The perils of plural pronouns: “They sneezes”

January 17, 2022 • 2:45 pm

Reader j.j. sent me this link to a post at Language Log, which seems to be a place where language mavens hash out arcane topics.  I’ll put the item at issue as a screenshot (click on it to see the entry and then the remainder of this very short piece (indented) so you can look up the links.

“They sneezes?” Well, if someone uses the plural “they” because they’re polygendered or bi-gendered (there are of course several dozen genders that could use “they”), then why not “sneeze” rather than “sneezes”? Is it an error? Here’s the rest of the article:

I’m guessing that this was originally “said to someone after he sneezes”. And then an (appropriate) decision was made to change all generic third-person animate pronouns to they, implemented via some kind of pattern-action rule, run by a computer program or an over-worked low-level employee.

There are more than a few other examples Out There. Some of them seem to be attributable to imperfect translation from another language. Others seem to represent the same kind of pronoun-updating as the cited dictionary entry:

  • Have clients identify high risk behaviors and suggest modifying behaviors.
    • For example, a child comes to school with a cold. They sneezes and covers it with his hand. They high fives with a friend. They wipes his hands after with a handkerchief then goes to class. What did the child do that was risky? What should they have done instead?

The last bit after the dot is a direct quote from the source.

I still don’t understand why anybody thinks this is proper. If you feel plural, you use the plural verb. This must be a mistake, right? It has to come from mistaking someone’s plural gender with their status as a single individual.

What say you?

63 thoughts on “The perils of plural pronouns: “They sneezes”

  1. Absolutely unbelievable – I hope unwary speakers of English as a second language don’t go to the site for advice on grammar and usage!

  2. I don’t think that it is necessarily about gender in the sense of “those who use they/them pronouns”, but rather the singular they if the sex of the speaker is unknown or unimportant, a usage which goes back at least as far as Shakespeare. Probably “he” was globally searched and replaced but not the corresponding verb.

    1. The discussion below the line at the dictionary website makes it clear that it was a deliberate decision to keep the third person ending “sneezes”. Whoever it was wants to use “they” as a singular form (to avoid using gendered “he” or “she”) but refuses to accept that in that case it should take the verb form “sneeze” in the way that “you” does (regardless of whether “you” refers to one person or many).

    2. I found a Merriam Webster discussion of the use of they in the singular that says such usage is fairly old. It gives the example: I would not bristle if someone said something like, “Give each student one of these pills, if they sneeze.” On a related note, why do I find people translating “gesundheit” as “bless you.” My grandfather, a German Jew who was born and raised in Ukraine would say Gesundheit the first time you sneezed and after that would say “besser die krankeit,” which he said meant “better a broken head” (than a cold).

        1. Yes.
          Gesundheit = ge-sund-heit, the middle -sund- is cognate to “sound”, means healthy.
          Krankheit = krank-heit, krank is being unwell or ill, cognate to “crank”, and “crooked” i.e. bent

          I don’t know the idiom “besser die krankeit”, which means something like “illness is better”. However, it’s common that people make some other remark on repeated sneezes. The sneeze seems to prompt the “Gesundheit!” and the repeated sneeze then calls for someone, often the sneezer, to say something, perhaps “jetzt aber” (~now I‘m done).

        2. Yes. I assume the saying was some type if idiom. Since he spoke both German and Yiddish, I have no idea of the source.

      1. I’m absolutely fine with using “they” to refer to a single person and your example of “if they sneeze” in such instances. It’s the “they sneezes” cited by the dictionary website that is the problem. And yes, it’s odd that the cultural appropriation and German etymology isn’t acknowledged.

  3. I wrote about this on my Aunt Polly’s Rants blog & someone commented that plurals have been used for singulars in the English language since the Middle Ages & they quoted line from a ballad … misquoted, I should say, because the so-called “plural” usage wasn’t plural at all. I’m constantly amazed at the lengths the gender warriors will go to prove their stupidity.

  4. Why not alter it to “said to someone after that person sneezes”?

    If a person considers itself to be plural, then the plural form of the verb does seem appropriate, as in the legendary, “We are not amused,” not “We am not amused.”

    And, of course, “someone” would not apply.

    Though supposedly Elizabeth the 2nd sometimes uses the pronoun “one” but then so do We when We are being careless (here We are using the royal ‘We’ to refer to Ourselves, as can be appropriate for monarchs).

