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1Used to refer to two or more people or things previously mentioned or easily identified:‘the two men could get life sentences if they are convicted’
- ‘Two teams battle for laughs and points as they make up scenes, games and songs on the spot.’
- ‘The hairs on the back of your neck prick up at the mere mention of the word, don't they?’
- ‘One reason why the new rules are so radical is that they sweep away all the previous ones.’
- ‘I mentioned one time that my washer was broken and they sent me the money to get a new one.’
- ‘They want to stay together and it seems such a shame that they may have to split up.’
- ‘Your joints will then be examined to see if they are swollen and to find out how easily they move.’
- ‘Shoppers can now get help if they have a problem with goods or services bought on holiday.’
- ‘The festival will be the first and only time they will have played together since they split up.’
- ‘The officers were said to be embarrassed when they realised a mistake had been made.’
- ‘After their return they groomed their horses and were due to turn them out into a paddock.’
- ‘It was the second time they had seen a man convicted of killing one of their relatives.’
- ‘Fans say they are still waiting to hear from the club, which is in talks with promoters.’
- ‘He would love it if they could get back together as a couple over the festive season.’
- ‘Once they have been emptied, the sacks are not sent to landfill sites or thrown away.’
- ‘Both events might be thought of as forms of eclipse, which is why they merit mention.’
- ‘It's made them so much more confident and they are much more sociable than they were.’
- ‘When an artist and a scientist got together they came up with a unique take on fashion.’
- ‘None of the staff had previously met me in person so I knew they would not recognise me.’
- ‘If they stay together for the next few years they are going to be worth gold dust.’
- ‘At one point they spent three hours crammed into a train of one carriage without water.’
- ‘The pieces are tied together less by logic or plot than they are by emotional links.’
- 1.1 People in general:‘the rest, as they say, is history’
- ‘Why do they say that you can't drink the water there?’
- ‘Was Cleopatra as beautiful as they say?’
- ‘Going Green isn't as easy as they say it is.’
- 1.2informal People in authority regarded collectively:‘they cut my water off’
- ‘They ought to make an example of the lady.’
- ‘They should lock him up and throw away the key.’
- ‘I only hope that they catch up with him, and put him behind bars where he truly belongs.’
- ‘They should fine him.’
2[singular] Used to refer to a person of unspecified gender:‘ask a friend if they could help’
- ‘I mentioned this to someone at work today and they looked at me as if I were a space alien.’
- ‘I've never had a friend get so mad with me that they turn off their phone and don't turn it back on for two days.’
The word they (with its counterparts them, their, and themselves) as a singular pronoun to refer to a person of unspecified gender has been used since at least the 16th century. In the late 20th century, as the traditional use of he to refer to a person of either gender came under scrutiny on the grounds of sexism, this use of they became more common. It is now generally accepted in contexts where it follows an indefinite pronoun such as anyone, no one, someone, or a person, as in anyone can join if they are a resident and each to their own. In other contexts, coming after singular nouns, the use of they is now common, though less widely accepted, especially in formal contexts. Sentences such as ask a friend if they could help are still criticized for being ungrammatical. Nevertheless, in view of the growing acceptance of they and its obvious practical advantages, they is used in this dictionary in many cases where he would have been used formerly. In a more recent development, they is now being used to refer to specific individuals (as in Alex is bringing their laptop). Like the gender-neutral honorific Mx, the singular they is preferred by some individuals who identify as neither male nor female. See also he and she
Middle English: from Old Norse their, nominative plural masculine of sá; related to them and their, also to that and the.
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