Singular they and verb conjugation

Anonymous asked:

“I’m having trouble conjugating verbs with they! I realize it’s a singular pronoun, like he or she, so would one say, “they has a car”? Or is it conjugated in the plural, like you, “they have a car”? Thank you so much for running this blog!”

You’re very welcome, and thanks for this important question! The answer is both. If someone uses singular they you do conjugate in the plural when referring to them directly: “they HAVE an appointment.” But when using their name to refer to them, you use the singular: “Lee HAS an appointment, so remind THEM that THEY have to call ahead to confirm.”

This kind of switcheroo requires extra attentiveness when writing. I’m working on the next draft of my PhD dissertation, and I insisted on using singular they to lend even greater anonymity to my research participants and for political reasons. My supervisor’s feedback was a good reminder that, when using singular they, one needs to be careful when referring to more than one person in the same paragraph (or page, etc.). Readers could interpret that you’re referring to everyone and not to the singular they user! So, using this pronoun requires more than substitution. It requires changing how we write, or at least being a bit more nit-picky!

Hope that helps, and sorry for the delayed response (see above re. dissertation revisions…)!

Lee

15 comments

  1. We use singular “you” with the plural form of verbs, yet always still retain the singular connotation. Why not do the same with “they”? (Obvious exception is “themself” though.)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Good question, Charles, and I hope someone can chime in and give you an equally good answer. Here is where I confess to not being a grammarian, but to being the person who thinks a lot about how to shift to they or use it as seamlessly as possible. If you give me an example or a proposal (:)) I can offer my thoughts.

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      1. Hi, old post but I’ll comment anyhow.
        The singular ‘you’ was historically a plural pronoun which corresponded to the singular ‘thou’. Since ‘you’ has slipped into the singular meaning, people have devised various ways of expressing plural ‘you’ (like the Texas ‘y’all’ and Aussie ‘youse’).
        The plural conjugation of verbs that follow ‘you’ has persisted. I guess that’s exactly what you’re advising is to do with the singular ‘they’ – keep using the plural conjugation for the following verb.
        I’m curious whether this advice has been incorporated into any style guides/manuals since you wrote this post, or even if there are dissenting views. I’ve noticed lots of inconsistent use in materials online.

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  2. Sue is a dinosaur at the Field museum. Their gender is unknown and on their twitter account (yes, Sue has a twitter account) Sue identifies as nonbinary and has chosen the pronouns “they and their.” I get that but this sentence in a recent article troubles me: “They are not only the most expensive dinosaur ever purchased at auction at a cool $8.4 million in 1997, but also the largest and most complete T. rex skeleton ever discovered. ”

    Since there is only one Sue, shouldn’t they take a singular verb, i.e,, “They is not only…”? Or should the sentence be recast?

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  3. Thanks bunches, I’d been wondering about the singular/plural verbs thing for singular they (and thanks Charles for reminding me of how it already works with singular you)!

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    1. Old post, but I’ll comment. It appears that someone, somewhere, decided that singular “they” should take a plural verb and everyone else jumped aboard. The argument for doing so is that “they is” sounds awkward and that “you are” uses a plural verb so let’s give singular “they” a plural verb.

      I think the construction is not the best choice. First, singular “they are” sounds awkward as well. Also, the construction “they are” already has a meaning that is widely used and accepted–more than one. Using the same construction for singular now just adds confusion–talking about one or more than one?

      We should have simply used a singular verb for the singular use–“they is.” Yes, it sounds awkward so so does saying “they are good” when referring to a single person. The singular “they ” is simply another 1st person pronoun, just like “he” and “she.” We say “he is” and “she is” so why not “they is?” For me, this construction makes the most sense and doesn’t add confusion.

      “They is standing on the corner” means one person (replaced “he” or “she” with “they”). “They are standing on the corner” means more than one. Nice and simple.

      Examples:

      “Dave and John were talking. Dave walked outside. They are now standing on the sidewalk.” Who is standing on the sidewalk? Dave alone? Or did John join Dave on the sidewalk?

      “Dave and John were talking. Dave walked outside. They is now standing on the sidewalk.”
      This use of “they is” makes it much clearer that Dave is standing alone on the sidewalk

      Of course, we now have even more confusion. Some non-binary folks are saying that “they are” is wrong when written specifically about a non-binary person. These non-binary folks believe that “they is” should be used because we’re addressing the person as an individual, not as a general pronoun (like “he” or “she”).

      I’m going to make a prediction that, in the coming years, the singular construction of “they are” will be replaced in usage with “they is” because of the confusion I described above. But, we’ll see. Comments about my comment are always welcome 🙂

      -Brad

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Hi! Again late comments on an older post, but… This really does not have to do with gender neutral pronouns, but to help with pronouns in general! The pronoun should always refer to the last proper noun used. If there is ambiquity, then the proper noun needs to be re stated. Therefore in all of the examples above Dave (the last proper noun used) would be be the one standing on the sidewalk. 🙂

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      2. Thanks for your reply. I understand the “rule” mentioned; however, that rule leads to ambiguity. “Jeff and Dave were on the sidewalk.”
        “He walked away.” The rule applied would mean that Dave walked away. But, that rule is rarely followed in modern writing, so the sentence remains ambiguous. Of course, the second sentence would be better written as “Dave …”. I get your point, and you’re correct. But, today’s writer is not so precise.

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      3. But there is no ambiguity in using the plural pronoun in reference to “Jeff and Dave.” “They” is just fine there.

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