    Humans are insane.

    1. However if “that person” insists on the pronoun “they”, then shouldn’t it be “those persons?”

      1. Good point. I suppose one could write, said to “a person or persons after that person or those persons sneezes or sneeze”. Or we could just say “Cover your frikking mouth, there’s a pandemic going on!”

    2. The royal ‘We’ refers, as I understand it (particularly with regards British royalty) to refer to the monarch and god. It was understood that the monarch was god’s ‘elect’ and that royal decisions carried the weight of divine authority.
      “We are not amused” was (possible wrongly) attributed to Queen Victoria but I’m fairly sure she would have used the royal ‘We’ to refer to herself in tandem with the god of the Anglican church.

      1. I am reminded of Mark Twain’s’ response to the journalistic “we”: “Plurals should be used only by kings, pregnant women, and people with tapeworm.”

  5. The example is inconsistent with the pronouns as well as singular/ plural. “They” cover(s) their sneeze with “his” hand. It does read like a computer program did a find/replace leaving a ungrammatical mess behind. One can picture a female “they” reaching for the hand of a male sitting close by to cover her face while she sneezes, when a handkerchief would be more convenient and less likely to object.

  6. If “they” is to be used as singular, then surely the quoted example should read: “They sneezes and covers it with they’s hand. They high fives with a friend. They wipes they’s hands after with a handkerchief then goes to class.” As for the question “What did the child do that was risky?”, the answer is obvious: when they sneezed, they did not first proffer a land acknowledgement.

  7. The Woke should prey on more obscure languages, not on English with its global importance. They are bastardizing the lingua franca of our time.
    (They also probed messing with another “big” language – Spanish, but as far as I know, Spanish speakers aren’t thrilled by “Latinx”.)

  8. If they is an individual who wants to call attention to they’s wokeness with they’s jarringly unconventional usage, fine, let them. But if they is an individual, then “they” gets modified in the singular. In my private thoughts at least, unless I’m feeling particularly churlish.

    “They” might have commonly meant either plural and singular in Shakespeare’s day, but 500 years on, it’s an affectation.

  9. “What say you?”

    There must be something that can be wrong with using “you”… I can’t think of what…

  10. The issue of singular vs plural isn’t really helpful here. First, I don’t think that people who want to be referred to as ‘they’ identify as plural. They just want to be referred to as ‘they’ rather than ‘he’ or ‘she’, and the ‘they’ in question is the singular ‘they’. Second, singular pronouns do not always require ‘s’ endings. We have, for example, the pronouns ‘I’ and ‘you’ that don’t. I think that the usage of singular ‘they’ over the history suggests that this is another pronoun that does not require ‘s’ endings.

    1. WRONG. Many people who use “they” feel that they are of several genders at the same time. More wrong: the language in the post is simply incorrect, and I can’t believe that you’re trying to defend it.

      The singular they is not historically used with a plural verb.

    2. Makes sense to me. I can parse the sentence either way, but it’s easier if “they sneeze and cover it with their hand”. (And as Emily points out in #5, it gets really weird if “they sneezes and covers it with *his* hand.” Who is this poor male-gendered kid whose hand gets used to cover someone else’s sneeze?!)

      1. That worried me too, we should all spare a thought for the unfortunate non-adult human male person who gets a hand full of snot.

  11. Agreement is more of a structural feature than a semantic one. The pronoun ‘they’ takes “plural” agreement, just as the pronoun ‘you’ does, regardless of the number of people it refers to. If you’re talking to a single person, you still use the ‘plural’ form of the verb with ‘you’.

    This happens in other languages where the original function of the pronoun changes. In German, the plural pronoun ‘sie’ is used as a formal term of address ‘Sie’ and takes plural agreement, even when speaking to a single person (“Sprechen Sie deutsch?”). In Brazilian Portuguese, the noun phrase ‘a gente’ “the people” has become a pronoun for first person plural but it takes third person singular agreement on the verb (‘a gente vai’ “we go”, not ‘a gente vamos’).

  12. Back when I were a high school English teacher (28 years in the trenches), I tried many times to come up with a foolproof lesson plan to teach the proper use of the third person singular pronoun. It was just as successful as my plan to teach the proper use of the apostrophe in contractions.
    When I retired, I adopted the mantra, “change is good.”
    Now, no bad usage bothers us.
    Life is good.

