He was sorry for the birds, especially the small delicate dark terns that were always flying and looking and almost never finding, and he thought, The birds have a harder life than we do except for the robber birds and heavy strong ones. Why did they make birds so delicate and fine as those sea swallows when the ocean can be so cruel?

From "The old man and the sea" by Ernest Hemingway

What does they refer to here? I thought it's natural for this sentence to be expressed in passive form.

And does as here means "like" or "for example"? Or is it a part of so ... as structure? However, Longman says

Do not use so in comparisons without 'not'. Use as: Your handwriting is as bad as mine (NOT so bad as mine).

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    'They' refers to whoever you consider to be the architect of life, the universe, everything. Generally speaking, it is used to refer to a higher authority: "Why did they make laws telling us how to drive?" Mar 29, 2021 at 16:54
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    I have no idea about the beliefs of Hemingway's fictional character, he might not have known who made the birds. Perhaps you could say "Why did He make birds so delicate?" Mar 29, 2021 at 17:37
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    @MostafaF.Rad It is not useful to try to resolve questions of belief, which are many and various, by examining pronoun usage in the English language. Mar 29, 2021 at 17:40
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    Using they in this way is slightly jocular. The speaker pretends to suppose that natural things are produced or manufactured in some way, so that they say 'Why did they make birds so delicate?' in the same way as someone might say 'Why did they make the doors of Honda Accords so ugly?'. No belief, or lack of it, in 'Creation' is implied. Mar 29, 2021 at 18:01
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    @MostafaF.Rad - pretended naivety is a kind of humour, or light jocularity. Mar 29, 2021 at 19:50

3 Answers 3


As Michael Harvey explained in his comments, "they" does not have to refer to anyone. It's just a way of speaking in English language.

I don't have an explanation for this, but it's probably so used because rewording the more correct but somewhat awkward form, "why are birds made so delicate and fine...", in the active voice requires a subject, so "they" is used.

"As", here, is indeed part of the "so...as" structure, but it somewhat means "like". Here is a paraphrase of that part of the quote: "[some] birds are delicate and fine, as one can see in the case of the sea swallows. This is surprising, considering how cruel the ocean can be."

Remember that this is art, and it is written in a form that elicits emotion, unlike an academic paper, or a Stack Exchange answer.


It's common to say,"Why did they do such-and-such?" where "they" refers to some vague, unspecified group. You might call it an idiom. Like someone might say, "Why did they make beef so expensive?" It's not clear who "they" are. Cattle ranchers? Meat packing companies? Grocery stores? A vast conspiracy? Often the speaker has no clear idea who "they" are. Sometimes that's the point: He doesn't know who is responsible.

In this case, "they" must refer to whoever created birds. I've never read the book you're quoting. I don't know what Mr Hemingway's beliefs about religion and science were, or if he gives the character any clear beliefs. Presumably "they" could mean "the impersonal forces of evolution" or "God" or, who knows, maybe someone or something else.

Unless something else in the context makes it clear, it could well just be a vague, unspecified "someone or something".


Well, "they" refers to whomever created the birds (perhaps a bearded old man in the sky) but the "why did they..." is an idiomatic expression for when people wonder why things are the way they are.

This is not a typical "so...as" construct where "as" is usually being followed by an infinitive (e.g. "so small as to be invisible"). The "as" is really being used to indicate a comparison of like things---a simile. It is comparing "birds so delicate and fine" to "those sea swallows".

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    I think 'they' is 'the people at the bird company' or 'the people at the bird design department of the government'. Mar 30, 2021 at 6:26
  • There is a British joke, that is probably unsuitable. A man is unhappy in a bar. The barman asks why. The man says he has not had sex for years because his wife won't let him; in fact he he has almost forgotten what it is like. The barman suggests he finds a 'bit on the side'. The man cries 'The side! The side? I didn't even know they'd moved it!' Mar 30, 2021 at 6:29
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    I am not sure that the "so .. as" is a comparison, because those delicate birds are the sea swallows. The sea swallows are examples of such delicate birds. Mar 30, 2021 at 6:49
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    @WeatherVane So am I analyzing it correctly: the sentence "Why did they make BIRDS?" is referring to birds as a whole group; "Why did they make SEA SWALLOWS?" is referring to only sea swallows. Consequently "Why did they make BIRDS so/too delicate?" means why birds (in general) are delicate; "Why did they make (such) DELICATE BIRDS?" means why delicate birds are created. And when I want to give an example of these delicate birds, I can say "Why did they make BIRDS so delicate as SEA SWALLOWS?" Mar 30, 2021 at 8:58

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