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Etymology 1[edit]

From Middle English thei, borrowed in the 1200s from Old Norse þeir,[1] nominative plural masculine of the demonstrative , which acted as a plural pronoun. It displaced native Old English , hīe (they) — which vowel changes had left indistinct from he (he) — by the 1400s,[1][2][3] being readily incorporated alongside similar native words beginning with the same sound (the, that, this). Used as a singular pronoun since 1300,[1] for example in the 1325 Cursor Mundi (which uses þer).

The Norse term (whence also Icelandic þeir (they), Faroese teir (they), Swedish de (they), Norwegian Nynorsk dei (they)) derives from Proto-Germanic *þai (those) (from Proto-Indo-European *to- (that)), whence also Old English þā (“those”; whence obsolete English tho), Scots thae, thai, thay (they; those).

The origin of the determiner they (the, those) is unclear. The Oxford English Dictionary, Joseph Wright's English Dialect Dictionary and the University of Michigan's Middle English Dictionary[4] define it, and its Middle English predecessor thei, as a demonstrative determiner or adjective meaning "those" or "the". This could be a direct continuation of the use of the English pronoun they's Old Norse etymon þeir as a demonstrative pronoun meaning "those", but the OED and EDD say it is limited to southern, especially southwestern, England, specifically outside the region of Norse contact.


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, plants, or objects previously mentioned. [since the 1200s]
    Fred and Jane? They just arrived.   Dogs may bark if they want to be fed.   Plants wilt if they are not watered.
    I have a car and a truck, but they are both broken.
    • 2010, Iguana Invasion!: Exotic Pets Gone Wild in Florida ↑ISBN, 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, but not if previously named and identified as male or female. [since the 1300s]
    • Then shalt thou bring forth that man or that woman, which have committed that wicked thing, unto thy gates, even that man or that woman, and shalt stone them with stones, till they die.
    • 1997, Rowling, J. K., Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, (quoted edition: London: Bloomsbury, 2000, ↑ISBN Invalid ISBN, page 187):
      Someone knocked into Harry as they hurried past him. It was Hermione.
    • 2008, Michelle Obama, quoted in Lisa Rogak, Michelle Obama in Her Own Words, New York, NY: PublicAffairs, 2009. ↑ISBN, page 18:
      One thing a nominee earns is the right to pick the vice president that they think will best reflect their vision of the country, and I am just glad I will have nothing to do with it.
    • 2014, Ivan E. Coyote, Rae Spoon, Gender Failure ↑ISBN
      The boycott, led by Elisha Lim, of a Toronto gay and lesbian newspaper after it refused to use their preferred pronoun ["they"], citing grammar considerations, inspired me.
    • 2015 April, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake (mayor of Baltimore), commenting on the death of Freddie Gray:
      I'm angry that we're here again, that we have had to tell another mother that their child is dead.
    • For more examples of usage of this term, see Citations:they.
  3. (indefinite pronoun, vague meaning) People; some people; people in general; 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.
Usage notes[edit]
  • (singular pronoun): Usage of they as a singular pronoun began in the 1300s and has been common ever since, despite attempts by some grammarians, beginning in 1795,[5] to condemn it as a violation of traditional (Latinate) agreement rules. Some other grammarians have countered that criticism since at least 1896.[6] 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." Some authors compare use of singular they to widespread use of singular you instead of thou.[7][8] See Wikipedia's article on singular they for more; see also the usage notes about themself. (Compare he.)
  • (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). "You" may also be used to refer to people in general.
    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."
Alternative forms[edit]
See also[edit]



  1. (now Southern England dialect or nonstandard) The, those. [from 14th c.]
    • c. 1465, Thomas Malory, Le Morte Darthur:
      They two knyghtes mette with kynge Idres that was nere discomfited.
    • 1878, Louis John Jennings, Field Paths and Green Lanes, quoting an old East Sussex man:
      "They rooks as you see [...] only coom a few year agoo."
    • 1883 Judy, or the London serio-comic journal, volume 33 (Harvard University) [1]:
      Darn'd if they Cockney Chaps can zee there worn't nort but lie in him.
    • 1895, Under the Chilterns: A Story of English Village Life:
      page 21: "But you spile [spoil] they gals - they won't be for no good, they won't."
      page 30: "'Twas all about they rewks [rooks]," he sobbed.
      page 54: "mucking the place up with they weeds"
    • 1901, Gwendoline Keats (of Devon), Tales of Dunstáble Weir, page 55:
      "Bodies and souls," she cried, "if I didn't reckon to have hidden they boots safe from un in the stick-rick." "Off wi' they tight-wasted shoes o' yours, Martha."
  2. (US dialects, including African American Vernacular) Their. [from 19th c.]
    • 1974, Arthur Hippler, Hunter's Point: a black ghetto in America, page 88:
      MARY ELLEN is a different case from the others. She has five children and, she claims: "I don't know who they father is. I ain't never kept track. They is always another one. You know, I can catch me a guy[.]"
    • 2016, Alan Moore, Jerusalem, Liveright 2016, p. 175:
      He guessed one of the well-off people living in these houses must have took a shine to Cody and decided how he'd look good stuck up on they roof.
Alternative forms[edit]
  • (rare, dialect or eye dialect:) the; thay, thaay (Gloucestershire, Berkshire, possibly archaic)

Etymology 2[edit]

From earlier the'e, from there.



  1. (US dialectal) There (especially as an expletive subject of be). [from 19th c.]
    • 1889, James Whitcomb Riley, Pipes o' Pan:
      They’s music in the twitter of the bluebird and the jay.
    • 1974, Arthur Hippler, Hunter's Point: a black ghetto in America, page 88:
      MARY ELLEN is a different case from the others. She has five children and, she claims: "I don't know who they father is. I ain't never kept track. They is always another one. You know, I can catch me a guy[.]"
    • 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.


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 they” in The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 5th edition, Boston, Mass.: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016, ↑ISBN.
  2. ^ they” in Douglas Harper, Online Etymology Dictionary, 2001–2018.
  3. ^ Otto Jespersen, Growth and Structure of the English Language
  4. ^ thei” in MED Online, Ann Arbor, Mich.: University of Michigan, 2007, retrieved 2016-01-28.
  5. ^ 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
  6. ^ 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.)
  7. ^ Michael Reed, Tech Book 1 ↑ISBN, Note abut pronoun usage, page 9: "Singular they can introduce some ambiguity because the antecedent of the pronoun “they” could theoretically be a male or female [... but] English has survived the loss of pronouns such as thou (singular you) despite the consequent potential for ambiguity."
  8. ^ John McWhorter, Word on the Street: Debunking the Myth of a Pure Standard (2009, ↑ISBN: "In this light, our modern grammarians' discomfort with singular they is nothing but this comical intermediate stage in an inevitable change, as misguided and futile as the old grumbles about singular you."


Middle English[edit]



  1. Alternative form of thei