If someone takes ... 'they' will .... ['they' for singular]

ChrisDutch

New Member
DUTCH
HI,

I am Dutch and i've noticed something in the English language which I find interesting. I wonder if someone can answer the question why this became part of the english language.

Often, when you mention someone, who is no one in particular, the person will be referred to as "they" even if you know that this hypothetic person would be one person and not plural.

For instance: "If someone takes my picture today they will have to pay me"

why does someone become they all of a sudden?

Dying to know ;)

cheers

Chris
 
  • Hi Chris and welcome to the site.

    It's simple. English doesn't have a common third personal singular pronoun. It has masculine, feminine and neuter (he, she, it) but nothing that embraces all three. Therefore gradually people have taken to using "they" instead. It's similar (but not identical) to the use of Sie/sie in German.

    Not long ago it would have been classed as a grammatical error. However, the usage has developed so quickly that it is even starting to find its way into British legislation. It won't be long until we accept at every level that "they/them/their(s)" have grown new lives.
     

    ChrisDutch

    New Member
    DUTCH
    Hi Chris and welcome to the site.

    It's simple. English doesn't have a common third personal singular pronoun. It has masculine, feminine and neuter (he, she, it) but nothing that embraces all three. Therefore gradually people have taken to using "they" instead. It's similar (but not identical) to the use of Sie/sie in German.

    Not long ago it would have been classed as a grammatical error. However, the usage has developed so quickly that it is even starting to find its way into British legislation. It won't be long until we accept at every level that "they/them/their(s)" have grown new lives.
    Hi Kevin,

    thanks for the quick response. I have a question though. You say this is a relatively new phenomenon. I wonder, how did people solve this issue before?

    Would they say: "If someone takes my picture today he or she will have to pay" ... ??

    In Dutch we also do not have a third person singular pronoun. So we say things like " he or she will" .. .or ... " that person will... " and sometimes we simply pick the male version and say " he will have to pay" referring to an unknown gender.
     

    panjandrum

    Occasional Moderator
    English-Ireland (top end)
    It's not at all a new phenomenon.

    Using they/their for third person singular was commonplace until 18th century grammarians decided that it was incorrect.

    Instead, English used he/him/his for third person singular/ unknown gender.
    If someone takes my picture today he will have to pay.

    That, of course became unacceptable as people became more sensitive to masculine terms being used to refer to both sexes.

    You will find a great deal more about this topic in the threads listed here:
    gender neutral, and in particular:
    Gender neutral pronouns: A shift to genderless she? Historic use of singular their
    ... post #17.
     

    ChrisDutch

    New Member
    DUTCH
    It's not at all a new phenomenon.

    Using they/their for third person singular was commonplace until 18th century grammarians decided that it was incorrect.

    Instead, English used he/him/his for third person singular/ unknown gender.
    If someone takes my picture today he will have to pay.

    That, of course became unacceptable as people became more sensitive to masculine terms being used to refer to both sexes.
    I see, thanks for the info on the history. I guess someone should write an essay on how feminism influenced the language. That would be an interesting topic.
     

    Parla

    Member Emeritus
    English - US
    I see, thanks for the info on the history. I guess someone should write an essay on how feminism influenced the language. That would be an interesting topic.
    There have been dozens, if not hundreds. After you've finished the mini-essays in the recommended threads, try Googling feminism+language, singular they, political correctness, and those will lead you to many more searchable terms.

    I hope your eyes don't tire easily. :eek:
     

    entangledbank

    Senior Member
    English - South-East England
    This is not feminism influencing the language. 'They' has been the pronoun for indefinite singulars throughout the entire history of English. This is plain, standard English and always has been. The attempt to make 'he' the default was late and was never successful: it never really changed the actual English language.
     

    Thomas Veil

    Senior Member
    English - USA
    For instance: "If someone takes my picture today they will have to pay me"
    Besides the gender issue mentioned above, there are also cases where it's not entirely clear that the singular is appropriate. For instance, it's quite possible that more than one person might take your picture. Trying to account for all the possibilities quickly leads to an unwieldy sentence "If a person or persons takes my picture today, he, she, or they will have to pay me".

    Another place where it comes up is when we're talking about a group of people, but with regard to some individual aspect. For instance, "Each student must bring their book". It's plural in that we have a bunch of students, but singular in the sense that it's phrased in terms of individual students. Some people say that it should be "Each student must bring his or her book", but that has it's own issues.

    What's odd is that people sometimes use "they" when speaking about a known gender, or even a known person, such as "If I get married, they'd better be beautiful". If this person planning on being polygamous? Bisexual? Or just not paying attention to grammar?
     
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