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You can't cast aspersions on someone just because they are wearing a cape.

Shouldn't it be capes instead of a cape? "a cape" means one cape, "they are" implies it is a group of people, a group of people can't wear one cape.

The only way I see it grammatically correct is when they stands for "he or she" to avoid sexism. Like in the sentence I saw in one video game: "The player doofos killed you with their AK47."

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I think the sexism avoidance issue you mention explains why this sounds correct as-is. In this sentence, they are is referring to one (and only one) superhero. –  J.R. Mar 5 at 11:21
    
It's about using epicene as in singular they. Read my answer. –  Maulik V Mar 5 at 11:38
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I grew up with singular they. I don't need a special reason (like avoiding sexism) to use it. –  snailboat Mar 5 at 12:04
    
"They are" is presently often used to mean "he or she is". Fifty years ago, it was more typical to simply use "he is" to mean this. I personally believe that the singular they that snailplane mentions did take hold more firmly because of a backlash against sexism in our society. –  BobRodes Mar 5 at 14:22
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Using 'they' instead of 'he' or 'she' (or ugly hybrids such as 's/he') supposedly dates back to at least Shakespeare. It's perfectly fine to use 'they' as a 3rd person pronoun for someone of unknown gender. –  Phil Perry Mar 5 at 14:40

4 Answers 4

up vote 10 down vote accepted

You actually have the answer to your question, within your question.

Let me split the sentence : You can't cast aspersions/ on someone/ just because /they are/ wearing a cape.

Note: I have not split this sentence according to any grammatical convention, I just split it up for the purpose of the discussion.

  • In the sentence you are talking about "someone" and well "someone " is singular, so your sentence is talking about a general, unknown him/her.

  • Since we are talking about a singular him/her, the usage "a cape" is correct.

  • Now, how does "they are" which implies a group of people fit into this sentence? Well let me introduce you to 'Singular they '. It is somewhat similar to the usage of 'you'
    eg: you are strong - Singular reference
    you guys stink - referring to a group of people but it is the same 'you'

  • Similarly 'they' can be used in singular and plural forms, and in your question, they is singular. Talking of singular they, I remember an example,
    when we were kids, we used to make fun of our teacher behind their back and giggle. Every time this happens, the teacher would shout " If anybody thinks they are so smart, you teach the class I will listen!" (huh, fun times).
  • Well in the above sentence 'they' is used in singular context again.

If you want to become a "Singular They Expert" you gotta check this out.

There is another more complicated concept to this "Singular They" called as epicene but explore at your own risk. I dont want do discuss further about epicene as I am not very knowledgeable with the grammatical nuances of an epicene.

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Something sounds wrong about this example: "when we were kids, we used to make fun of our teacher behind their back and giggle." What, you remember making fun of your teacher but you don't remember the gender of that teacher? "...we used to make fun of our teacher behind his back..." sounds more correct. –  interrobang Mar 5 at 23:53
    
@interrobang - the teacher involved might not be a specific one. Singular "they" can be used to refer to a non-specific individual that might be any member of a large class. –  Jules Mar 6 at 8:13
    
@Jules wouldn't it be "used to make fun of our teachers behind their back" then? –  interrobang Mar 6 at 16:27
    
@interrobang, if we use "teachers" instead of "teacher" then the purpose of the example is defeated. I am trying to demonstrate the usage of 'Singular they' and the usage 'teacher' is on when you intend to use "singular they" along with it. –  NANDAGOPAL Mar 6 at 16:47
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@NANDAGOPAL I just don't buy the example. Might I suggest a different example, such as: "Maybe your original example is grammatically correct but if someone makes fun of their teacher, they probably know the gender of that teacher and therefore wouldn't use the singular they."? –  interrobang Mar 6 at 17:36

Nice question. This type of thing can sometimes cause confusion to a native speaker, though I think you can resolve your doubt quite easily.

The key in your sentence is "someone". This highlights an individual who may or may not exist. As such, they will only be wearing one cape, hence "a cape". Generally, I think this is a good form to follow in other situations too:

You shouldn't judge a person by their appearance. if they are sporting a moustache, it doesn't necessarily mean they're a hipster.

On the other hand, if the situation specifically deals with a group of people, we may use a plural to deal with that.

Would those people wearing capes please report to the superheroes section immediately.

Plurality is highly assumed/probable in the above example.

Finally, consider an example where we are dealing with multiple people, but referring to a singular aspect of each one. How should we deal with it? Let's see:

Can all the people wearing a cape please take it off and hand it to the nearest helper?

Singular is used to show we are referring to each individual cape. However,

Can all the people wearing capes please take them off and hand them to the nearest helper?

Plural is also possible given that we are addressing a group of people each wearing a cape.

I would say that when you want to show that the thing in question is an individual belonging (see the example below) use singular, and when it's not so important, use plural.

Men who have a receding hairline should not be considered older than those who don't. A receding hairline can be dealt with by....

It's only ever possible to have one receding hairline per person, and as such, is probably better expressed that way.

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Nothing to do with a cape actually!

Let me try the short and terse answer.

When the first pronoun in the sentence is epicene (no gender specific), the following pronoun can be plural.

If a client (no gender specific) does not like your website, they (following pronoun) will never come back.

Likewise,

You can't cast aspersions on someone just because they are wearing a cape.

Worth mentioning here - singular they.

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The word 'they' in the sentence was used because the sex of the person was unknown. saying 'They' is an acceptable substitute for 'he or she' in conversational use. It was not referring to a group of people. Therefore the use of cape was correct and not capes.

I hope that simple explanation was easiest.

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