third-person singular, sometimes proscribed) A single person, previously mentioned, especially if of unknown or non-binary gender, but not if previously named and identified as male or female. [since the 1300s]
(The "previously named" bit is because we have citations of people identified as male or female but not previously named being referred to as "they".) Or if one wanted to split off the non-binary bit:
  1. (the third-person singular, sometimes proscribed) A single person, previously mentioned, especially if of unknown gender; not used of someone previously named and identified as male or female. [since the 1300s]
  2. (the third-person singular) A single person, previously mentioned, of non-binary gender.
- -sche (discuss) 21:31, 30 July 2015 (UTC)
What does non-binary gender refer to? Intersex and transsexuals? Individuals who's gender is unknown? Non-gendered person nouns such as "the teacher"? Gronky (talk) 22:06, 30 July 2015 (UTC)
People who reject the male-female (binary) distinction, and don't want to be called by a gender, or have made one up. Equinox 22:10, 30 July 2015 (UTC)
Oh. In my opinion, that meaning of "they" is not part of the English language. But I checked the Wiktionary policies and the bar is very low: Wiktionary:Criteria_for_inclusion. If you can find three unrelated uses of this word, with more than a year's gap, then it can be added. I think adding this meaning amounts to turning Wiktionary into a soapbox to promote a neologism/protologism, but them's the rules. Much like if I convinced two blogger friends to join me in using "they" to refer to the Moon and then put it in Wiktionary - that would be gaming the system.
This meaning you suggest is clearly separate to the other one, so I think splitting into two items is indeed a good idea, and I think your wording for part one is good. For part two, if you have three sources and you decide to added, I'd suggest using a clearer wording, such as the wording you used in your comment that I'm replying to now. It should also be tagged as being extremely rare, so as not to confuse English-learners. Gronky (talk) 22:31, 30 July 2015 (UTC)
Gronky, please read the above section, in which -sche argued (convincingly, IMHO) that these are not two separate senses.
I agree with -sche that the original definition was correct, and I am reverting to it until consensus can be found for a different definition. -sche's suggested modification of the definition would also be okay with me, but the definition that Gronky added strikes me as vague and somewhat misleading. —Mr. Granger (talkcontribs) 00:20, 31 July 2015 (UTC)
Can you give me the diff link the the comment you want me to read? Gronky (talk) 00:47, 31 July 2015 (UTC)
I'm talking about most of what -sche said in the section. Here is a diff that includes all the relevant comments: [1]Mr. Granger (talkcontribs) 00:55, 31 July 2015 (UTC)
Ok, I've read the diff but I don't see what you're referring to. Can you give me a hint? Gronky (talk) 01:00, 31 July 2015 (UTC)
Regarding the issue of the referent being named, here is one example of singular they used with a named referent of known binary gender: . It's not durably archived, but it suggests that this usage exists. —Mr. Granger (talkcontribs) 00:30, 31 July 2015 (UTC)
The example is an unpublished email written by a friend of a friend, and a paraphrased version got published to highight how startling and jarring it is. I'm not saying no one's ever used the word in this way, but I am saying it seems not to be part of the English language. Gronky (talk) 00:57, 31 July 2015 (UTC)
This is getting messy because there are three issues, so I'll make separate sub-headings. Gronky (talk) 01:44, 31 July 2015 (UTC)
I'll respond more later; for now, two points. First: if only a few of the many kinds of usage which plural they can be put to are not found in the singular — or moreover if (as seems to be the case here) a few kinds of use are simply not common / not common until recently, but not missing — it might be wiser and easier to cover that with usage notes, rather than trying to encapsulate it on the sense line. (For example — this may need modification, but — "The use of 'they' to refer to a single person of known male or female gender/sex is recent and uncommon. Use of 'they' to refer to someone who has been named is especially uncommon unless the person's gender is known to be non-binary.") Second: the phenomenon of using a genderless word either as an omission of gender or as an acknowledgement of someone's non-binary gender is not limited to "they" but rather is language-wide, which is why I feel that splitting off separate "genderqueer" senses would be unwise. As I put it in the section above this one: one could refer to a laconic man (or male firefighter) by saying "he's a man (fireman) of few words"; one could refer to a genderqueer person by saying "they're a person (firefighter) of few words", the same thing one might say with regard to the anonymous author of some overly-short guide to fighting fires. - -sche (discuss) 09:15, 31 July 2015 (UTC)
