Someone recently asked a search engine the following: what does it mean when someone uses they when they are referring to one person?
That’s a good question! When someone refers to as single person as “they”, it could be for one of five different reasons:
- That person’s pronoun might be the singular ‘they’.
Lots of non-binary people (that’s people who aren’t men or women) prefer to be referred to as ‘they’ because it is a gender neutral pronoun, and options like ‘he’ or ‘she’ misgender them, by suggesting that they are a gender they aren’t.
Some non-binary people also use other gender neutral singular pronouns, like ‘zie’ or ‘fae’, but you should always use whichever one they have chosen.
- The person speaking may not know the gender of the person they’re talking about.
Sometimes people will say ‘they’ to avoid misgendering someone when they don’t know the person’s gender. This happens in conversations like this:
Person 1: I went to see my doctor today
Person 2: Oh yeah? What did they say?
In this case, Person 2 may just not know the gender of Person 1’s doctor, and doesn’t want to assume the doctor is a he or a she, so they used ‘they’ as a placeholder. Because ‘they’ doesn’t indicate a gender at all, it is not misgendering to use it in this way.
- People often also use the singular ‘they’ when talking about hypothetical people.
I did this a whole bunch of times in the point above. I referred to Person 1 and Person 2 as ‘they’, because they could be men or women or non-binary people. In fact, you did this in your own question (“someone” became “they”), so you are at least implicitly already aware of this usage. This comes up in sentences like:
“If a student needs to go to the bathroom, they should ask for a hall pass.”
Unless you area at an all boys school, it would be weird to say “If a student needs to go to the bathroom, he should ask for a hall pass”, because the hypothetical student isn’t necessarily a ‘he’. ‘They’ is also a better option than ‘he or she’ here, because ‘he or she’ still assumes that the hypothetical student is either a boy or a girl, and they may not be either. ‘They’ is just the most inclusive option.
- The singular ‘they’ can be used to help obscure the identity of the person they are talking about, in situations where anonymity is important.
So if I were to say, “someone reported that they were harassed at our last meeting,” I may be deliberately avoiding identifying that person’s gender in order to make it harder for people to narrow it down and figure out who reported the harassment.
This can be important, because there is often backlash against people who report bad behaviour in groups.
- Finally, the singular ‘they’ still occasionally gets used by closeted queers playing ‘the pronoun game’.
Sometimes when someone in a same-gender relationship is afraid to ‘out’ themself as not straight. So, for instance, a lesbian who is about to refer to her partner but doesn’t want the person she’s talking to to know she’s a lesbian may use the pronoun ‘they’ instead of ‘she’. It is often possible to do this without the other person really noticing, thus avoiding potentially awkward conversations. Although she could also avoid this by simply saying ‘he’, this feels far more dishonest than the neutral ‘they’ (actually lying rather than simply avoiding the full truth), and it also misgenders the person’s partner to call her ‘he’, and many people do not find it acceptable to do that.
I think that about covers it! The singular ‘they’ has a bunch of different uses. (Readers: please also let me know if I missed any!)