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I think that referring to a non-specific indefinite person like everyone, anyone, someone etc. as "they" is grammatical and widely accepted as being natural at least in informal speech. For example, the sentence "Everyone did their best" is grammatical. However, what about referring to a specific definite person?

Let's consider the following conversation.

"My friend just got back from the shop."

"What did they get?"

"They bought furniture for their new apartment."

"Are they married?"

"Yes, they are."

Are these grammatical?

Here's another example. A quote from the novel "A Study in Scarlet" written by Arthur Conan Doyle in 1886.

"What do you think of that?" cried the detective, with the air of a showman exhibiting his show.

"This was overlooked because it was in the darkest corner of the room, and no one thought of

looking there. The murderer has written it with his or her own blood.

Let's replace "his or her" by "their". Is the sentence "The murderer has written it with their own blood." grammatical in present-day English?

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It's called "singular 'they'", and it's gradually becoming accepted. You will still see people arguing about/against it, but eventually it will probably be standard.

My own government supports it, for writing laws.

The example conversation you give here is grammatical, but unusual. The first speaker presumably knows the gender of their friend, and so would probably use a gendered pronoun, and the second speaker would then pick up on it.

"My friend just got back from the shop."

"What did they get?"

"She bought furniture for their new apartment."

"Is she married?"

"Yes, she is."

When the first speaker - the person who knows "my friend" - uses a pronoun, it's probably gendered, and that pronoun probably gets used for the rest of the conversation.

The only exception that would be common is if "they" is the friend's actual preferred pronoun, which would likely be the case if the friend is agender.

  • "The example conversation you give here is grammatical," What about referring to the murderer of a certain murder case as "they"? – Makoto Kato Jan 29 '15 at 2:57
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    "They" is pretty much always appropriate if a person's gender is unknown. It's unusual to use "they" if the person's gender is known. Probably not wrong, but unusual. – Stephen Dunscombe Jan 29 '15 at 3:10
  • "They" is pretty much always appropriate if a person's gender is unknown. Could you provide us some example sentences supporting your claim from the literature before or during the 1980s? You can quote from many novels for free on the internet. For example, try Project Gutenberg. gutenberg.org – Makoto Kato Jan 29 '15 at 3:22
  • You know that just saying something is appropriate does not make it automatically true You need to show some evidences to support your claim. – Makoto Kato Jan 29 '15 at 3:50
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    What does before or during the 1980s have to do with "present-day English?" The use of they to refer to a singular referent was much more in dispute in the 1980s than it is today. Secondly, finding examples in literature proves only that certain authors/puiblishers thought it was grammatical to use. Third, asking native speakers who have demonstrated knowledge of how language is used in this present day is a much better way to get answers than asking those same people to provide extracts from texts more than 30 yers old. Fourth, if you do not believe that, do your own research. – user6951 Jan 29 '15 at 4:00
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Part1
Consider this statement and question. Person A knows the gender of his friend. However, he refers to his friend in a way that does not reveal the gender; this is because friend, guy, and Kelly can refer to a male or a female in English. Thus Person A is talking about a "specific definite person whose gender is unknown" to Person B. Person B is free to use they.

A: My friend, the guy named Kelly, born 14 Oct 1999, who weighs 14 stone and has blueish grey eyes and who stutters and whose social security number is ###-##-#### and who lives in the apartment next to me and whose father is mayor of New York City and whose mother is the queen of Denmark just bought a cat.

B: What kind of cat did they buy?

This means that you can be as definite and specific as you want and still use they if the person's gender is unknown.

Part 2
Yes, you can use they in the quote fom Sherlock Holmes and the sentence will be grammtical in present-day English.

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