You could refer to anyone as "a person of few words". That has nothing to do with genderqueer. And "uncommon unless"? Are you saying replacing all "he/she" with "they" is common? (when people talk about someone who doesn't want to be identified as male or female)
I've never seen anyone write like that. If such usage does exist without being accompanied by an explanation, it's a niche within a niche, and may prove to be a fad. Gronky (talk) 10:53, 31 July 2015 (UTC)
Alright, let's try to list which uses (which kinds of referents) they can and can't have. There seem to be three variables which affect whether or not it can be used: whether a person is named (I'll abbreviate this variable 'N' for 'named', 'xN' for 'not named'); whether the person is specifically identifiable despite not being named ('S', 'xS'); and whether the person's gender is unknown or irrelevant ('O', for 'omitted'), known to be male or female ('M/F'), or known to be genderqueer ('GQ'). Plural they can be used with any combination of these; what works for singular they?
  1. (xN, xS) is of long standing: "Any person who wants to vote has to fill out an application and sign their name to it." (This works whether the gender is 'O' or 'GQ'; for the latter, add "any genderqueer person who..." and note that the sentence functions as before. It also works if the gender is known to be 'M/F', though it's probably less common than "him"/"her" in that case: "If one more woman steps on my toe today, I'm going to scream at them!")
  2. (xN, S, O) is also of long standing: "There's a figure outside the door; I see them through the peephole."
  3. (xN, M/F) is also found now: "We have had to tell another mother that their child is dead." (It's debatable whether this is 'S' or 'xS' — taken to refer to Freddie Grey's mother it's 'S', taken generally it's 'xS'. Use with 'xS' is probably more common than 'S'. Both uses are less common than the first two uses I mentioned above.)
  4. It's uncommon for an (N, O) or (N, S, O) situation to arise because it's uncommon to know someone's name but not their gender, but when that does happen, singular they works, and is probably fairly common and of long standing: "The note is signed 'love R. Hill' — any idea who that is? They dotted their 'i' with a triangle."
  5. It's also uncommon for any (GQ) situation to arise, because it's uncommon to meet a non-binary person (only a small percent of the population is non-binary), but when such a situation does arrive, singular they works, with the alternative — use of he or she or it — regularly being considered offensive misgendering (our definition) / (Wikipedia's section).
  6. The one situation where they is very rare and nonstandard is (N, M/F), which is your "Mary..." example. Even there, it's possible to think of situations where they would be used, e.g. if the speaker was exceptionally lazy about adding gender (or was partisan about not adding gender / reverse-misgendering people), or if it was a case of "of course, they were called Bradley then" example as described on 'pedia — but it would be rare and nonstandard. Hence my suggestion above of ", but not if previously named and identified as male or female". (Usage notes could also be added to go into more detail, although the usage notes section is rather long as it is.)
- -sche (discuss) 22:31, 31 July 2015 (UTC)
Listening to random YouTube videos on autoplay for background noise while I cleaned up around the apartment, I picked up on this great example of the "lazy speaker" phenomenon I mentioned: at the 6:37 mark, discussing various boys she did and didn't date in school, the speaker says "...and then I met somebody who lived a bit further away, and they then became my boyfriend, and his cousin became my best friend Alex's first boyfriend..." (i.e. the same person is referred to as "they" and then as "his"). - -sche (discuss) 06:33, 9 August 2015 (UTC)
Mary, they

