EN: they, them, their - as singular pronouns for unknown or unspecified gender

Discussion in 'French and English Grammar / Grammaire française et anglaise' started by anangelaway, May 12, 2005.

  1. anangelaway

    anangelaway Senior Member

    From the moderators:

    they/them/their(s)/themself/themselves .... v.s. ... he/she/it/him/her(s)/his/its :confused:

    What pronoun do you use in English when you don't know the gender of the person in question?
    Quel pronom faut-il mettre en anglais lorsque le genre de la personne en question est inconnu ?

    This question is so frequent that we have merged several threads on the topic to create this long discussion. Please understand that opinions on this topic are divided. Some people embrace "singular they," while others condemn it. It is a subject of active debate among native English speakers, as reflected in the replies below. Please do not expect agreement or a single "right" answer. If you would like advice about a particular example that has not been explored, feel free to reply at the end of this thread. Please also consult the links below to several discussions about the pronouns that correspond to certain common antecedents, and keep discussion of those antecedents separate. Long-winded exchanges that boil down to irreconcilable differences between prescriptivist and descriptivist camps will be removed. For those who are not interested in reading through all the posts below, a summary:

    • Descriptivist view: singular they is widely used and well-established, not only in speech but also in literature (including Shakespeare).
    • Prescriptivist view: purists condemn using singular they to refer to a person of unknown or unspecified gender.
    • Replacing with "he" can be misleading or sound sexist.
    • Replacing with "she" can be misleading or sound overtly feminist.
    • Replacing with "he or she" often sounds awkward or too politically correct.
    • Replacing with "it" is not appropriate for a human being.
    • In situations where gender and number are unspecified, it is often easy to reformulate the sentence and provide a plural antecedent for "they," thus eliminating all grammatical and stylistic difficulties.

    Cette question est très fréquente. Nous avons donc fusionné plusieurs fils à ce sujet pour en faire une seule discussion. Il faut comprendre que les avis se partagent sur cette question. Certains épousent they comme singulier générique (ou ici en anglais) alors que d'autres condamnent cet usage. La question fait l'objet d'un débat actif parmi les anglophones, comme en témoignent les réponses de ce fil. Ne vous attendez pas à ce que tout le monde se mette d'accord sur « la bonne réponse ». Si vous avez une question sur un exemple en particulier, n'hésitez pas à répondre à la fin du fil. Pensez également à consulter les liens ci-dessous vers d'autres discussions concernant les pronoms à employer avec certains antécédents courants, et veillez à ce que la discussion de ces antécédents reste dans le fil correspondant. Les échanges verbeux qui se réduisent au débat éternel et irréconciliable entre les visions normative et descriptive de la grammaire seront supprimés. Pour ceux qui n'ont pas le courage de lire les posts ci-dessous, voici un résumé :

    • Grammaire descriptive : l'usage du they singulier est très répandu et bien établi, non seulement à l'oral mais aussi dans la littérature (on le trouve même chez Shakespeare).
    • Grammaire normative : les puristes condamnent l'emploi du they singulier pour faire référence à une personne dont on ignore ou souhaite ne pas préciser le genre.
    • Remplacer par he peut induire en erreur ou alors donner une impression de sexisme.
    • Remplacer par she peut induire en erreur ou alors passer pour du féminisme déclaré.
    • Remplacer par he or she est souvent maladroit ou trop politiquement correct.
    • Remplacer par it ne convient pas pour un être humain.
    • Dans les situations où tant le genre que le nombre sont imprécis, on peut souvent reformuler la phrase en y incorporant un antécédent pluriel pour they, évitant ainsi toute difficulté grammaticale et stylistique.

