Answering another question, I used the following phrase:

Your reader is [...], but they are a busy person.

I have two difficulties here:

  1. In the first phrase, a reader, being singular noun, certainly implies is;
  2. In the second phrase, they, being a plural pronoun (regardless that it refers a single person), still requires are, but are implies the plural for busy persons which sounds awkward (a reader ⇆ persons);

Obviously, if I used "...but he is a busy person", everything works fine, but I'm trying to use a gender-agnostic form.

What is the proper number agreement here?

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    There's another workaround: Your reader is [...], but the reader is busy [We don't need to be told that the reader is "a person". "Non-persons" normally don't read, unless they're data-mining algorithms working for Google, the FBI, or the CIA]. It's usually best to avoid the politics of unnatural (some are natural, but not the one in your example sentence) gender-neutral forms by turning singulars into plurals or repeating the singular noun phrase (if you need a singular noun phrase) instead of using singular "they/their/them". – user264 Feb 19 '13 at 11:38
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    @bytebuster I don't think you'll find one, because although singular they has been around forever it is only in the last generation that it has become widely employed - indeed in many houses obligatory - in formal discourse. So it is now being brought for the first time into complex and extended constructions (like yours) where it was never used in the past; and we just haven't had time to arrive at a consensus. Usage leads; formal grammar follows. – StoneyB Feb 19 '13 at 12:45
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    Not strictly comparable, I think. Nothing is 'enforced'; language is a dynamic natural system which is governed by internal feedback and never achieves total equilibrium. Linguistic scientists observe it and develop hypotheses to describe it; but the language is not subject to their 'rules'. Quite the opposite: the rules derive from use, and the hypotheses are always contingent, for the system constantly evolves. – StoneyB Feb 19 '13 at 13:50
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    It is just as much an error to think they must always be a “plural” pronoun as it does to think that you must be such. It simply isn’t true. – tchrist Feb 20 '13 at 16:04
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    @tchrist Singular they is syntactically plural, so inflections work in a way as if it were plural. My question was essentially about how this agreement works in a complex sentence containing two phrases. – bytebuster Feb 20 '13 at 16:25

As found in Wikipedia, Singular They can be used for:

Indeterminate gender – when they refers to an individual person of unknown or unspecified sex, as in, for example, "One student failed their exam". This usage is known as epicene they.

Indeterminate number – when they has no definite antecedent, or can be interpreted as referring to either a singular or plural entity. This usage is also known as generic they. For example, in "Anyone who thinks they have been affected should contact their doctor", they and their are within the scope of the universal, distributive quantifier anyone,[1] and can be interpreted as referring to an unspecified individual or to people in general (notwithstanding the fact that "anyone" is strictly grammatically singular).

It further notes:

In some cases, they is used even when both the number and gender of the subject are known, but the identity of the person is generic, e.g. "If some guy beat me up, I'd leave them."

Though semantically singular or ambiguous, singular they remains morphologically and syntactically plural (e.g. it still takes plural forms of verbs).

To specifically answer the question posed:

Your reader is [...], but they are a busy person.

is correct. Even though your reader is singular, and when replaced by the singular they pronoun, they remains morphologically and syntactically plural and thus they are is appropriate.

You, of course, could bypass the whole issue, and say:

Your readers are [...]. but they are busy people.

  • Thanks for the update and a nice workaround (most relevant for this very site). "They are" is appropriate, agreed, but doesn't it infer plural "they are busy persons"? – bytebuster Feb 19 '13 at 5:19
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    @bytebuster- I agree singular they sounds awkward sometimes, and that's why I try to rewrite to avoid it whenever that's the case. If someone is having trouble with their sentences rewriting is often the cure. See- that one sounds okay. but I would definitely go for the rewrite on yours just to avoid that awkwardness. – Jim Feb 19 '13 at 7:11
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    @bytebuster You mean “imply” not “infer”, and no, of course it does not. “You, John, must think of yourself” is correct, and no “yourselves” is required. They only takes plural concordance in a verb it governs, and nothing else. It is just like you in this regard. – tchrist Feb 20 '13 at 16:06
  • Here's an article on the use of Singular They by the copy editor of the Baltimore Sun: articles.baltimoresun.com/2012-12-27/news/… – Aaron Brager Feb 26 '13 at 6:56

You can also omit "they" entirely, "Your reader is [...], but is also a busy person."

"They are a busy person" definitely sounds odd and using "they" in that way is not formally correct. It is technically supposed to be "he" or "he or she." I have seen some authors opt to switch back and forth between he and she to use them equally. So you could use "he" in this sentence and then use "she" the next time you have one of these sentences. In formal, scholarly writing, you will most often see authors using "he or she" or else switching back and forth between the two.


Why not say "Your readers are"? Then your readers are plural and gender-agnostic, and the rest of the sentence can then use "they" in good conscience. (Yes, this is dodging the whole question of singular-they and verbs.)

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