I assume we all agree that, for the sense of the word for which there are citations going back hundreds of years, this is incorrect:

  • "Mary was a hermit. They lived in isolation."


Now, hypothetically, if we say that the use of "their" in the linked mail is real English (for want of a better term), then we're still left with the problem of fixing the definition to say why one is wrong and the other rare-but-not-absolutely-wrong.

Is it that in the linked mail, "their" can be easily replaced by "this person"? (Is there more apt description than "easily"?) Gronky (talk) 01:44, 31 July 2015 (UTC)

"They" as a full replacement for "he" and "she" - is this like the above?

Then there's the question of a possible new use of "their" by a certain number of people (discussion of the number is for the below section) who've decided to use "they" instead of "he" or "she" because they don't want to refer to themselves or others as male or female.

If this group exists, then they would have no problem in saying about their friend Mary:

  • "Mary was a hermit. They lived in isolation."

Because for them it's just a replacement for "she". The two meanings are thus different. Yes? Gronky (talk) 01:44, 31 July 2015 (UTC)

"They" as a full replacement for "he" and "she" - does it exist (enough for Wiktionary to document it)?

Lastly there's the issue of whether Wiktionary should have an entry about a use of "they" which is so rare that no one has found an example yet that isn't prefaced or accompanied by an explanation. Gronky (talk) 01:44, 31 July 2015 (UTC)

To clarify, the reason I added those citations which have explanatory introductions is partly because the introductions made clear how the word was being used, and partly because they were how I managed to find the uses in the enormous sea which is all literature which has used the word they. (One wouldn't have been able to tell from a bare instance of "Sean said their name was pronounced Shawn" whether Sean's gender was being omitted by an informal speaker or acknowledged as non-binary.) - -sche (discuss) 09:15, 31 July 2015 (UTC)

RFV discussion: January 2016[edit]

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they in uses like "they people"

Our entry on they has a "Determiner" section, which I have a lot of questions about. It says "(archaic or dialectal) Those (used for people)".
In the first of the citations present in the entry, "they" looks like a misspelling or typo for "the". Do enough citations exist where "they" is used often enough as a determiner/demonstrative to suggest that it isn't a misspelling or typo? If it's a misspelling of "the", it's exceedingly vanishingly rare compared to "the", and we don't include very rare misspellings.
In the second citation, it might be eye dialect for something (possibly "the" or "these"). If "they" is in fact attested as a determiner, should it be labelled "eye dialect"? Is its origin eye dialect, like they = there, or is it from Old Norse þeir? And does it mean "those" (as the entry says) or "these"?
Also, is such usage (if it exists) even usage of a determiner rather than something else? See Talk:they#Not a Determiner. - -sche (discuss) 01:46, 16 January 2016 (UTC)