    See also / Voir également :
    EN: anyone / someone + personal pronoun (he, she, his, her / they, their / one's)
    EN: One has to be strong and face his/her/their/one's fears
    EN: family - it / they (pronoun)
    EN: company - that/which/who, it/they, its/their - singular / plural
    EN: pronoun for a baby - it or he/she

    Thanks! / Merci !
    Last edited by a moderator: Sep 23, 2014
  2. Valosh

    Valosh Senior Member

    Les équipes de professionnels qui constituent les services d'aide précoce sont là pour aider l'enfant et sa famille à vivre au mieux cette période qui va de la naissance (ou même avant) jusqu'à l'âge de sept ans, et cela sur le plan éducatif, social et psychologique.

    Would this be a good translation:

    The teams of professionals who make up “Les services d’aide précoce” (Early Childhood Support Services) are put in place to provide help on an educational, social and psychological level to the child and their family to allow them to have a better life from birth (or before) to the age of seven.

    My trouble is with the underlined words. Should I replace "their" by "his/her" ( should "their" only refer to a plural noun?) and " them" refers to the child and his family but would there be a better way to say it?

    Any help or/and advice would be great !

    Last edited by a moderator: Jul 7, 2011
  3. When gender is unknown or neutral, you want to go with their/them, although it is not common to see this substituted with "his/her". To complicate things further, it doesn't sound entirely weird for me if someone says a 'child and its family', though it does seem to dehumanize 'it' a bit. You might need a hardcore and really staunch linguist to give you a settled line on this one...sorry.
  4. jann

    jann co-mod'

    English - USA
    Using "they," "their," and "them" as genderless singular (!) third person pronouns in combination with a plural (!) verb conjugation is very common in the US. Eventually, it will probably even be considered correct. :)

    But you can avoid the problem:

    The services etc etc are put in place to assist the child and family on an educational, social, and psychological level and allow them to enjoy a higher quality of life etc.

    *them = "the child and family," undeniably plural

    Hope it helps :)
    Last edited: Jul 7, 2011
  5. impala Member

    Derbyshire / Vallespir
    England, English
    You've picked a nice one, Valosh - there are flame-wars about this on the English language lists! The opinion of linguists is that singular they/their etc is correct - even Shakespeare used it - but there are still lots of people writing to newspapers to say that it's wrong. Unfortunately these critics don't give a good alternative.
  6. Ianterrell

    Ianterrell New Member

    New York City
    USA, English
    The only alternative I've come across is the clunky phrase "his or her", or worse "his/her".
  7. pikabou Senior Member


    etes-vous d'accord avec moi pour dire qu'il y a un problème d'accord entre les sujets de la phrase qui suit, ou est-ce un sombre effet stylistique que je ne connais pas??!! (il s'agit d'une ph extraite d'un texte écrit par un scientifique anglophone...)

    If your friend far away speaks a different language, they would need the letter translated before they could understand it. If you were to send the letter via a translation agency of some description, then when your friend receives the letter, they will understand it perfectly.

  8. carolineR

    carolineR Senior Member

    Indian Ocean
    ton interlocuteur traite apparemment "your friend" comme s'il s'agissait de anyone/someone :)
  9. Trisia

    Trisia mod de viață

    It's really simple. Using "they" is quite common, and it avoids the gender issue (otherwise, you have to say he/she all the time)
  10. pyan

    pyan Senior Member

    Vendée, France
    English, UK, London
    There are two schools of thought on this. One school of thought says "they" is incorrect here. It should be "he or she". This is the majority viewpoint of the strict grammarians.

    The other school of thought, the minority viewpoint, says "they" is an old word. It was correct until people tried to impose Latin grammar on English. Great English writers have used this "singular they". (I like this school of thought.) I use "they" like this in informal situations but I would always write "he or she" in formal writing.
  11. catch22s Member

    Hello, what pronoun should I use to replace words like reader, narrator, person...
    The reader wants to know more. He / She or they ? want(s) to read on.
    I would like to know what is grammatically correct.
  12. Welshie

    Welshie Senior Member

    England, English
    You have 3 options:

    1. He. This is the classic option.
    2. He / She - used by some people who are concerned about appearing exclusive and sexist, but this form is frowned upon as clumsy.
    3. They - also used by people who are concerned about appearing exclusive or sexist, this is less clumsy, but more confusing.

