21

A:I assume you know about the latest goings-on with Hessington oil.

B:I wouldn't be much of a partner if I didn't.

A:Now they've decided to take on Ava Hessington personally.

B:Who is they?

A:The U.S. government.

These are lines cited from Suits.
Suits,the third season, first episode.From Netflix

Why did this B say who is they instead of who are they?

  • 6
    Typically the pronoun they, in this instance, would be italicised, to show emphasis in speech. Sometimes scare quotes are used instead. In the actual episode, did the speaker use air quotes by any chance? – Mari-Lou A Jan 13 '17 at 8:43
  • 1
    It's fine and natural. When asking "who is they"?, B has no idea who the referent of "they" is. It could be some organisation, or "they" may have been used as a gender-neutral pronoun to refer to some person. – BillJ Jan 13 '17 at 10:35
  • 3
    I assume that you transcribed this yourself. I would have transcribed it as, "Who is 'they'?" if this makes things clearer for you. – Teacher KSHuang Jan 13 '17 at 10:46
  • @Mari-LouA B didn't do the air quote gesture and the subtitles wasn't italicised neither but I get what you mean. Thank you Mari. – Jasmine Kuo Jan 13 '17 at 12:55
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    No, I wouldn't expect subtitles to go into the trouble of using scare quotes or italics. I suspect Speaker B stressed they and gave a quizzical look. – Mari-Lou A Jan 13 '17 at 13:04
23

Use-mention distinction

This is an example of the use-mention distinction. In the sentence "Who is they [sic].", "they" isn't being used as a pronoun, but instead is being used a word. That is, it's referring back to the use of the word "they" in the previous sentence ("Now they've decided to take on Ava Hessington personally.")

Notice in that sentence by A the "they" takes the plural form of the verb ("they are"/"they're"). This is always the case with "they" when it's used as a pronoun; it's always gramatically plural, even when it's used to refer to a single person. (Which, despite moaning by some pedants, is a perfectly valid English construct.)

In the sentence by B ("Who is they?"), the "they" isn't being used as a pronoun, but is being used to refer to the word "they" that was used by A in the previous sentence. The convention in English is that when you have this sort of "mention" case - where you use a word as a word as opposed to using it for its meaning - you should place that word in quotes or italics. So the closed captioner should really have rendered it as

Who is "they"?

or

Who is they?

The fact that they didn't is either due to limitations of the closed captioning system (for example an inability of the system they were using to represent quotes or italics), or simply because the captioner wasn't aware it was needed.

Note that the quotes/italics here aren't being used as "scare quotes" or as some sort of marking of incorrect usage, but as a literal quote of the word itself. As such, the speaker wouldn't actually make an air quote gesture, but probably would subtly emphasize the "they", either by saying it in a slightly different tone or pausing slightly before saying it.

34

Short Answer: Because Person B is referring back to Person A's sentence.

Long Answer:

A: I assume you know about the latest goings-on with Hessington oil.
B: I wouldn't be much of a partner if I didn't.
A: Now they've decided to take on Ava Hessington personally.
B: Who is [the] 'they' [in your sentence]?
A: The U.S. government.

Does this help?

  • 3
    Informal speaking can be tricky in any language. In this case the listener has to infer a LOT of different things about the question. Even more accurately for the corrected line: [To] who[m] is [the "]they[" in your sentence referring]? – Keeta Jan 13 '17 at 15:19
  • 3
    I don't know about American English, but in British English only a 90-year-old aristocrat would say something like "To whom is this referring?" instead of "Who is/does this refer to?" – alephzero Jan 13 '17 at 17:34
  • 2
    @alephzero "Whom" should be used when it is the object of a verb. It is the object of the inferred verb "refer". "Whom does this refer to?" is also an accepted form, but not "Who does this refer to?" – Keeta Jan 13 '17 at 18:49
  • 4
    @Keeta in common usage where I am (California) "whom" can be seen as stilted, regardless of correctness. – k_g Jan 14 '17 at 4:37
  • 2
    @Keeta I don't think you need to make such gyrations to get a grammatical construction. If the sequence were A: Now Mary has decided to take on Ava personally. B: Who is "Mary"? would you think B ought to have said To whom is the name "Mary" in your sentence referring? – 1006a Jan 15 '17 at 6:13
5

Who is they?

I assume that, as @Mari-LouA said, that they would be italicized or enclosed in air-quotes. So, considering this, the question is grammatically correct. This means that they is considered as an object and then it takes the 3rd singular form of the verb to be in the question.

Why did this B say who is they instead of who are they?

This is common to be found in literature, in order to emphasize the fact that speaker B doesn't know anything of the people (they) speaker A is talking about.

In short, speaker B is referring back to speaker A's sentence.

4

In my earlier comments I mentioned

Typically the pronoun they, in this instance, would be italicised, to show emphasis in speech. Sometimes scare quotes are used instead. In the actual episode, did the speaker use air quotes by any chance?

When the OP confirmed that italics were not used, and the actor did not do air quotes, I replied:

No, I wouldn't expect subtitles to go into the trouble of using scare quotes or italics. I suspect Speaker B stressed they and gave a quizzical look

The Oxford Dictionary provides the following definition

scare quotes
Quotation marks placed round a word or phrase to draw attention to an unusual or arguably inaccurate use.

So, if we look at the first line cited by the OP we see that the name of an organisation is used, Hessington Oil (I've capitalised Oil because it is part of a proper noun). In American English — and Suits is an American TV series — organisations and companies are often used in the singular. For example,

  • Microsoft is one of the industry leaders in accessibility innovation...
  • The Coca-Cola Company has on occasion introduced other cola drinks under the Coke name.

It could be that speaker B believes that "they" refers to a company or an organisation, and as a result uses the singular verb in: “Who is they?” Who "they" is, might also refer to a person, male or female, in which case the verb is singular.

Who is they?

It's also worth noting that the subject in the question is who, which is typically used for people and organisations, not for words. If the speaker had wanted to know about a word they could have asked: “What do you mean by they?”

Now they've decided to take on Ava Hessington personally

Until we learned the answer, it was unclear whether the subject was plural or singular. The singular they is a prominent feature in the English language, it is used in place of he/she and it is frequently heard in speech.

  • 3
    If your answer was right, then people would say: «Microsoft is a company. They is an industry leader. They makes computers.» They absolutely do not! Using they with a singular verb conjugation is always grammatically incorrect; the real answer (by Teacher KSHuang) correctly indicates that they is a single-word quotation here, not actually a “bare” pronoun. – Lynn Jan 13 '17 at 15:40
  • 2
    The subtitles don't bear it out, but the audio probably would: I would imagine that They is actually stressed - or if it was written, would be in inverted commas: Who is "They"? – Obsidian Phoenix Jan 13 '17 at 15:42
  • 1
    Yeah, the subtitle is confusing IMO and should absolutely say WHO IS "THEY"? – Lynn Jan 13 '17 at 15:44
  • 1
    @Lynn Singular "they" in English is older than you imagine. To take an extreme prescriptivist position like "is always grammatically incorrect" is clearly contradicted by the huge number of people using singular "they", both today and in the past. A simple search for "singular they" will turn up dozens of articles, popular and scholarly, surveying the situation. Lighten up. – Ross Presser Jan 13 '17 at 17:35
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    @RossPresser That’s not the point. I am 100% for singular they. “I talked to someone, and they were happy” is fine. “I talked to someone, and they was happy” is fine in some dialects, but not standard English. – Lynn Jan 13 '17 at 20:49

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