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

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4 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.

        Like

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