I found the url for the edition of Swedenborg used, though many other editions have the text. There is no named Latin to English translator. I will try to find the Latin text in an old edition. In the meantime, I have forgotten how to have a long url not appear on the screen. Could someone fix it please? DCDuring TALK 05:21, 16 January 2016 (UTC)
The relevant portion of the cite is "Whereas they are called nations, who are principled in charity and they [are called] people who are principled in faith, therefore the priesthood of the Lord is predicated of nations as relation to things celestial, which are goodnesses...". The bracketed text ("are called"), when inserted makes some sense of the passage. I suspect an infelicitous translation is the problem, not an error of orthography. DCDuring TALK 05:26, 16 January 2016 (UTC)
Above is the Latin text. Perhaps someone can explain why the translation came out as it did. DCDuring TALK 05:35, 16 January 2016 (UTC)
My Latin isn't very good, but I can tell that there's no solution in the Latin passage here. The pronouns are quia and qui, which here mean "(those) who", as in quia gentes dicunturilli, qui in charitate, populi qui infide, "those who nations are called, who in charity people (who) in faith [are called]..." "They" isn't really part of the Latin to begin with, but part of how you choose to render the sentence in English. The pronoun is implied by the verb, which is third person plural. But there's no "they people" in the Latin. Someone has merely inserted a pronoun in order to clarify how the verb relates to the word "people" in a way that seems to have caused confusion by suggesting that "they" and "people" form a phrase, when they don't. A comma after "they" would have made the original intention clearer. P Aculeius (talk) 15:28, 16 January 2016 (UTC)
What does that Latin passage have to do with it? Renard Migrant (talk) 16:29, 17 January 2016 (UTC)
@Renard Migrant I was trying to see whether the citation should be thrown out as a translation error made as a result of following the Latin original too closely. Then, there would need to be at least two more citations and the Swedenborg citation would also not even support a misspelling. DCDuring TALK 16:38, 17 January 2016 (UTC)
I feel like I didn't really make my point very clearly, so I went back to the entry and looked over the quotations. I don't read the first one as supporting the sense at all. I don't believe that the translator meant "they" to modify "people"; the phrase is "people who are principled in faith", which is meant to be parallel to "they... who are principled in charity", omitting the verb. The second example is simply someone's attempt to represent a particular dialect, not otherwise in evidence. I don't think it can stand independently; there needs to be some evidence that people actually said "they people" instead of "those people". Making a character in a book use the wrong word isn't evidence of the word's use for the asserted meaning. P Aculeius (talk) 17:56, 17 January 2016 (UTC)
Yes; thanks to DCDuring for tracking down the Latin and to you for translating it; I agree that "they" isn't a determiner meaning "these" in the citation, but rather the usual pronoun meaning "group of people, etc previous mentioned". - -sche (discuss) 22:32, 17 January 2016 (UTC)
I found a number of cites. Here are three clear ones:
Kiwima (talk) 04:09, 18 January 2016 (UTC)
Disagree with them being clear cites. I strongly suspect that all three examples are typos for the men. Spell check doesn't flag "they", since it's a perfectly ordinary word. The sense under discussion purports to be potentially archaic or dialectical; but all three examples are from recent literature written in modern English, and the would make much more sense in each case. P Aculeius (talk) 13:24, 18 January 2016 (UTC)
Right, every one of those citations is just typo-ing "the", as one can gather from the fact that they use "they men" only once each, and "the men" 39 times (in the first book), 77 times (in the second book) and 79 times (in the third book). As a typo, "they" for "the" is too rare to merit even a "misspelling of" sense line. Books that consistently use "they" in determiner-like ways are needed. - -sche (discuss) 19:44, 18 January 2016 (UTC)
The OED has they "As demonstrative determiner, with plural noun: = those pron. and adj. 6, 4; (also freq. with weaker sense) = the adj., pron.2, and n.2 Now Eng. regional (chiefly south.) and nonstandard." with various citations from 1470 ("They two knyghtes mette" -- Malory) to 1974 ("so I can see how thee'st look when they ribbons do flare out." -- Foley). I don't know whether this helps. Dbfirs 10:37, 25 January 2016 (UTC)
Hmmm, if used the way it sounds in Malory, it could possibly be an example of what's intended by this entry. But we need to see the context, and I can't find this phrase on-line. The question is, does they in this sentence refer to the knights ("they two knyghtes") or does it refer to someone else who met the knights ("they (mette) two knyghtes"), with the verb simply placed at the end? Without the context, it's impossible to know. Does anyone have an edition of Malory which uses this syntax? I really can't tell what is meant in the second sentence "how thee'st look"; to me it looks like thee substituted for thou, because the inflection is second-person, not third (thou dost, he doth, they do). And I've definitely heard that used in English country dialect on television. For that matter American Quakers used "thee" in place of "thou" into the 20th Century. So this doesn't appear to be an example of "they", although possibly the context would help settle it. P Aculeius (talk) 13:28, 25 January 2016 (UTC)
