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Referring to a singular person (a lover in this context) whose gender is not clear from context, can we use 'they' instead of 'he/she' in this context?

After thousands of doctor's prescriptions (went in vain), they (Lover of that ill person) came, smiled, and the healing happened.

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  • btw, you might mean doctors'.
    – J D
    Feb 22, 2022 at 19:56
  • Does this answer your question? Is "singular they" widely used?
    – randomhead
    Feb 22, 2022 at 20:12
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    @randomhead no, because my question is about usage of 'singular they' regarding specific known person, and not for an unknown or generic 'they'.
    – Garry302
    Feb 22, 2022 at 20:22
  • Using "they" to refer to a specific person is controversial in the US and usage is in flux because of variations in cultural norms and political and religious views. Many would insist on using "they/them/their" in addressing a person who has stated a preference for that pronoun, but others would also try their best to refuse. The use of "they' to refer to generic individuals is a somewhat different issue and is not as politically or culturally charged. Feb 22, 2022 at 20:55

3 Answers 3

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Yes. I do it regularly. According to the OED, it goes back to at least 1375. See their article:

Singular they has become the pronoun of choice to replace he and she in cases where the gender of the antecedent – the word the pronoun refers to – is unknown, irrelevant, or nonbinary, or where gender needs to be concealed. It’s the word we use for sentences like Everyone loves his mother.

But that’s nothing new. The Oxford English Dictionary traces singular they back to 1375, where it appears in the medieval romance William and the Werewolf. Except for the old-style language of that poem, its use of singular they to refer to an unnamed person seems very modern. Here’s the Middle English version: ‘Hastely hiȝed eche . . . þei neyȝþed so neiȝh . . . þere william & his worþi lef were liand i-fere.’ In modern English, that’s: ‘Each man hurried . . . till they drew near . . . where William and his darling were lying together.’

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  • I think it's specific case where the person is not unknown. Is it still valid in this context as per the definition you have posted?
    – Garry302
    Feb 22, 2022 at 20:10
  • @Garry302 Let me try again. Are you asking that if we personally know someone, but are not sure about their identity... let's say a transsexual male who has strong feminine quantities, would it be rude to use they instead of guessing he or she?
    – J D
    Feb 22, 2022 at 21:09
  • @Garry302 If you are saying that the gender identity of the lover in question is simply unknown, the use of they is non-controversial.
    – J D
    Feb 22, 2022 at 21:11
  • Yes, it's like in poetry.. A lover X talking about other lover Y (gender of both of them unknown); when Y came, X became fine. Is it good to use 'they' instead of 'he/she' to refer to Y?
    – Garry302
    Feb 22, 2022 at 21:19
  • @Garry302 Absolutely. That's just straightforward ambiguity of gender identity.
    – J D
    Feb 23, 2022 at 2:03
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Singular they is absolutely fine here in the UK. We've been using it for centuries for an unspecified person of unknown gender. Even Shakespeare used it. However, in order to know who "they" is referring to, we usually need a clear unspecified antecedent - i.e. a previous gender-neutral mention of the person we are referring to. We don't just throw singular "they" into sentences at random. Of course the same is also true when using any pronoun, and singular they is no different.

Some examples (antecedent in bold):

  • When the customer arrived later, they got a full refund.

  • There's someone's umbrella! They must have forgotten it.

I feel your example sentence is lacking a clear antecedent. If you have mentioned this "lover of the ill person" in a previous sentence or if the paragraph is clearly about that person but in a non-gender specific way, then it might be OK. But without more context it's quite hard to tell. There comes a point at which we might know so much about a person that we can no longer refer to them with singular they. I think that in a narrative it would be quite difficult to maintain this level of neutrality about a person who is described in any detail. For example, if their name is mentioned, it would probably be better just to use their name instead of a pronoun.

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Singular they is widely used.

We can use they, their, and them for a person whose gender is unspecified.

They, them and their are not plural in the following sentences. They mean he or she, him or her and his or her.

If anybody calls, ask them to leave a message.

No one came here, did they?

Somebody left their pen.

We cannot use 'they', 'their', and 'them' for a person when we know the person is male or female.

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