1. Used to refer to the ones previously mentioned or implied.
a. Used to refer to the one previously mentioned or implied, especially as a substitute for generic he: Every person has rights under the law, but they don't always know them.
b. Used as a singular personal pronoun for someone who does not identify as either male or female. See Usage Note below.
a. Used to refer to people in general.
b. Used to refer to people in general as seen in a position of authority.
[Middle English, from Old Norse their
, masculine pl. demonstrative and personal pron.
; see to-
in Indo-European roots
The use of the plural pronouns they, them, themselves,
with a grammatically singular antecedent dates back at least to 1300, and such constructions have been used by many admired writers, including William Makepeace Thackeray ("A person can't help their birth"
), George Bernard Shaw ("To do a person in means to kill them"
), and Anne Morrow Lindbergh ("When you love someone you do not love them all the time"
). Despite the apparent grammatical disagreement between a singular antecedent like someone
and the plural pronoun them,
the construction is so widespread both in print and in speech that it often passes unnoticed. There are several reasons for its appeal. Forms of they
are useful as gender-neutral substitutes for generic he
and for coordinate forms like his/her
or his or her
(which can sound clumsy when repeated). Nevertheless, the clash in number can be jarring to writers and readers, and many people dislike they
with a singular antecedent. This includes much of the Usage Panel, though their resistance has declined over time. Resistance remains strongest when the sentence refers to a specific individual whose gender is unknown, rather than to a generic individual representative of anyone: in our 2015 survey, 58 percent of the Panel found We thank the anonymous reviewer for their helpful comments
unacceptable. A sentence with a generic antecedent, A person at that level should not have to keep track of the hours they put in
, was rejected by 48 percent (a substantial change from our 1996 survey, in which 80 percent rejected this same sentence). As for the use of they
with antecedents such as anyone
pronouns that are grammatically singular but carry a plural meaning, by 2008, a majority of the Panel accepted such sentences as If anyone calls, tell them I can't come to the phone
(56 percent) and Everyone returned to their seats
(59 percent). For those who wish to avoid the apparent clash of number, some of these sentences can be recast in the plural: People at that level should not have to keep track of the hours they put in
. Unfortunately, the option is unavailable when the referent must be singular: Lindbergh's sentence cannot be recast as When you love people, you do not love them all the time
without drastically changing its meaning, nor can the sentence about the anonymous reviewer. · The recent use of singular they
for a known person who identifies as neither male nor female remains controversial; as of 2015 only 27 percent of the Panelists accepted Scout was born male, but now they do not identify as either traditional gender.
With regard to this last sentence, the Panel's responses showed a clear generational shift: the approval rate was 4 percent among Panelists born before 1945 and 40 percent among Panelists born later. See Usage Notes at anyone
Word History: Incredible as it may seem, the English pronoun they is not a native English pronoun. They comes from Old Norse and is a classic example of the profound impact of that language on English: because pronouns are among the most basic elements of a language, it is rare for them to be replaced by borrowings from foreign sources. The Old Norse pronouns their, theira, theim worked their way south from the Danelaw, the region governed by the Old Norse-speaking invaders of England, and first appeared in English about 1200, gradually replacing the Old English words hīe, hīora, him. The nominative or subject case (modern English they) seems to have spread first. William Caxton, who brought the printing press to England, uses they, hir, hem in his earlier printed works (after 1475) and thei, their, theim in his later ones. This is clear evidence of the spread of these Norse forms southward, since Caxton did not speak northern English natively (he was born in Westminster). The native English plural him or hem may well survive, at least colloquially, in modern English 'em, as in "Give 'em back!"
American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fifth Edition. Copyright © 2016 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.
1. refers to people or things other than the speaker or people addressed: they fight among themselves.
2. refers to unspecified people or people in general not including the speaker or people addressed: in Australia they have Christmas in the summer.
3. not standard refers to an indefinite antecedent such as one, whoever, or anybody: if anyone objects, they can go.
an archaic word for those
: blessed are they that mourn
[C12: thei from Old Norse their, masculine nominative plural, equivalent to Old English thā]
Usage: It was formerly considered correct to use he, him, or his after pronouns such as everyone, no-one, anyone, or someone as in everyone did his best, but it is now more common to use they, them, or their, and this use has become acceptable in all but the most formal contexts: everyone did their best
Collins English Dictionary – Complete and Unabridged, 12th Edition 2014 © HarperCollins Publishers 1991, 1994, 1998, 2000, 2003, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2011, 2014
pron.pl. poss. their theirs, obj. them.
nominative plural of he, she,
2. people in general: They say he's rich.
3. (used with an indefinite singular antecedent in place of the definite masculine he or the definite feminine she): Whoever is of voting age, whether they are interested in politics or not, should vote.
