they

they (thā)
pron. 1) Used to refer to the ones previously mentioned or implied. 2) Usage Problem Used to refer to the one previously mentioned or implied, especially as a substitute for generic he: »

Every person has rights under the law, but they don't always know them.

3) a) Used to refer to people in general. b) Used to refer to people in general as seen in a position of authority.
[Middle English, from Old Norse their, masculine pl. demonstrative and personal pron.; see to-.]
Usage Note: The use of an ostensibly plural pronoun such as

they, them, themselves,

or their with a singular antecedent dates back at least to 1300, and over the years such constructions have been used by many admired writers, including William Makepeace Thackeray (

"A person can't help their birth"

), George Bernard Shaw (

"To do a person in means to kill them"

), and Anne Morrow Lindbergh (

"When you love someone you do not love them all the time"

). The practice is so widespread both in print and in speech that it generally passes unnoticed. Forms of they are useful as gender-neutral substitutes for generic he and for coordinate forms like his/her or

his or her

(which can sound clumsy, especially when repeated frequently). Nevertheless, many people avoid using forms of they with a singular antecedent out of respect for traditional pronoun agreement. Most of the Usage Panel still upholds the practice of traditional pronoun agreement, but in decreasing numbers. In our 1996 survey, 80 percent rejected the use of they in the sentence

A person at that level should not have to keep track of the hours they put in.

In 2008, however, only 62 percent of the Panel still held this view, and by 2011, just 55 percent disapproved of the sentence

Each student must have their pencil sharpened.

Moreover, in 2008, a majority of the Panel accepted the use of they with antecedents such as anyone and everyone, pronouns that are grammatically singular but carry a plural meaning. Some 56 percent accepted the sentence

If anyone calls, tell them I can't come to the phone,

and 59 percent accepted

Everyone returned to their seats.

The trend, then, is clear. Writers who choose to use they with a singular antecedent should rest assured that they are in good company—even if a fair number of traditionalists still wince at the usage. For those who wish to adhere to the traditional rule, one good solution is to recast the sentence in the plural:

People at that level should not have to keep track of the hours they put in.

See Usage Notes at ANYONE(Cf. ↑anyone), HE(Cf. ↑he)1.
Word History: Incredible as it may seem, the English pronoun they is not a native English pronoun. They comes from Old Norse and is a classic example of the profound impact of that language on English: because pronouns are among the most basic elements of a language, it is rare for them to be replaced by borrowings from foreign sources. The Old Norse pronouns their, theira, theim worked their way south from the Danelaw, the region governed by the Old Norse–speaking invaders of England, and first appeared in English about 1200, gradually replacing the Old English words hīe, hīora, him. The nominative or subject case (modern English they) seems to have spread first. William Caxton, who brought the printing press to England, uses they, hir, hem in his earlier printed works (after 1475) and thei, their, theim in his later ones. This is clear evidence of the spread of these Norse forms southward, since Caxton did not speak northern English natively (he was born in Westminster). The native English plural him or hem may well survive, at least colloquially, in modern English 'em, as in "Give 'em back!"

Word Histories. 2014.

Look at other dictionaries:

  • they — W1S1 [ðeı] pron [used as the subject of a verb] [Date: 1100 1200; : Old Norse; Origin: their] 1.) used to refer to two or more people or things that have already been mentioned or are already known about ▪ Bob and Sue said they wouldn t be able… …   Dictionary of contemporary English

  • They — (IPAEng|ðeɪ) is a third person, personal pronoun (subject case) in Modern English.UsageThe singular they is the use of this pronoun, where they is used as a gender neutral singular rather than plural pronoun. The correctness of this usage is… …   Wikipedia

  • they — [ ðeı ] pronoun *** They is used as the subject of a verb: They killed him. In formal English they can also be used after the verb to be, especially before a relative clause: It is they who are telling lies. 1. ) used for referring to a group of… …   Usage of the words and phrases in modern English

  • They — ([th][=a]), pron. pl.; poss. {Theirs}; obj. {Them}. [Icel. [thorn]eir they, properly nom. pl. masc. of s[=a], s[=u], [thorn]at, a demonstrative pronoun, akin to the English definite article, AS. s[=e], se[ o], [eth][ae]t, nom. pl. [eth][=a]. See… …   The Collaborative International Dictionary of English

  • they'd — [ ðeıd ] short form 1. ) the usual way of saying or writing they would. This is not often used in formal writing: They said they d be happy to help. 2. ) the usual way of saying or writing they had when had is an AUXILIARY verb. This is not often …   Usage of the words and phrases in modern English

  • they're — (they are) n. they exist, they live, they occupy a certain position, they exist in a certain state …   English contemporary dictionary

  • they'd — [ðeıd] 1.) the short form of they had ▪ If only they d been there. 2.) the short form of they would ▪ It s a pity my parents didn t come they d have enjoyed it …   Dictionary of contemporary English

  • they — ► PRONOUN (third person pl. ) 1) used to refer to two or more people or things previously mentioned or easily identified. 2) people in general. 3) informal people in authority regarded collectively. 4) used to refer to a person of unspecified sex …   English terms dictionary

  • they'd — (they had) v. verb used together with another verb to express past tense they d (they would) v. verb used together with another verb to express future tense …   English contemporary dictionary

  • they — [thā] pron. sing. he, she, it [ME thei < ON thei r, nom. masc. pl. of the demonstrative pron.; like THEIR & THEM (ME theim), also < the ON demonstrative forms, thei replaced earlier ME he (hi) because the native pronouns were phonetically… …   English World dictionary

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