Just a Theory

By David E. Wheeler

Posts about Grammar

They Is Smart

Self-professed language nerd Amy Devitt says They is Smart:

Mixing singular and plural is pretty common in most people’s speech and even writing:

“The analysis of all the results from five experiments support that claim.”

And one common expression mixing singular and plural even sounds a lot like “They is” (and is often pronounced that way):

“There’s two kinds of people in this world.”
“There’s lots of reasons we shouldn’t go to that party.”

So maybe it won’t sound so weird after all:

“Sam volunteers at the homeless shelter. They’s someone I really admire.”

Some varieties of English already match plural “they” with a singular verb:

“they wasn’t satisfied unless I picked the cotton myself” (Kanye West line in New Slaves)
“They is treatin’ us good.” (Dave Chappelle Terrorists on the Plane routine)
“They wasn’t ready.” ​(Bri BGC17 commenting on Oxygen Bad Girls Club experience)

So why not singular “they” with a singular verb?

“They wasn’t going to the party alone.”

Using singular verbs when we’re using “they” to refer to one person might not be so weird after all.

We have the same issue in some ways with singular “you.” Standard English varieties tend to use a plural verb even with singular “you.” So “you are a fine person,” not “you is a fine person.”

Except lots of varieties and lots of speakers do use “you is.”

I’ve been thinking about this piece a lot since I read it a couple weeks ago. It wasn’t that long ago that I surrendered to using “they” as a gender-neutral singular pronoun; today I’m embarrassed that my grammarian elitism kept me from denying it for so long. No more of that! If anyone asks me to use singular verbs with singular “they”, I’ll happily do it — and correct my habitual mouth when it fails me. For they who wants to be referred to using singular verbs, I will use singular verbs.

Intellectually, I find this whole idea fascinating, mostly because it never occurred to me, feels unnatural in my stupid mouth, but seems so obvious given the examples. Some dialects have used this form since forever; the internal logic is perfect, and only cultural elitism and inertia have repressed it. They wasn’t satisfied indeed.

But logic is a flexible thing, given varying semantics. In an addendum to the piece, Amy writes:

Edited: Chatting with my linguist friends Anne, Peter, and Jim gave me a new way to talk about this topic. The form of the verb “are” (“They are”) might be plural, but in the context of a singular “they” the verb would have singular meaning, too. We do that with “you.” You are a good friend, Sue. The “are” is singular just as the “you” is. So if we do start using “they” as the sole singular pronoun, we wouldn’t have to change the form of the verb to make it singular. It would already be heard as singular.

We are creative and flexible in using language. What a wonderful thing!

So just as “they” can be used as a singular pronoun, plural conjugations become singular when used with singular “they” if we just say they are. Everybody’s right! So make a habit of using the most appropriate forms for your audience.

More about…