“When one is using “they” as a singular pronoun, is it better to use singular or plural verb forms? I ask because while I usually hear it with plural verb forms in casual speech, I’m writing a story in which a character prefers “they,” and it has led to things like “Smith SAYS, ‘It’s all lies,’ as they TAKE the book from the shelf,” with a number switch between the two verbs. Is the plural verb form still correct when “they” is not used as an indefinite pronoun but for a specific person? Thanks!”
An excellent question! I’m sort of a writer too (academic) and I empathize.
Writing with plural they is hard and about more than grammar; in my experience sentence construction has to shift around in order to make things as smooth as they would be with a binary gender pronoun in use. This might also mean using more instances of the person’s name, or avoiding (in places) some more familiar forms of attribution (like the one in your example) until your reader can acclimatize (i.e., not on the first page, perhaps).
Grammatically, yes, your example is incorrect. However, I firmly believe that language is not only a set of written rules but a living, breathing organ that shifts with us. Chances are by this point in your story your readers will have had to do the work of acclimatizing to pronoun use and can handle it. And I’m afraid that, at this point in the ‘movement’, the fact that you use a gender-neutral pronoun will be a standout feature of your piece (I say ‘I’m afraid that’ because you might feel it distracting if that’s not the point).
In my own life, there are moments of glitch where I notice a grammatical error brought on in someone’s speech because they are referring to me and we have to make do. I find this to be funny, but I also think about humour as a teaching tool ( I’m in an educational field). In some ways, then, gender-neutral pronouns throw everything into relief, including how rule-bound we are without thinking (even they-people like me). I think that is nice.
I would love to read your story! 🙂 (no presh, however, and good luck)