I can find the line: "In the meane whyle brake the enbusshement of Kynge Ban and kynge bors, and Lyonses and Pharyaunce had the aduant garde, and they two knyghtes mette with kyng Idres and his felauship, and there began a grete medele [...]." However, this looks like — and A Modern English Grammar on Historical Principles gives it as an example of — "they two", i.e. "they" as a pronoun. Foley's As the twig is bent uses "they ribbons" once (I can confirm) and "the ribbons" at least once (that I can confirm) and supposedly "thy ribbons" once (per Google Books; it won't show me the snippet so I can confirm it), suggesting "they ribbons" might be a mere typo for the or thy. - -sche (discuss) 06:44, 26 January 2016 (UTC)
The Middle English Dictionary does say that Middle English thei (they) could be used "as dem. adj.: those", which if accurate would lend some credibility to the idea of demonstrative they in modern English. However, its citations are "and þæȝe adle Greccas nemneð brostenus" (which is quite unclear, and could be pronominal or a scribal error for another word entirely), "mon tented hys, & þay two tented þayres" (which is another example of pronominal "they two"), "They six smote othir six downe" (pronominal), "They two knyghtes mette" (pronominal), "Fore thay thre causis, I leue of that matiere" (?), "they fyve haue ... shappe" (pronominal), "the fourme of thay Pryuylegis" (?), "Þen he lacches his leue and þai lordes þonkit" (?). - -sche (discuss) 06:59, 26 January 2016 (UTC)
Well, the use in Malory looks borne out; "they" doesn't seem to be referring to anyone other than Sir Lyonses and Sir Pharyaunce. Looking back on the Foley quotation, I note that I misread it yesterday. But all the same, unless the rest of the work (or at least the passage containing the phrase) contains other, similar archaic language, I think that "they ribbons" is almost certainly a typo for "the ribbons" or "thy ribbons" (unless "they" refers to someone other than the ribbons). The Middle English citations seem to demonstrate that they could be so used in Middle English, but I don't think they can tell us much about whether it can in Modern English. Malory comes at the tayle end of Middle English, so an isolated example from Malory still doesn't demonstrate that they can be used in this way in Modern English, or that it has been at any point in the last five hundred years. I don't suppose there are any examples from Shakespeare? P Aculeius (talk) 13:31, 26 January 2016 (UTC)
The Malory and Middle English citations of "they two", "they six", etc are pronominal (not just in my view but in A Modern English Grammar’s); they are grammatically identical to "we two knights met [each other]", "you two knights met [each other]". I'm impressed that the Oxford English Dictionary missed that. - -sche (discuss) 20:57, 26 January 2016 (UTC)
I'm not sure; the word seems to function exactly as "those" in this instance, which would make it an adjective, not a pronoun, even though "those" can also be a pronoun. The same is true of "we" in "we two knights" or "you" in "you two knights". The words may ordinarily be thought of as pronouns, but here they appear to be modifying "knights" rather than taking its place (which would make no sense in the same phrase). So it seems to me that "they" could be used as an adjective in Middle English, although so far it doesn't seem clearly established in Modern English. P Aculeius (talk) 22:40, 26 January 2016 (UTC)
How would you define "we", in "we two knights", if you think it's not a pronoun? Btw, one also finds the oblique case forms of all these pronouns used with numerals, e.g. "them two guys over there", "us two were thinking...", not to mention "y'all two" (even "you 'uns two" gets two Google Books hits). - -sche (discuss) 00:55, 28 January 2016 (UTC)
I'm still thinking they look like adjectives, because they limit or describe nouns and pronouns. But whether you call them adjectives or determiners, the question remains: are there examples of "they" used as a modifier, rather than a pronoun, that clearly belong to Modern English? I see some uncertainty as to whether to place the (approximate) division between Middle English and Modern English closer to 1475 or 1500; but in either case Malory (who died in 1471) fits under the heading of Middle English. So far all we have are several recent instances that seem likely to be typos for "the", or in one case possibly "thy". P Aculeius (talk) 04:40, 28 January 2016 (UTC)
Or how about Shakespeare's famous w:St Crispin's Day Speech: "We few, we happy few, we band of brothers...". Chuck Entz (talk) 02:53, 28 January 2016 (UTC)
We, you, these and those all function as determiners (not adjectives). If used as determiners in a sentence with a tag question, a pattern emerges with suggests that for most modern speakers these and those may together have replaced they in the determiner role:
We guys did it, didn't we?
You guys did it, didn't you?
Those guys did it, didn't they?
These guys did it, didn't they?
  • They guys did it, didn't they?
Note that no singular determiner exists for the first and second person. This and that (not he, she, or it) function in the third person, with he, she, or it as the pronouns in the tag question.
This makes me think it plausible that they could work as a determiner in dialects that had a diminished role for these and those as determiners.
I wish I had recourse to the OED and to Jespersen. As Online Ety Dict. points out in is brief entry for this: "OED begins its long entry with the warning, 'This word has a complicated history.'" DCDuring TALK 02:59, 28 January 2016 (UTC)
I not that they is Scandinavian in origin (where it was a "demonstrative pronoun" [read "determiner"?]), so it might have retained some of the functions performed by these and those in those dialects with strong Norse or Danish influence, presumably in the northeast of England.
