They is the third-person plural personal pronoun (subjective case) in Modern English. It is also used with singular meaning to avoid specifying the gender of a person in language.

Personal pronouns in standard Modern English
Person (gender) Subject Object Dependent possessive (determiner) Independent possessive Reflexive
Singular
First I me my mine myself
Second you your yours yourself
Third Masculine he him his himself
Feminine she her hers herself
Neuter it its itself
Epicene they them their theirs themself
Plural
First we us our ours ourselves
Second you your yours yourselves
Third they them their theirs themselves


Special usesEdit

SingularEdit

The singular they is the use of the 'they' pronoun as a gender-neutral singular rather than as a plural pronoun.[1]

In an article published in The New York Times Magazine in 2009, Patricia T. O'Conner and Stewart Kellerman wrote:

Anne Fisher (1719-78) [an 18th-century British schoolmistress and the first woman to write an English grammar book] was not only a woman of letters but also a prosperous entrepreneur. She ran a school for young ladies and operated a printing business and a newspaper in Newcastle with her husband, Thomas Slack. In short, she was the last person you would expect to suggest that he should apply to both sexes. But apparently she couldn't get her mind around the idea of using they as a singular.

Meanwhile, many writers — Byron, Austen, Thackeray, Eliot, Dickens, Trollope and more — continued to use they and company as singulars, never mind the grammarians. Now, many people use they in the old singular way that dictionaries and usage guides are taking a critical look at the prohibition against it.[2]

GenericEdit

The pronoun they can also be used to refer to unspecified people in some often vaguely defined group, as in In Japan they drive on the left. or They're putting in a McDonald's across the street from the Target. It often refers to the authorities, or to some perceived powerful group, sometimes sinister: They don't want the public to know the whole truth.

EtymologyEdit

In Old English, hīe was used as the third-person, personal pronoun (in the nominative and accusative case). It was gradually replaced by an Old Norse borrowing, þeir (nominative plural masculine of the demonstrative, which acted in Old Norse as a plural pronoun), until it was entirely replaced in around the 15th century in Middle English. Þeir, in turn, became they as it is known in Modern English today. Þeir originates from Proto-Germanic *þai-z ("those"), from Proto-Indo-European *toi ("those").[3]

Word of the yearEdit

In December 2019, Merriam-Webster chose "they" as word of the year for 2019. The word was chosen because "English famously lacks a gender-neutral singular pronoun to correspond neatly with singular pronouns like everyone or someone, and as a consequence they has been used for this purpose for over 600 years."[4]

Personal pronouns in Middle English
Below each Middle English pronoun, the Modern English is shown in italics (with archaic forms in brackets)
Person / gender Subject Object Possessive determiner Possessive pronoun Reflexive
Singular
First ic / ich / I
I
me / mi
me
min / minen [pl.]
my
min / mire / minre
mine
min one / mi selven
myself
Second þou / þu / tu / þeou
you (thou)
þe
you (thee)
þi / ti
your (thy)
þin / þyn
yours (thine)
þeself / þi selven
yourself (thyself)
Third Masculine he
he
him[a] / hine[b]
him
his / hisse / hes
his
his / hisse
his
him-seluen
himself
Feminine sche[o] / s[c]ho / ȝho
she
heo / his / hie / hies / hire
her
hio / heo / hire / heore
her
-
hers
heo-seolf
herself
Neuter hit
it
hit / him
it
his
its
his
its
hit sulue
itself
Plural
First we
we
us / ous
us
ure[n] / our[e] / ures / urne
our
oures
ours
us self / ous silve
ourselves
Second ȝe / ye
you (ye)
eow / [ȝ]ou / ȝow / gu / you
you
eower / [ȝ]ower / gur / [e]our
your
youres
yours
Ȝou self / ou selve
yourselves
Third From Old English heo / he his / heo[m] heore / her - -
From Old Norse þa / þei / þeo / þo þem / þo þeir - þam-selue
modern they them their theirs themselves

Many other variations are noted in Middle English sources due to difference in spellings and pronunciations. See Francis Henry Stratmann (1891). A Middle-English dictionary. [London]: Oxford University Press. and A Concise Dictionary of Middle English from A.D. 1150 TO 1580, A. L. Mayhew, Walter W. Skeat, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1888.

See alsoEdit

ReferencesEdit

  1. ^ "'He or she' versus 'they'". Oxford University Press. Retrieved 2012-07-07.
  2. ^ O'Conner, Patricia; Kellerman, Stewart (21 July 2009). "On Language - "All-Purpose Pronoun"". New York Times Magazine. Archived from the original on 30 May 2012. Retrieved 7 July 2012.
  3. ^ "They". Online Etymology Dictionary. Retrieved 6 October 2010.
  4. ^ Locker, Melissa (2019-12-10). "Merriam Webster Names 'They' As Its Word of the Year for 2019". Time. Retrieved 2019-12-10.