    I would go with 1., but all 3 options are used.
  13. Tim~!

    Tim~! Senior Member

    Leicester, UK
    UK — English
    Most of us would naturally use the pronoun they, which is often used in a singular sense when we're speaking of indeterminate sex.

    "If you see someone lying on the floor, check that they are still breathing. If they are, call them an ambulance."
  14. itka Senior Member

    Nice, France
    Really ? Oh, ça c'est drôle !
    someone est bien un singulier pourtant ? et il est remplacé par des pronoms au pluriel...
    Alors si tu téléphones à l'ambulance, qu'est-ce que tu dis ?
    "I have just found someone lying on the floor. They don't open their eyes nor speak ?"
    ...avec des verbes au pluriel aussi ? Mais comment faire autrement si le pronom est au singulier ? :confused: Est-ce qu'on ne risque pas de comprendre qu'il y a plusieurs personnes lying on the floor ? :confused:
  15. Grop

    Grop Senior Member

    Mauvais exemple Itka : si tu trouves quelqu'un au sol, tu sais probablement déterminer son sexe ;).

    En tout cas c'est très connu du forum English Only: gender neutral pronouns.
  16. jann

    jann co-mod'

    English - USA
    Non, parce qui si tu téléphones aux urgences, c'est que tu es là sur place. Tu vas donc dire he ou she en fonction de si la personne que tu as trouvée est un homme ou une femme. L'exemple de Tim est un cas général : "si vous trouvez une personne par terre, vérifiez qu'elle respire..." = If you find somone on the ground, check that they are (he/she is) still breathing."

    Les puristes condamnent l'usage de they + verbe au pluriel comme pronom neutre de 3e personne au singulier. C'est pourtant très répandu dans la langue quotidienne, justement pour éviter le "sexisme" de dire "he" par défaut, le féminisme de dire "she", et l'aspect maladroit de "he/she". :p

    EDIT : Grop a été plus vite... :)
  17. itka Senior Member

    Nice, France
    Bon, évidemment, dans l'exemple que j'ai voulu continuer, c'est idiot... bien sûr, on sait s'il s'agit d'un homme ou d'une femme...:p

    Mais, grammaticalement, le cas reste le même dans l'exemple de jann :
    "If you find someone on the ground, check that they are still breathing."

    Ce qui m'étonnait, c'est que le verbe, comme les pronoms, se mette au pluriel, alors qu'à l'origine, c'était "someone".

    Donc, si j'ai bien compris :
    - someone est bien un singulier normalement,
    - dans un cas comme ci-dessus, on le remplace par un pronom au pluriel et on accorde le verbe au pluriel aussi,
    - ce traitement est une solution extrême, à éviter autant que possible,
    c'est bien ça ?

    ...et jann, une question encore : "check that..." je comprends mais est-ce qu'on pourrait dire aussi "check if..." ?
    Last edited: Feb 20, 2009
  18. jann

    jann co-mod'

    English - USA
    Someone est toujours singulier.... même quand on le met avec they + verbe au pluriel. :p

    Dire que c'est une solution "extrême", c'est quand même exagérer. Tu entendras they pour parler d'une seule personne en évitant d'indiquer son sexe tout le temps dans la langue courante.... même de la bouche d'un puriste que ne se permettrait jamais de l'écrire. :p

    PS. Oui, check if et check that seraient tous les deux corrects ici.
  19. Tim~!

    Tim~! Senior Member

    Leicester, UK
    UK — English
    itka: C'est tout à fait naturel pour les Anglais de dire "they" en sachant que le sujet n'est qu'une seule personne.

    Ça m'est arrivé desfois, que j'emploie "they" même quand je sais quel sexe est en question. Si j'appellais pour une ambulance kaj la personne avec qui je parlais ne disait que "the person" (parce qu'ils souvent lisent d'un script), je répondrai à la question ainsi:

    "Is the person breathing?"


