1. Used to refer to the ones previously mentioned or implied.
2. Usage Problem Used to refer to the one previously mentioned or implied, especially as a substitute for generic he: Every person has rights under the law, but they don't always know them.
a. Used to refer to people in general.
b. Used to refer to people in general as seen in a position of authority.
[Middle English, from Old Norse their, masculine pl. demonstrative and personal pron.; see to- in Indo-European roots.]
Usage Note: The use of an ostensibly plural pronoun such as they, them, themselves, or their with a singular antecedent dates back at least to 1300, and over the years such constructions have been used by many admired writers, including William Makepeace Thackeray ("A person can't help their birth"), George Bernard Shaw ("To do a person in means to kill them"), and Anne Morrow Lindbergh ("When you love someone you do not love them all the time"). The practice is so widespread both in print and in speech that it generally passes unnoticed. Forms of they are useful as gender-neutral substitutes for generic he and for coordinate forms like his/her or his or her (which can sound clumsy, especially when repeated frequently). Nevertheless, many people avoid using forms of they with a singular antecedent out of respect for traditional pronoun agreement. Most of the Usage Panel still upholds the practice of traditional pronoun agreement, but in decreasing numbers. In our 1996 survey, 80 percent rejected the use of they in the sentence A person at that level should not have to keep track of the hours they put in. In 2008, however, only 62 percent of the Panel still held this view, and by 2011, just 55 percent disapproved of the sentence Each student must have their pencil sharpened. Moreover, in 2008, a majority of the Panel accepted the use of they with antecedents such as anyone and everyone, pronouns that are grammatically singular but carry a plural meaning. Some 56 percent accepted the sentence If anyone calls, tell them I can't come to the phone, and 59 percent accepted Everyone returned to their seats. The trend, then, is clear. Writers who choose to use they with a singular antecedent should rest assured that they are in good company—even if a fair number of traditionalists still wince at the usage. For those who wish to adhere to the traditional rule, one good solution is to recast the sentence in the plural: People at that level should not have to keep track of the hours they put in. See Usage Notes at anyone, he1.
Word History: Incredible as it may seem, the English pronoun they is not a native English pronoun. They comes from Old Norse and is a classic example of the profound impact of that language on English: because pronouns are among the most basic elements of a language, it is rare for them to be replaced by borrowings from foreign sources. The Old Norse pronouns their, theira, theim worked their way south from the Danelaw, the region governed by the Old Norse–speaking invaders of England, and first appeared in English about 1200, gradually replacing the Old English words hīe, hīora, him. The nominative or subject case (modern English they) seems to have spread first. William Caxton, who brought the printing press to England, uses they, hir, hem in his earlier printed works (after 1475) and thei, their, theim in his later ones. This is clear evidence of the spread of these Norse forms southward, since Caxton did not speak northern English natively (he was born in Westminster). The native English plural him or hem may well survive, at least colloquially, in modern English 'em, as in "Give 'em back!"
The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fifth Edition copyright ©2011 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.
The American Heritage Dictionary Blog
Check out our blog, updated weekly, for new words and revised definitions, interesting images from the 5th edition, discussions of usage, and more.
American Heritage Dictionary Products
The American Heritage Dictionary, 5th Edition
The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms
Curious George's Dictionary
The American Heritage Student Dictionary
The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots
The American Heritage Student Grammar Dictionary
The American Heritage Desk Dictionary + Thesaurus
The American Heritage Science Dictionary
The American Heritage Medical Dictionary
The American Heritage Dictionary of Business Terms
Webster's New College Dictionary
Roget's II: The New Thesaurus
The American Heritage Children's Dictionary
The American Heritage Essential Student Thesaurus