Usage of "they" / "them" / "their" when the person's gender is not known

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I know that one can use "they" / "them" / "their" in place of "he" / "him" / "his" or "she" / "her" / "hers" when the subject's / direct object's gender is not known; for instance, just looking at the default user's about me section on Stack Exchange sites:

Apparently, this user prefers to keep an air of mystery about them

My question is what happens when someone wants to reference the subject using a pronoun instead.

Should the verb be conjugated accordingly to the pronoun? E.g.:

Apparently, they prefer to keep an air of mystery about them

Or should the conjugation be retained? E.g.:

Apparently, they prefers to keep an air of mystery about them

The former looks unclear because it wouldn't allow the reader / listener to understand if the writer / speaker is talking about a single person or about a group of people, however the latter sounds very weird, at least just to the non-native speaker which I am.

kos

Posted 2015-07-21T20:47:32.710

Reputation: 501

2It sounds very weird to native speakers, too, but a consensus has arisen that it is correct, at least in AE, despite the fact that it violates the fundamental rules of subject-verb agreement. – Ast Pace – 2015-07-21T21:03:09.107

@ASTPace Thanks. So in AE that's correct, however from your phrasing I guess you'd suggest to use the former regardless, am I right? – kos – 2015-07-21T21:34:35.163

8Do people actually say/write "they prefers"? I have never heard that, and it sounds very wrong. Where's this so-called consensus? – GMA – 2015-07-22T10:25:00.770

I would agree: don't think of it as using "they" as a new third-person singular pronoun; rather think of it as your creating a group of one person in order to make use of the plural pronoun. All the usual rules apply. – Richiban – 2015-07-22T12:14:47.943

@GeorgeMillo: I think you're mistaking AST Pace's meaning; they're referring to "they prefer" as the consensus. (It's still weird.) – Nathan Tuggy – 2015-07-22T14:51:15.420

2@AST: I am an American, and have been using the singular they since I was a child 50 years ago, and it has never sounded at all weird to me. It has turned from an informal construction used by many Americans to an accepted construction used by many more Americans. And it's conjugated as "they prefer". – Peter Shor – 2015-07-22T23:03:01.110

@Peter Shor Congratulations on being at the forefront of changing the language by doing weird things. Fifty years ago it was not widely accepted; now it is. – Ast Pace – 2015-07-23T15:58:47.200

3@AST: We have from 1958, before the days of political correctness, (courtesy Google books, snippet form) "when a common-sex pronoun is wanted, he may be used instead of he or she, but colloquially the pl. they is often used". – Peter Shor – 2015-07-23T16:23:03.773

1@ASTPace It is not new: it is very old. – tchrist – 2015-08-24T23:43:38.747

What's new is that now it's talked about/argued about. – Kevin Fegan – 2018-06-17T00:21:10.840

Answers

26

Despite the fact that you're referring to a singular person, yes, the custom is always to maintain the same grammatical pluralization you would if you were using "they"/"them"/"their" in the more conventional sense. The SE phrasing, "Apparently, they prefer to keep an air of mystery about them", is therefore grammatical (including the last bit, for that matter), and the alternative is wrong enough in all cases that just about any native speaker would immediately notice and be jarred by it.

The only way to use singular verbs in such a case is to switch to a different pronoun. Using "it" to refer to people is extremely dehumanizing, so that leaves only two choices:

  • the awkwardly slashed "s/he" and similar (including "he or she", hat tip Steve Jessop in comments)
  • new words like "zhe", "ze", "zie", "zir", "hir", and so forth, which are relatively unfamiliar and confusing to anyone outside certain circles. (Especially because of the ridiculous number of ideas people have had for such new words.)

Usually, it's not worth the hassle. Just use "they"/"them"/"their" with plural verbs. No sane person will get offended, there's no grammatical problem, and stylistically the plural pronouns are arguably the least annoying in most cases.

Nathan Tuggy

Posted 2015-07-21T20:47:32.710

Reputation: 9 403

3Thanks. Mind to briefly explain in which "circles" are "zhe", "ze" and "zie" commonly used? Meaning, do you refer to native speakers (either American or English) as a whole or to even more narrowed contexts? – kos – 2015-07-21T21:38:58.890

11@kos: A far narrower context. Usually you'll see those words used by people who consider their attitude towards gender issues, sexism, language, and so forth a significant part of who they are, and who are therefore making a deliberate attempt to change the way the language works in order to promote those views. – Nathan Tuggy – 2015-07-21T21:54:30.113

3This American, for one, has never actually seen anyone use "zhe", "ze", or "zie" except in explanations like the above. – Joe – 2015-07-22T01:41:14.137

This Brit, for one, has never actually see anyone use "zhe", "ze", or "zie", ever before. Not even in explanations. However, I am very familiar with the attitude described in the comments and believe this post thoroughly deserves my +1 – Au101 – 2015-07-22T03:28:05.700

2In some sentences, one is an appropriate replacement – Ross Presser – 2015-07-22T07:56:55.983

1"the awkwardly slashed "s/he" and similar". And of course "he or she" works grammatically and takes the singular verb form: "Apparently, he or she prefers to...". But it's not well-liked. – Steve Jessop – 2015-07-22T09:46:57.080

6@SteveJessop worth noting is that using 's/he' or 'he or she' instead of 'they' excludes people who identify with non-binary genders. – Jase – 2015-07-22T13:08:38.153

8

They remains plural even when referring to a clearly singular subject, so always use "they do" or "they prefer", when it is necessary. This form should practically never be used as a subject of a sentence, even where "he" or "she" might have enough context. "They" is fine for supporting clauses, though.

Example:

If the guest has hung a do not disturb sign on their doorknob, then unless they are being a nuisance themself, they are not to be disturbed.

"They are" is fine in the supporting clauses here. A curious side effect of this example, I was able to use "themself" here, to clarify that "they" is still singular. "Themselves" would also be correct here, but primarily when referring to the general case, that any (and therefore all) cases where this occurs should follow this instruction. When referring to a certain guest, but without enough information to identify them specifically, then "themself" should be preferred, as here.

I do welcome any thoughts on "themself" in the comments, I can't actually think of a case I have run into this, but it follows from the logic, at least to me.

modulusshift

Posted 2015-07-21T20:47:32.710

Reputation: 3 192

2"Themself" and "themselves" are both at least a bit awkward, but I've seen (and used) both of them at times. The latter is probably a bit better on the whole, but I'm not sure there's grounds to completely rule out either one. – Nathan Tuggy – 2015-07-21T21:37:56.377

Thanks for your answer, following up on the "themself" / "themselves" debate – kos – 2015-07-21T21:40:42.807

1My spellcheck tells me that "themself" is wrong, but it's still fairly common. I'd stick with "themselves" if you want to be strict about following the rules, but in casual speech you can get away with "themself". – GMA – 2015-07-22T10:27:04.107

2@GeorgeMillo Spelling checkers are notoriously stupid, and generally wrong. – tchrist – 2015-08-24T23:46:31.820

2@tchrist Your write! – GMA – 2015-08-25T11:39:21.920