    "Is the person's heartbeat regular?"

    "Not really. Their pulse is fast and they're bleeding badly from a head-wound."

    C'est normal. Quand quelqu'un utilise un marquer de sexe, on répond en utilisant le même.

    "Have you seen my new dog? He's got the most adorable ears."

    "I didn't even know you had a dog! What's his name?"

    Quand j'entends "the person", je réponds normalement "they", ce qui équivaut pour beaucoup de nous.

    En ce qui concerne l'usage: J'ai lu il y a quelques années que l'homme qui l'a introduit en anglais était un tel ... William Shakespeare :)
  20. itka Senior Member

    Nice, France
    Eh bien ! Merci Tim. :thumbsup:
    Grâce à vous tous, j'ai découvert quelque chose, dans ce fil ;) !
    Je n'avais jamais vu ni lu ça, avant... et comme il y a sans doute encore beaucoup de choses que je n'ai jamais rencontrées en anglais, merci de continuer à m'informer...:)
  21. Minaeth Senior Member


    Could you please tell me which one is correct?

    A. Whoever calls tell him I'm not here.
    B. Whoever calls tell them I'm not here.

    Does WHOEVER works like Everyone, anyone etc? (singular for the verb, but plural forms of pronouns?)

    Thanks a lot
    Last edited by a moderator: Jul 7, 2011
  22. lacp

    lacp Member

    American English
    Hi :)

    I would go with B: "Whoever calls, tell them I'm not here."
  23. Salvatos Senior Member

    Québec, Canada
    French - Québec
    Different people have different views on the impersonal pronouns in English. Some always use "him", some always use "her", some always use "them", and some vary depending on the context. I personally use "them" to avoid favoring a particular gender, although it sometimes makes some sentences look strange. Even if that weren't the case though, in this context I would really favor "them", probably because of "whoever".
  24. Jacob14 New Member

    Canadian English
    In most situations, I would use them but in a formal situation or document you would want to say/write him or her. I would personally find it very strange if someone was to just use him or her though as that would be assuming that you already know the sex of whoever will be calling.
  25. Nicomon

    Nicomon Senior Member

    Français, Québec ♀
    Si on me demande au téléphone... dis que je ne suis pas là. Je ne veux parler à personne.
    Bon d'accord, c'est un peu long. :D

    Je n'aime pas tellement cette mode de remplacer him/her par them.

    Would it be OK to say in English: Whoever calls, tell the person I'm not there? :confused:
    What do natives think?
    Last edited: Nov 25, 2009
  26. Jacob14 New Member

    Canadian English
    Or maybe: Please tell whoever calls that I'm not there.
  27. marget Senior Member

    We could also say "If anyone calls, please say that I am not here."
  28. tedgale Senior Member

    May I add my endorsement to the solutions of margret and jacob?
    Using "them" to signify an unknown person of unknown gender should be a last resort, not the first resort.
    Unfortunately, political correctness is driving English speakers to mangle grammar, so as to avoid the appearance of exclusion.
    I have even encountered the singular "they/ them" in legislation, which is my area of specialty.
  29. geostan

    geostan Senior Member

    English Canada
    Ni moi non plus. Tout en reconnaissant qu'il est tres commun, je dis toujours him ou her, selon le cas.

    J'aime les solutions proposées pour éviter le problème.
  30. wonderwhy Banned

    English - NaE
    This is not an issue of political correctness. The prescription against using 'their/they/them' with nominally singular words was/is just that, a prescription and we all know that prescriptions have never been followed by native speakers following the natural rules of English.

    Why? Because prescriptions are not natural rules of language.
  31. radagasty Senior Member

    Cambridge, UK
    Australia, Cantonese
    In this case, however, whoever is not merely nominally singular. It is definitely singular, and is demonstrated by the fact that a singular verb has to follow. It is always whoever calls and never whoever call, at least in the indicative mood.
    Last edited by a moderator: Jul 7, 2011
  32. EnFrDe

    EnFrDe Member

    English (UK)
    Going back to the original question, and taking into account the suggestions which followed:

    In response to Minaeth's original question, the correct expression would be "Whoever calls, tell them I'm not here." This is the more natural of the two.

