1

Your phone is ringing and your daughter picked up the phone but she hasn't answered the call. Then do you ask her:

Who is it?

or

Who are they?

And when she tells you, would she say:

I don't know who it is"

or

I don't know who they are?

If none of the above isn't natural, then what is it?

  • I think asking Who is it? or Who's that? is possible. I think she has many choices to reply, after listening to the other(s): I don't know... '... who's this', ... who [this/it/she/he] is, ... who they are. – Damkerng T. Jan 21 '14 at 13:50
6

The question (at least here in the U.S.) is:

Who is it?

It may sound impersonal, but it's idiomatic.

As for how one might answer that question, that could be done in just three words:

I don't know.
I'm not sure.
They didn't say.

(Or, your daughter could string all three of those together for a nine-word reply.)

As to how to phrase it in a longer form, I think you nailed it in your question:

I don't know who it is.

That's exactly how I would say it:

I don't know who it is – probably some telemarketer.

  • 1
    Normally we say "who is it", singular, probably because we normally expect only one person to be on the other end of the line. It's possible that a group of people are sitting around a speaker phone calling you, but that's not the normal case. – Jay Jan 21 '14 at 15:39
  • @Jay - True, but we can also use "they" to refer to an individual, gender unknown. "Mr. Jones, someone stopped by while you were out." "Are they coming back today?" – J.R. Jan 21 '14 at 19:31
  • In my house we'd use, "Who was that?" Because my wife will have already hung up while the auto-dialer is routing the call to a live person. ;-) – Jim Jan 22 '14 at 1:53
  • 2
    @JR True, but we generally only do that to avoid using "him" or "her" when we don't know the gender. "Who is it?" does not use a gender-specific pronoun, so the issue doesn't come up. – Jay Jan 22 '14 at 4:35
  • @Jay - Yes, we both understand that; my comment was only meant to highlight how interesting this question is from a learner's perspective. I had never thought much about it until I saw this question, but it's odd how we use "they" in so many other contexts, but "it" when the person happens to be on the telephone. – J.R. Jan 22 '14 at 10:00
3

In modern English, the plural "they" is used as a pronoun in situation when we are not sure whether some previously discussed person is male or female. For instance "the average person thinks that { they are | he or she is } more intelligent than most others".

Like any pronoun, "they" needs an antecedent.

We cannot just us "they" out of the blue; we need to speak about some person first. For instance:

A: Someone is at the door!

B: What do they want? ["they" refers to "someone".]

Here B could also ask, "What does he or she want?".

B cannot say these things if A simply went to answer the door without saying a word.

Compare:

A: Hello? B, it's for you!

B: Who {* are they | is it | is calling}?

Versus:

A: Hey B, the caller is asking for you!

B: Who {is it | ?are they | ?is he or she}?

In the second example, B can use "they" because the pronoun has an antecedent in the previous discussion: the noun "caller".

"Who is it?" is most natural; "Who are they?" less so; and "Who is he or she?" is quite unnatural.

The reason is probably that "they" and "he or she" are restricted from use in WH- clauses which inquire about the identity of the subject. Consider:

A: Someone is at the door.

B: Who is it, and what do they want?

Here B speaks a sentence made out of two WH- clauses. The first clause asks about the identity of "someone" (who is that someone), and so the pronoun "it" is used to refer to that someone, rather than "he or she" or "they".

The second WH- clause asks about something else: what that "someone" wants. In this case, "someone" can be referred to as "they" or "he or she".

If the sex of the person is known, then this is not an issue. The correct gender of pronoun is consistently used:

A: Some man is at the door.

B: Who is he and what does he want?

B: *Who is it and what do they want?

Important note: A WH-clause asking a "who" question can be rhetorical. Contrast these:

A: Someone just called, asking questions like what is our household income.

B: Who {are they | *is it} to be asking that? It's none of anyone's goddamned business!

"Who are they to ask that?" is not a genuine identity inquiry but actually a remark that the person has no authority to ask such a question, regardless of who he or she is.

2

"They" is acceptable here, though 50 years ago, formal style manuals would have forbidden it.

Theoretically, one should use "He" or "He or she" when referring to a single person whose gender is unknown, but using "He" as a catch-all for women constantly leads to a subtle language bias, making it seem as if women are simply absent from everything, and using "He or she" all the time is tiresome. So "they" has come to be used as a singular pronoun when the gender of the person is unknown, even in cases where one is quite sure that only a single person is being referred to. "Their" can be used similarly. So:

Each student picked up his or her class schedule.

and

Each student picked up their class schedule.

Are now both acceptable, though in the past, the latter was frowned on.

  • I agree with this stance, although, as I mention elsewhere in this question, I think "it" is a more common pronoun than "they" when referring to someone on the other end of the phone. For other contexts, though, such as class schedules and whatnot, "it" is much more seldom used, and "they" is used instead. (At least that's true in the U.S. – but the answer by @Tamara makes me wonder if that's only in U.S.) – J.R. Jan 22 '14 at 10:06
2

In UK English (according to the Oxford Dictionary) it is acceptable to use the plural pronoun "they" in place of "he or she" when the subject's gender is not known. This was a 16th century practice that died out (somewhat), but it is now common and considered correct again.

In US English (according to Merriam Webster's Collegiate Dictionary) it is also correct to use "they" as a singular pronoun when gender is not known.

So, in UK and US English, all four sentences are equally correct.

(My experience living in both countries is that I almost always hear constructions 2 and 4 in the UK. In the US I almost always hear constructions 1 and 3.)

  • 1
    Even on the telephone? – J.R. Jan 22 '14 at 10:03
  • In UK and US English all the sentences are correct, whether speaking or writing. I have American ears and constructions 2/4 will always sound awkward to me. But, they are commonly used by speakers of UK Received Pronunciation and considered correct (UK). I note the UK Society for Editors and Proofreaders (SfEP) always uses "he or she" over "they" in their own documents. (To my ears, that is awkward to read/hear when used frequently.) SfEP sometimes disagrees with Oxford. In my mind, if one says the language is correct, then it is correct (UK). "They" constructs are certainly in regular use. – Tamara Jan 22 '14 at 11:37
  • 1
    Just to be clear, I wasn't questioning grammaticality (which I agree is fine). I was more asking about convention: Which is someone most likely to say when inquiring about who is on the telephone? In my house, anyway, it's always "Who is it?" not "Who are they?" The "they" is fine, though, as in: "Who is it, and what do they want?" – J.R. Jan 22 '14 at 13:38
  • I live in the UK. When I answer the phone here and a Received Pronunciation speaker asks who it is, I've heard both. If I am asked immediately, it tends to be "Who is it?" but if I've been talking for a while to someone, I have heard it both ways: "Who is it?" / "Who are they?". The second construction has an extra implication/demand to it--like, "Why are you talking to this person?" "Is it a chugger?" (Chugger = UK English for "charity mugger" = someone who cold calls asking for money for charity.) "Who are they?" sounds really awkward to my ears, but it is frequently used in RP. – Tamara Jan 22 '14 at 13:56
  • I'd definitely say if in doubt, go with constructions 1/3, because those are correct in both countries and I've never been corrected by an RP speaker for using them. (Since I am a proofreader, I ask RP speakers to correct my language to help me learn, and I often consult Oxford/SfEP afterward to make sure I understand differences. There are a LOT of differences.) I lived in the US for 26 years and never heard "Who are they?" about a caller on the phone, though. I think Americans would give you funny looks if you said that, even though "Who are they?" is technically correct. – Tamara Jan 22 '14 at 14:02

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