[1150–1200; Middle English < Old Norse their
they (replacing Old English hī(e)
), c. Old English thā,
pl. of thæt that
Long before the use of generic he1
was condemned as sexist, the pronouns they
, and them
were used in educated speech and in all but the most formal writing to refer to indefinite pronouns and to singular nouns of general personal reference, probably because such nouns are often not felt to be exclusively singular: If anyone calls, tell them I'll be back at six. Everyone began looking for their books at once.
Shakespeare, Swift, Shelley, Scott, and Dickens, as well as many other English and American writers, have used they
and its forms to refer to singular antecedents. Although rejected as ungrammatical by some usage critics, this use of they
, and them
is increasing in all but the most conservatively edited American English. This increased use is at least partly impelled by the desire to avoid the sexist implications of he
as a pronoun of general reference. See also he1
Random House Kernerman Webster's College Dictionary, © 2010 K Dictionaries Ltd. Copyright 2005, 1997, 1991 by Random House, Inc. All rights reserved.
he she they
He, him, his, and himself are sometimes used to refer back to an indefinite pronoun or to a word such as person, child, or student.
If anybody complained about this, he was told that things would soon get back to normal.
It won't hurt a child to have his meals at a different time.
Many people object to this use because it suggests that the person referred to is male.
2. 'he or she'
You can sometimes use he or she, him or her, his or her, or himself or herself.
A parent may feel that he or she has nothing to give a child.
Anyone can call himself or herself a psychologist, even if untrained and unqualified.
Many people avoid these expressions because they think they sound clumsy and unnatural, especially when more than one of them is used in the same sentence.
In writing, some people use s/he to mean he or she.
Most people use they, them, and their.
Everyone thinks they know what the problems of living with a teenager are.
Often when we touch someone we are demonstrating our love for them.
Don't hope to change anyone or their attitudes.
This use used to be considered incorrect, but it is now the most common form in both spoken and written English, and is used in formal and informal writing.
It is often possible to avoid all the above uses. You can sometimes do this by using plurals. For example, instead of saying 'Every student has his own room', you can say 'All the students have their own rooms'. Instead of saying 'Anyone who goes inside must take off his shoes', you can say 'People who go inside must take off their shoes'.
one you we they
One is sometimes an impersonal pronoun, showing that something is generally done or should generally be done.
One doesn't talk about politics at parties.
You can also use the possessive determiner one's and the reflexive pronoun oneself.
Naturally, one wants only the best for one's children.
We all understood the fear of making a fool of oneself.
One, one's, and oneself are fairly formal. Here are some other ways in which you can say that something is generally done or should be done:
You can use you, your, yours and yourself, as we usually do in this book.
There are things that have to be done and you do them and you never talk about them.
Ignoring your neighbours is rude.
You can use we, us, our, ours, and ourselves to say that something is generally done by a group of people that includes yourself.
We say things in the heat of an argument that we don't really mean.
There are things we can all do to make ourselves and our children happier.
They can sometimes mean people in general, or a group of people whose identity is not actually stated.
They found the body in the river.
Some people use they when they are mentioning a saying or repeating a piece of gossip.
They say that the camera never lies but it doesn't always show the full picture.
He made a fortune, they say.
They, them, their, theirs, and themselves are also used to refer to words such as everyone and anyone, person, child, and student.
You can use people. This is also a fairly common use.
People shouldn't leave jobs unfinished.
I don't think people should make promises they don't mean to keep.
6. the passive
Instead of using one of these words and an active verb, you can sometimes use a passive verb. This is a fairly common use in formal writing.
If there is increasing pain, medical advice should be taken.
Bookings must be made before the end of December.
They can be the subject of a verb. You use they to refer to people or things that have just been mentioned or whose identity is known.
All universities have chancellors. They are always rather senior people.
The women had not expected a visitor and they were in their everyday clothes.
When the subject of a sentence is followed by a relative clause, don't use 'they' in front of the main verb. Don't say, for example, 'The people who live next door, they keep chickens'. Say 'The people who live next door keep chickens'.
Two children who were rescued from a fire are now in hospital.
The girls who had been following him suddenly stopped.
They can refer to people in general, or to a group of people whose identity is not actually stated.
They say that former nurses make the worst patients.
Mercury is the stuff they put in thermometers.
You can also use they instead of 'he or she' to refer to an individual person whose sex is not known or not stated.
I was going to stay with a friend, but they were ill.
Don't use 'they' with are to say that a number of things exist or are in a particular place. Don't say, for example, 'They are two bottles of juice in the fridge'. Say 'There are two bottles of juice in the fridge'.
There are always plenty of jobs to be done.
Collins COBUILD English Usage © HarperCollins Publishers 1992, 2004, 2011, 2012