    However: It would be more natural again to say "If anyone calls, ...", as in marget's suggestion. That is definitely the best suggestion which avoids the use of "them".

    Using the pronoun "they/them" as singular is not a grammatical last resort. It is the natural thing to say, and is what should be said. You use "they" because you don't know whether the unknown person is male or female, and it would be wrong to use just one of them. "Them" is grammatically correct, and what I as a native speaker would instinctively use here.
  33. tedgale Senior Member

    In my opinion:

    If you want to use the words "whoever calls", the ideal sentence -- i.e. the completely intelligible sentence whose grammar no-one can challenge -- would be: "Tell whoever calls that I'm not here".
  34. wonderwhy Banned

    English - NaE
    Mere convention, Radagasty. 'you' singular always uses a plural verb. Why do you think it is that we never hear anyone complaining about that?

    Whoever calls, tell them I'm not home.

    The underlined words, above, are not the same grammatical animals as,

    If Fred calls, tell him I'm not home.

    Go to the above URL for a more complete discussion. Use Ctrl F and put Sometimes an alleged grammatical error into the FIND box to zero in on the appropriate section.
    Last edited: Nov 30, 2009
  35. wonderwhy Banned

    English - NaE
    There's no need to use write-arounds, Ted, to placate those who are mistaken on the grammar.

    [See the posting before this one and the following]


    Last edited: Nov 30, 2009
  36. taratata_69 Member

    ceci est un article tiré du site web supernany.co.uk traitant du naughty step(traduisible), pourquoi est il utilisé le pronom feminin she et her puisque le sujet est un child ? peut on utiliser him indifferement pour child ?

    "When your child misbehaves or breaks one of the houses rules, explain what she’s done wrong, tell her that her behaviour is unacceptable, and warn her that if she behaves in the same way again, she’ll be put on the Naughty Step"

  37. IB programmer Member

    The child here is a girl.
    Him is for boys.
  38. smallperson New Member

    English - GB
    Her is for girls. Him is for boys. The source text sounds very Gina Ford. Best ignored. She doesn't even have children. You wouldn't listen to an illiterate person trying to advise on grammar etc,donc il s'ensuit...
  39. locoh2 New Member

    Edinburgh, Scotland
    English - Scotland
    Often, in these 'help' guides (especially about children), they refer to the child as she in one section and then as he in another section.

    He and she are not used indifferently but are sometimes mixed in text to make the reading easier (to say, "...explain what he/she’s done wrong, tell him/her that his/her behaviour is unacceptable.." makes for tiring reading!)
  40. CapnPrep Senior Member

    Oui, dans ce genre de contexte (où on parle d'une personne dans l'abstrait) on peut utiliser he, she, he/she, (s)he, ou le fameux they singulier, comme plus loin dans le même texte : « Once disciplined, however, it is especially important to find out why your child behaved in a way which was out of character, as understanding their actions will help you to prevent it occurring again. » Aucun choix n'est vraiment idéal, c'est un des pièges de la langue anglaise.

    Voir de nombreuses discussions dans le forum English Only.
    Last edited by a moderator: Jul 7, 2011
  41. Laona Senior Member

    Hello ! I have a little stupid question, but I wondered, when for example, you say "This person is friendly". We don't know if it's a boy or a girl, so would you say "She is friendly", "He is friendly" or 'It is friendly"?
    J'espère que vous comprenez où je veux en venir... And I wonder it not only with the noun "person", but no matter which.
  42. Oddmania

    Oddmania Senior Member

    Les anglais utilisent souvent le singular they pour ce genre de cas. Ça inclus tous ses dérivés : them, their, themselves,...They are friendly, donc.