Both hypotheses are testable. DCDuring TALK 03:13, 28 January 2016 (UTC)
Well, the OED (cited above) calls it "Eng. regional (chiefly south.)", not northern. The Middle English Dictionary citations that are ostensibly of this sense, excluding the ones that are obviously pronouns, are from Peri Didaxeon and Gest hystoriale (I can't tell where either was written), Secreta Secretorum by Anglo-Irishman James Yonge, and a work on the English Conquest of Ireland. - -sche (discuss) 07:25, 28 January 2016 (UTC)
I should have checked Joseph Wright's English Dialect Dictionary sooner; it provided me with leads to the following works and more that I didn't feel like typing up, which do appear to be using they intentionally — but I don't see any indication that they mean those as opposed to being eye-dialectal forms or synonyms of the. Furthermore, the citations are from (and the Dialect Dictionary says this sense of they is found in) Berkshire, Cornwall, Devonshire, Dorsetshire, Gloucestershire, Hampshire, Oxfordshire, Rutlandshire, Shropshire, Somersetshire, Surrey, and Warwickshire (see map), exactly not the places where the Norse were.
The EDD also says says they is sometimes used as an emphatic version of them, as in "I don't understand anything about they", and then says they can be a demonstrative pronoun meaning "those, such-like", with the examples such as "under they she hid herself" which are indistinguishable from the examples of they = them, and in some cases (like "under they") also indistinguishable from they = there (our entry's Etymology 2).
The EDD also has a huge variety of contracted forms which are irrelevant to this RFV but still fascinating and possibly even attested, such as tear'n for "they were" and tead'n/teyd'n for they had. Also of note: Wright records the well-known use of they "instead of 'he' or 'she' when the speaker does not wish to make known the sex of the person spoken of". - -sche (discuss) 08:44, 28 January 2016 (UTC)
Nothing quite like a demonstrably wrong hypothesis. I guess the other hypothesis about relative frequency of determiners is not actually testable because we have no good dialect corpora. DCDuring TALK 12:48, 28 January 2016 (UTC)
Not sure that it's wrong at all. All of the examples look like attempts by the (fictional) speakers to say "the" in a heavy dialect, or possibly "thy" in one or two cases, except for the last example, "they tight-wasted shoes o' yours," which I think clearly uses it to mean "those"; I can't read that any other way. Of course nowadays we would say "them tight-wasted shoes", using the objective case. But I still don't think it's a very good example, since it's not what anybody actually said, but what a character speaking in thick dialect is imagined to have said, irrespective of whether anybody actually did use the word that way. I suppose if there were enough examples of literary characters talking like this, it could at least be described as "literary", but there ought to be some indication that real people used the word with this meaning before it's so stated in the dictionary. P Aculeius (talk) 14:05, 28 January 2016 (UTC)
I agree that "they tight-wasted shoes" is the only one that seems like "those" rather than "the". (Richard Pearse Chope's 1891 dictionary of The Dialect of Hartland, Devonshire cites "Witness, Bench, 1891" as saying "Get off they steps until you pay the money"; Chope gives this as, and it does seem to be, another example of they = those.) As you note, people would now say "them" (in all the instances: "you spoil them gals", etc; as our entry on them notes). The OED and MED do both admit that the term often meant "the" instead of "they".
The usual label for written representations of dialect (like the ones above) is "eye dialect" (sometimes alternatively "pronunciation respelling", based on whether it reflects a different pronunciation or is just giving visual flair to the usual pronunciation). "Literary" is for language that is so formal it is only used in literature (as our entry puts it, things "appropriate to literature rather than everyday writing" or speech), which doesn't fit here. I have tagged the term as "(archaic, Southern England dialect or eye-dialect)" and added a usage note on regional distribution. Re "what a character speaking in thick dialect is imagined to have said": if you're asking for writers speaking in their own dialectal voice, well, Gwendoline Keats was born in Devon, so I assume her representation of her own dialect is authentic, and Thomas Hughes was born in Berkshire, and quotes a song from Berkshire/Gloucestershire. To my great surprise, I think this is actually cited. - -sche (discuss) 19:13, 28 January 2016 (UTC)
I meant that they're reporting the speech of other people, who may or may not represent actual persons, but probably don't represent their actual speech (or can't be certain to, at any rate). Looking over the examples again, Thaay stwuns looks like "they'st th'ones" (they are the ones) shortened even further. Still not an example of "they" as a modifier, but not an example of "the" eyether. Ugh, Freudian spelling there. P Aculeius (talk) 19:38, 28 January 2016 (UTC)
"Thaay stwuns" means "the stones", as can be seen from plain-English versions of the song; other spellings include "they stwons" (with the spelling we're after), "the stwons" and "the stwuns". As for actual speech, Louis John Jennings' 1878 Field Paths and Green Lanes reports the speech of an old Sussex man to Jennings, about a rookery in his town: "They rooks as you see [...] only coom a few year agoo. About fi' year back, ten or a doozen coom..." - -sche (discuss) 16:39, 31 January 2016 (UTC)