Use of 'they' and 'them' for singular person


Senior Member
Hello, natives
I hope the topic has not been discussed elsewhere (my search may have not been accurate).

I often noticed (particularly in British English) the use of plural personal pronouns to indicate a singular person, expecially if the sentence does not refer to somebody in particular, but has a 'general' meaning. A famous example:

If you love somebody, set them free (Sting)​

I reckon here them is used instead of her/him because the phrase is applicable to anybody, regardless of their gender, and to avoid awkward forms such as:

if you love somebody, set him or her free​

...which I often encountered as well (and sounds awful, in my view).

my question is: is such use of plural appropriate in a formal context or is it better to use it in colloquial speaking only?
  • velisarius

    Senior Member
    British English (Sussex)
    It's an established usage, and I think nobody would object to it: "they" refers to an indefinite pronoun (someone, somebody, anyone, anybody, no-one, nobody).


    Senior Member
    British English (Sussex)
    I don't think this particular case (with "somebody") causes any problems. It isn't a recent development.
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