    Ça peut paraître bizarre, mais je me souviens d'un site internet auquel je m'étais inscrit qui disait [Pseudo XXX] hasn't introduced themselves yet (car il y avait la possibilité d'écrire une biographie nous présentant, et comme l'ordinateur n'est pas censé savoir si je suis un homme ou une femme...)
  43. Keith Bradford

    Keith Bradford Senior Member

    Brittany, NW France
    English (Midlands UK)
    There are four grammatical genders in English:
    MASCULINE : if it's a male person or domestic animal = he
    FEMININE : if it's a female person or domestic animal = she
    COMMON : if it's a person you don't know the sex of = they
    NEUTER : in all other cases = it.
  44. Suehil

    Suehil Medemod

    Tillou, France
    British English
    Usually, if you say 'this person', then you will know who it is and will use the appropriate pronoun.
    "I know this person, he is my brother"
  45. Tim~!

    Tim~! Senior Member

    Leicester, UK
    UK — English
    Moi aussi, comme anglophone natif, voudrait rajouter à des commentaires que l'on devrait utiliser le "singular they". Ceci est très courant dans notre langue; quelquechose de différent ne serait pas naturel:

    "If you see someone lying on their floor, make sure they are breathing, check their pulse, and call them an ambulance."
  46. Lacuzon

    Lacuzon Senior Member

    French - France

    In case of a singular they, would themself be more accurate than themselves?
  47. Enquiring Mind

    Enquiring Mind Senior Member

    UK/Česká republika
    English - the Queen's
    A group leader might warn his group: "Anyone who loses their ticket will have to pay for another one themselves/themself." (Maybe more than one person will lose their ticket)

    If there can only be one person involved, "themself". I found these phrases:
    Each child feeds themself. How should an entrepreneur brand themself?
    Last edited: Jun 27, 2011
  48. tilt

    tilt Senior Member

    Nord-Isère, France
    French French
    Ça peut paraître bizarre, c'est vrai.
    Mais en y réfléchissant un peu, ce n'est pas plus bizarre que le on pluriel devenu si commun en français, et qui amène des tournures comme on est belles.

    Ce qui me surprend, par contre, c'est de lire dans le message de Keith Bradford que de singular they est un genre à part entière dans la grammaire anglais. Certains anglophones (puristes ?) m'avaient dit que c'était une aberration à éviter absolument.
  49. Keith Bradford

    Keith Bradford Senior Member

    Brittany, NW France
    English (Midlands UK)
    Puristes ? Certes. Le "singular they" est un usage commun depuis le 16e siècle (même avant Shakespeare !) et toujours courant. Il n'y a que les adonnés à la (fausse) logique qui le critiqueraient. Et pourquoi dis-je "fausse" ? Car le langage a ses raisons que la raison ne connaît pas. Aucune langue du monde ne suit les règles de la logique mathématique et je ne vois pas pourquoi l'on forcerait l'anglais moderne à rentrer dans un tel carcan, puisque ça rend la communication plus difficile.

    Cela étant dit, on a souvent la liberté d'éviter cet usage. Si c'est moi qui décide le texte, je peux choisir d'utiliser un pluriel dès le début. Au lieu de dire "Each student must leave his/her/their bags at the door" je peux résoudre le problème en disant "All students must..." et la fin devient évident.

    Mais ce n'est pas toujours moi qui décide. Si mon interlocuteur commence par "There's a person at the door" je suis obligé de trancher et je choisirai sans hésiter "Tell them to come in" tout en sachant qu'il ne s'agit pas d'une pluralité.
  50. defacta Member

    France french

    "Afficher ses livres" en anglais comment traduire "ses" quand on parle d'un utilisateur dont on ne connait pas le sexe.
    Donc on ne peut pas utiliser par exemple "her books". Doit-on mettre "his books": "Display his books".

    Si l'utilisateur est une femme, il y aurait donc aussi "his" ! Peut-on mettre "Display its books" ?

    Ou sinon doit-on mettre "Display this user's books" mais je n'aime pas trop, je trouve ça un peu lourd.

    Vous en pensez quoi ?


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