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Egalitarianism and anti-sexism seem to be strict norms in English-speaking societies. I think a majority of people advocate the use of they when referring to a specific definite person whose gender is unknown to the speaker--as shown, for example, in the comments to the following youtube video:

Gender Neutral Pronouns: They're Here, Get Used To Them

For example, such people think the sentence Leslie did their best is acceptable, where Leslie is the name of a person whose gender is unknown by the speaker.

When gender is irrelevant or unimportant, referring to a specific definite person as he(she) when the person's gender is known by the speaker may be considered as sexist by those advocates of egalitarianism and anti-sexism.

So my question to ELL is this:

Is referring to a specific definite person whose gender is known by the speaker as they acceptable?

For example, is the sentence

The police officer John Smith did their best.

acceptable when the officer's gender is known to the speaker?

Remark Since this question has several downvotes, I would like to make it clear that my question is ABSOLUTELY NEUTRAL. It's just a question. No more or no less.

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    Related: This ELU question: english.stackexchange.com/questions/48/…. – Stephie Feb 5 '15 at 21:12
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    As bad as it sounds: A John Smith might not necessarily define "him"self as "he", so in the rare case of undefined gender, yes, it's acceptable. But rest assured: Your average English teacher would most likely mark this as an error.... Good luck with the ensuing argument. – Stephie Feb 5 '15 at 21:21
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    Btw: Do you have sources for your claim that "a majority of people" recommends the approach mentioned in your post? I doubt this. You need to differentiate between everyday use of the language and the linguistic potholes of political correctness. – Stephie Feb 5 '15 at 21:25
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    Since when is a bunch of commenters on a Youtube video considered a reliable source, let alone a majority? – Stephie Feb 5 '15 at 21:48
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    "It was the best that police office John Smith could do" or "That was the best that Leslie could do.". If you have an issue with "they" or "their" in this kind of usage, just don't use it. – user3169 Feb 5 '15 at 21:50
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The singular they is a gramatical structure that permits the use of a gender-neutral pronoun for cases of indetermined gender.

Its main use is either with a pronoun ("When I tell someone a joke they laugh.")
or with a generic noun ("Each passenger must remain on their seat.")

But according to Wikipedia, it may be used for known individuals:

Use for specific, known people
In some situations, an individual may be known but referred to using the pronoun they because their gender is unknown or because "they" is their pronoun; social media applications, for example, may permit account holders to select a nonbinary gender such as "gender fluid" or "bigender" and a pronoun, including they/them which they wish to be used when referring to them.

and

Even for a definite known person of known sex, they may be used in order to ignore or conceal the sex. "I had a friend in Paris, and they had to go to hospital for a month." (definite person, not identified)

This grammar structure is perfectly valid, and can even be found in historical texts (and has been criticized, use of "he" as the gender neutral pronoun was recommended by some sources since the 18th or 19th century), but may come across as overly complicated and stilted - often an attempt to "force" a political correctness into the language. The uses in day-to-day language are comparatively rare.

In many cases the "problem" can be avoided by slightly changing the sentence or using a real plural.

For example:

"Each passenger must remain on their seat."

can be changed to:

"Each passenger must remain seated." or
"Passengers must remain on their seats."

  • I'd like to thank @MARamezani for his input on this question. – Stephie Feb 5 '15 at 22:21
  • So are you saying that this kind of usage is appropriate in written language only ("The uses in day-to-day language are comparatively rare.")? You might want to expand on that, and also some examples for your point "In many cases the "problem" can be avoided by slightly changing the sentence or using a real plural.". – user3169 Feb 5 '15 at 22:29
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    @user3169: No, I'm saying that most people I know "stumble" over the singular they and prefer to avoid it, both in written and spoken language. Besides, OP's question addresses the much rarer case of singular they for known individuals. I added the examples you requested. – Stephie Feb 5 '15 at 22:44
  • So basically just rewrite to leave out the pronoun, right? BTW, better examples would not use a plural or questionably plural subject ("passengers" or each of a group) that the pronoun refers to. – user3169 Feb 5 '15 at 23:43
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    @MakotoKato: OK, I'll give it one more try: Politically correct: yes. Gramatically permitted: yes. Used: yes. Akward: most likely. Mandatory: no. It's use advised for learners: no. - Most of the time avoiding the pronoun is the safer option and usually possible. – Stephie Feb 6 '15 at 11:27
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Is referring to a specific definite person whose gender is known by the speaker as they acceptable?

