Why is “They” a common alternative pronoun to he/she, considering it works for a single individual in some contexts, but in others it sounds like multiple people. “They’re watching a movie” or “they went to a concert” for example.

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Why is “They” a common alternative pronoun to he/she, considering it works for a single individual in some contexts, but in others it sounds like multiple people. “They’re watching a movie” or “they went to a concert” for example.

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“They” can be used as both singular term, or plural, with the context of the sentence making it clear which is being used. The same is also true for “you” which can also be singular, “Joey, you forgot your bag!” or plural “Students, you must get your books by the end of the day.”

The issue here is that many people weren’t taught the singular form of “they” in school, though it has been used in English for centuries, so there are people who feel that it sounds awkward and strange due to a lack of familiarity.

I think it’s mainly because the English language doesn’t have a gender neutral singular pronoun, so “they” is used instead.

There have been other words that have been tried (like “thon”, they+one), but they’ve never caught on.

“They” has been used for centuries in both single-person and plural contexts – the reason is just that English lacks any other singular third-person pronoun, aside from “it,” which we don’t use for people. They, used for a single person, was once criticized for this single-person use (I’m talking hundreds of years ago), but has since become an accepted singular pronoun when gender is unknown, unstated, or when the speaker prefers it.

Like in the sentence “When speaking to an elder, treat *them* with respect.” It’s clearly a singular person (an elder), but the usage isn’t limited to a male or female elder.

English is weird like that – we also don’t have a plural second-person pronoun. *You* can mean one person, “Would you like to come have dinner?” or to multiple people “Good evening Johnsons, will you please follow me.” We used to use *thou* for singular and *you* for plural (or a more respectful alternative to thou), but it’s died out. And some dialects get around it by using terms like “y’all” or “youse” for the plural, but the fact is, English doesn’t have a lot of options when it comes to singular/plural pronouns!

“They” makes sense as a singular pronoun referring to one individual when it is a hypothetical individual, which would in the real world be multiple individuals but only one at a time. “The person gets a ticket from the machine and they use it to board the train,” for example.

Because that’s what society has decided on using. We (as a society) toyed around with other options for decades and none of them caught on (see also Xe/Xer/Xis, etc). Finally, a small group of people decided they wanted to use “they” and they did and it caught on, and now “they” is both singular and plural as context demands