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"They" as a single third person pronoun?

In everyday language, which is the focus of duolingo, "they" is an acceptable singular third person pronoun particularly when the gender of the third person is unknown. When I'm learning about gender-nonspecific pronouns in other languages, I want to use "they" in the translation because it's the closest word; something clearly gets lost when you translate "è il sue gatto" into "it is her cat" or "it is his cat" when the gender of the owner of the cat is entirely unknown. But when I use "they" this way I get marked off.

March 24, 2015



It's colloquial but still not stylistically accepted in formal usage. I would never use it in a professional context, although I would in speech.


"He or she" and "she or he" are accepted in formal usage. :)


I agree with you. Another example would be "his or hers", although they both sound a bit awkward.


I agree with you. What do you think about the use of "someone's" or "someone" so that the person you speak to will not think you mean the plural literally?


Using 'someone' instead of 'they' means that you have no clue who the subject is. You can't point at someone (haha) and say "Someone is wearing a red shirt". It has to be "They are wearing a red shirt", although in that case 'he' or 'she' would work since you could probably guess their gender if you're looking at them.


Keep suggesting it as an option.

FWIW, not all style guides allow "they," though others do. It's not quite universally accepted (alas!)


Agree. Not only that, but using "they" when gender isn't known is a good habit to get into to tackle sexism and to avoid misgendering people we don't know. I wish Duo was more flexible with allowing "they" for gender non-specific pronouns. Keep flagging/suggesting it when it happens, hopefully they'll bring it in :)


But isn't it confusing, because it might be interpreted that you are referring to more than one person? What do you think about "somebody" or "someone"?


I'm not talking about "somebody" or "someone", though (if I was I might use those words to avoid confusion). I could be talking about someone sitting right next to me, or about a specific person whose name I don't know, whose name/appearance doesn't imply a gender, or whose gender I don't want to assume even based on name/appearance. Someone/somebody implies it could be, well, anybody, when I am in fact talking about a particular individual.

I find singular they can sometimes be confusing, but not commonly. Context helps a lot. It only causes confusion if you're talking about a group and "singular they" individual at the same time, in which case you just end up being more careful about what you say, separating them a bit more and adding more context, or using the person's name if you know it/referring to the group more explicitly. English's lack of plural markers has annoyed me for years (in text I sometimes use things like you& to indicate "you-plural" to try and get around it with friends) and is primarily the source of this issue. We don't gripe over singular you and plural you being the same and being confusing, we just muddle through and deal with it, same with other quirks of the language. I feel singular they and plural they will end up the same. Unless English develops plural markers, we'll muddle through and context deals with most of the issue.

Maybe we'll develop a "they" equivalent of "you all"/"y'all"/"you guys"/"youse"! That would be very useful, actually :)


It really should be on Duolingo as some people make the mistake of using masculine for generic terms which I believe is sexist


Why was I downvoted?


You can say "It is someone's cat", so it does not sound like you mean the cat belongs to two or more people. (I like your username, by the way).


You mean like this? "There's not a man I meet but doth salute me As if I were their well-acquainted friend." That's one of several examples from Shakespeare. Singular "they" has been used in English for unspecified antecedents, even when, as above, the gender is known, since at least the fifteenth century. There are circumstances where pandering to pedants is unavoidable, but it's hard to see why this would be one of them. "Someone" isn't a substitute in most contexts. That's what you use in the absence of any antecedent. Singular "they" is used with generic antecedents.

Is this the correct discussion stream, by the way? Even if there were a consensus in favour of fixing this, I'm not sure there's a way to change this behaviour globally, rather than separately for each relevant language pair.

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