I've read this article in The Atlantic saying that in English schools in Europe, teachers have started teaching pupils the new "they" used as a gender-neutral or genderless singular he/she/it.

  • They can write what they wants.
  • When they needs help they gets it.

Is it true? Does this come from having any strings leading into deep history of English where this existed?

  • 4
    You should note that “you” is exactly the same, a plural pronoun that’s also used as a singular, in this case to show respect. The actual second-person singular pronoun, “thou”, only survives in historical usage and some English dialects.
    – Mike Scott
    Sep 7, 2018 at 19:13
  • 19
    The article you cite does not say "some English schools in Europe"! It doesn't even mention European school teaching of English at all! McWhorter merely compares gender in pronoun use in English to pronoun use in several (modern and ancient) European languages. Nowhere does he say "This is the English they teach kids in Germany/ France/ Italy/ Greece". Also he doesn't say they "have started" to teach this. He says that usage already existed in the languages he cites, even in ancient times and 18th C.
    – smci
    Sep 7, 2018 at 19:52
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    Are you asking about the use of singular they, or specifically about pairing it with singular verbs as in your examples? In AmE, it would be common and well understood to say, "They can write what they want." "Wants" sounds wrong. Sep 7, 2018 at 21:14
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    In case you don't know, McWhorter is a well-known US academic commentator on linguistics and race relations, and there's nothing he loves more than pointing out inconsistencies in PC and attacking its excesses. Always erudite, sometimes contrarian. Although in this case he's arguing in favor of gender-neutral pronouns and making the case they have a long proud history across (Romance) languages since ancient times.
    – smci
    Sep 7, 2018 at 22:08
  • 3
    You've had two days to rectify your misinterpretation... :( -1
    – Mari-Lou A
    Sep 9, 2018 at 9:39

6 Answers 6


To start, the sentences you gave are not how singular they is normally used. The verb simply takes the normal form for they. The sentences would be:

  • They can write what they want.
  • When they need help they get it.

As for

Does this come from having any strings leading into deep history of English where this existed?

It is actually explained in the article you linked to:

[W]e tend to miss that English speakers have been using they in the singular since English was anything we'd recognize as English. Back in Middle English, the Sir Amadace tale includes, “Each man in their degree.” The Bard has Antipholus of Syracuse in Comedy of Errors chirp, “There's not a man I meet but doth salute me / As I were their well-acquainted friend.” Thackeray has Rosalind toss off in Vanity Fair, “A person can't help their birth.” Whence the idea that all of these people were butchering the language?

So, yes, this use of they is quite old in English. The article goes on to explain why people started to think it was "wrong":

It was the schoolteacher and writer Anne Fisher whose English primer of 1745 began the notion that it's somehow bad to use they in the plural and that he stands for both men and women. Grammarians of Fisher's day tended to believe that real languages should pattern themselves after Latin and Ancient Greek, in which the words for they happened not to have experienced such developments.

Like so many nonsense-rules in English, that sadly have been taught to generations of students, the whole notion came from the misconception that English should be some form of Latin or Greek. "Never end a sentence with a preposition" is another example of those grammatical fancies that were drilled into the heads of unsuspecting students without any good reason.

  • 23
    My favorite was always "don't split infinitives", because in Latin, infinitives are single words and unsplittable, where in English they are two words, but somehow it was wrong to split the "to" from the rest of the infinitive because Latin. "To boldly go where no one has gone before" should clearly begin "To go boldly", if you listen to old school English teachers. Sep 7, 2018 at 14:15
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    Using the normal verb form for "they" is consistent with the convention for singular "you". We say "You are..." not "You art...". Sep 7, 2018 at 21:26
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    @PatriciaShanahan: It's not that simple, because second person plurality got all tied up with the T-V distinction, and we ended up losing the singular form entirely.
    – Kevin
    Sep 8, 2018 at 7:59
  • +1 Nice post. Not only helpful but interesting for students too :) Sep 9, 2018 at 0:25
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    @RobertColumbia To "put up with" is a phrasal verb, you cannot switch the word order. It would be like saying "Please out the garbage take". Avoiding to finish a sentence with a preposition is not that terrible a piece advice of. :)
    – Mari-Lou A
    Sep 9, 2018 at 11:39

I think the title Call Them What They Wants was chosen for a joke, to emphasize the fact that the singular they is not used everywhere and is even rejected in some style manuals in favour of 'he or she'. The verb used with the singular they actually doesn't take (e)s in the 3rd person Present, and remains grammatically adjusted to plural (same as with 'trousers', as suggested earlier in the related forum.

  • 3
    With the exception that "themself" is often preferred to "themselves" (much as "you" is grammatically plural except that "yourself" is used when it is semantically singular).
    – Micah
    Sep 7, 2018 at 19:42

It should be

"They get what they want"


"When they need help, they get it."

They has a singular case, but that shouldn't change the rest of the sentence. The key here is to recognize that you don't know who or what they is. They could be congress, or Steve from accounting. "They get what they wants" is just poor English. No amount of teaching it that way will ever fix change that, and if you leave the "s" on the word "wants" when using "they" in the singular case, you're going to sound awkward and grammatically incorrect at the most basic level to native speakers.


Firstly, as per other answers, the sentences still need the correct verb forms:

They can write what they want.
When they need help they get it.

There's nothing particularly new in using 'they' as a singular. What it denotes is that the person in question is an unknown or unspecified person. It is therefore often used in conjunction with words like 'someone' or 'whoever':

Someone who writes a diary can write what they want.
Whoever it was that wrote that rude message on the wall, I think they need help.


The word "they" could refer to "him" or "her". You could refer to "what he or she writes", "what he or she wants", or wants", or "the help that he and/or she needs".

Eventually some people tried to shorten "he and/or she" to "they".

Note: In JoeTaxpayer's answer, the same phrase could have been, "Whoever left his jacket in the library..." (instead of "their jacket").

Even for people who don't like "he and/or she" being replaced with "they", enough people have talked (and written) this way that most people will understand it easily. JoeTaxpayer's sample is a great example of how something can be wrong (really, "his jacket" would have been a better way of saying it), but sounds tolerable enough that many people may not even notice the issue.

Some people liked that. Some people didn't. The shortened version was liked by some people, and disliked by others. I believe the fair consensus is that this has is considered to be controversial. In other words, there is a lot of disagreement.

So, if anybody tells you that this is definitely "good English" that is widely accepted by most speakers, that is wrong. However, if anybody tells you that this is definitely "bad English" that is widely rejected by most speakers, that is also wrong. This "rule" of English is currently in a state of being questionable.

If you are thinking of using such a phrase yourself, the safest approach would be to think of another way of phrasing things, thereby avoiding the argument altogether.


English is fluid, and often, 'proper' follows usage. It make take time, but there's no ignoring this.

I recall, in the late 70's, an announcement came on the PA system in my high school. "Whoever left their jacket in the library, please stop by to pick it up." It was an all boys school, no need for the polite gender blurring 'they.'

I work in a HS now, and so far, it's less a matter of being 'taught' as 'accepted'. People are choosing their pronouns as a statement of their own self-identity. And in an age of acceptance, this verbal choice process is taken as a sign of not being against those who make such choices.

  • 4
    their is not "gender-neutral". It is "gender-agnostic". Hence its use in an all-boys school. It's not about gender at all. their and someone are best friends.
    – TimR
    Sep 7, 2018 at 22:25
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    Respectfully, my answer does not contain the word ‘neutral’. Sep 8, 2018 at 12:50
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    Not implying that you said it. Your phrase was "gender blurring".
    – TimR
    Sep 8, 2018 at 13:36

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