As others have hinted at in their comments and answers, this really gets down to how one might define words like "acceptable" or "grammatical".

If I was proofreading a speech, I would probably change their to his:

The police officer John Smith did their his best.

However, just because something might be an improvement doesn't make the original "unacceptable."

This is particularly true in conversation! People don't always speak in sentences that represent grammatical perfection; errors such as "who vs. whom," "lie vs. lay," and "which vs. that" pervade everyday speech. Only the most coldhearted pedant would listen to Officer Smith's memorial service and silently shake their head in disapproval at a (perhaps inadvertant) use of the plural pronoun – most others would let the "they" slide and focus on Officer Smith's heroic efforts instead.

Intentionally or unintentionally, you've elected to put your question on a learner's forum and ask strictly about speech. I will give you my ELL answer to that question: Yes, it's acceptable, but using the gender-specific pronoun would probably sound better most of the time. That said, there is no need for anyone to agonize over letting a "their" slip out when a "his" or "her" might have been a preferable word to use.

If you want to slice it any finer than that, you should ask over at ELU. Don't ask a duplicate question, however, because that's heavily frowned upon. Instead, focus more on the issue of: When does faux pas cross the line into "grammatically unacceptable"? That might be an interesting question, too – but not on a learner's forum.

  • I very much agree with you on this question being only of limited use on a learners forum, as interesting as it may be. – Stephie Feb 6 '15 at 11:22
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In general,

Is referring to a specific definite person of KNOWN gender as “they” acceptable?

Specifically,

The police officer John Smith did their best.

I have not taken any surveys among English speakers as to whether the answer to your questions is yes, no, or maybe.

However, I do know that language changes. This includes the meaning of words. And neither 'etymology' nor 'logic' stops such words as decimate from meaning to destroy or kill a large proportion of when the "logical meaning", based on the Latin meaning, is to kill one out of ten people.

Nor does the singular/plural argument hold much weight: you used to only be plural.

Nor does language change stay away from "gender changes."

The word girl used to mean 'child or young person of either sex'. See the OED.

Wench used to mean 'a female child'. See the OED.

Man used to mean 'a human being'. See the OED.

And wife used to mean 'woman'. See the OED.

New forms do not become acceptable overnight. As you know, the use of "Singular They" is still not accepted by all native speakers. But, based on living and communicating with native speakers of English, I can tell you that "Singular They" is much more accepted now than it was in the 1980s, except perhaps for use in formal writing. Whether they will be 'acceptable' to refer a definite specific person whose gender is known' is still very much up in the air.

You yourself have also said the following:

If [a] majority, say 90%, of native people were using it, I would say it's grammatical.

Whether that magical 90% (or whatever percentage) will ever be reached is unknown to me. But the fact that many--according to you, "the majority"--of speakers seem to be okay with it, it seems it is already acceptable to many. Language is always in flux, and I can't predict the future. My answer is

We.do.not.know.yet.

We don't know yet.

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    What I really like about this, besides being the correct answer (IMO), is the melodramatic repeat at the end. It masterfully drives home the chilling, inconclusive conclusion with that eerie yet clichéd sentence echo. :) – CoolHandLouis Feb 6 '15 at 4:21
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Native speaker here. Singular they is very natural in many circumstances, especially if you're using a generic person. The problem with generic "he" is that it causes us to think you are only talking about males, and constructions like "he or she" are awkward and get very wordy very fast. I remember in a college business composition class, where we were advised to avoid generic "he", "he or she", and singular "they", and instead rewrite our sentences so that pronouns always agree without using any of the above constructions. Needless to say, it was a pain in the you-know-what, and you end up spending more time rewriting your sentences than actually focusing on and writing the content of your paper.

As for using it for a known person, this is less common. Some people prefer to be called "they" as opposed to "he" or "she". As for the examples above:

I had a friend in Paris, and they had to go to hospital for a month.

I would say "the hospital", but otherwise this sentence sounds natural to me. The impression I get is that the person speaking is not really revealing any identifying information about the person in question, probably because it's not relevant. In the past, you would probably specify the gender, but to me when you're saying stuff like this, the person's gender could not be further from your mind, and it's natural just to use "they".

As for the other example:

The police officer John Smith did their best.

This does not sound right. I would expect "his" here. Now why does this sentence not sound right when the last one did? I think it's because the person referred to has already been identified, so the vague "their" no longer fits. All the information given about them screams male, so you would use masculine pronouns. (This might also have to do with sex stereotypes of police officers.)

Anyway, I hope I clarified things.

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