  13. Language Log, which seems to be a place where language mavens hash out arcane topics.

    Mr. McWhorter is among the cunning linguists who regularly contribute to Language Log. Or at least was — his plate seems otherwise pretty full these days. I haven’t seen a post from him there for a while (although the site still lists him as such.)

  14. If the above is reproduced correctly, “he” was obviously replaced with “they” . . . but ‘they’ forgot to replace “his” . . .

    Yes, a tad confusing.

    As someone whose English is a second language, I can say it was difficult enough learning all the peculiarity of the language without having to deal with they replacing he with they, and they, then, forgetting to replace him with they.

    . . . gosh, I hope I wrote that correctly . . .

  15. The Woke insistence on plural — when singular is proper English — is a scheme to count both halves of GenZ persons getting a vote. They wanted to call it “diversity” but that is taken. I suggest dividersity.

    Woke has not been able to bloat the Supreme Court with this, but high hopes are flying for normalizing and legalizing 1/2 + 1/2 = 2 for GenZ at the polls.

    [hopefully I don’t need to proactively signal sarcasm with this. However, it is not purely humorous.]

  16. I wish there was an explanation of what this pronoun-at-the-end-of-the-name will do.

    Do pronounists do it because there was a great injustice done in the past? Because we all were taught by an evil conspiracy to stigmatize specific individuals, and to right that wrong, the (pronoun list) makes one step in the right direction to that side of hixtory?

  17. “Gesundheit” is just the German word for “Health” and is typically said by a German when they hear someone sneeze. Somehow it made its way into English cultures as an alternative to “Bless You!” … when them sneezes. 🙂

  18. I agree. Just because someone is not a he or a she (singular) does not make that person a they (plural). My solution is to use “it.” The word “it” does not imply a specific gender (that’s good, right?), nor does it risk being mistaken as a plural (also good).

    Example: Jordon missed the bus, so it took the train instead.

    In the example there is no he or she, as in “so he/she took the train.” Nor is there a plural, as in “so they took the train.” The problem (if any) with “it” is that the word implies *no* gender, which is not the same as implying a gender but not having a unique pronoun for the one you’re trying to imply (more than 60 have been named). That said, “it” is probably better than committing the sin of implying the *wrong* gender.

    There are often other ways out of this dilemma, and I try to find them whenever I can. For example, this sentence could easily become “Jordon missed the bus, so took the train.” Just leave the pronoun out entirely.

    It’s crazy that we’re forced to deal with such things, but I look at it as good mental exercise.

    1. The problem with this is that ‘it’ refers to inanimate referents – I would find it odd (and somewhat insulting) to refer to a person as an ‘it’. The pronoun ‘you’ already has no gender or number, so I don’t see why ‘they’ can’t go the same route.

      1. Yes, inanimate objects. Still, I like the “it.” Maybe it will shock them awake out of the woke.

        You don’t deserve to become more than an ‘it’ until you surrender to the metaphysically given reality that you are one person, either male or female sex, and whatever gender or arousal inclination you might have.

      2. I am not a native speaker, but could you not use ‘it’ referring to an animal, or a child? After all humans are also animals

        1. Yes, you could. In German the article for girl, das Mädchen, is neutral. It’s ok to use the neutral for animate objects, even people, as is the case in German. Just like many people have gotten used to the grammatically incorrect “they,” we can get used to using the grammatically correct “it.”

          1. That’s because German has three classes of nouns (“genders”) and pronouns agree with the noun class regardless of the sex of the referent. English doesn’t have grammatical gender.

        2. ‘It’ can be used for animals, but I suggest you try calling a child ‘it’ and see what the parents’ reaction is 😉

  19. A recent dead-trees WIRED article about Timothy Morton and so-called “hyperobjects” had:

    “Morton, a kind-faced, 53-year-old professor and author with uncannily penetrating blue eyes, has spent the past nine years teaching in the English department at Rice University in Houston, Texas. But they are known less for their contributions to Romantic scholarship—which are many and insightful—and …”

    Whoa. Wait a minute. *His eyes* are known for their contributions to Romantic scholarship? Because they’re “insightful” and “uncannily penetrating”?

    Okay. Go back and figure out what’s going on… Ah.

    For the record, I was only momentarily confused by that. The entire article left me even more confused, but it had nothing to do with pronouns.

  20. That’s not how people use it. When English speakers use “they” as a neutral gender third-person singular pronoun they don’t use the verb ending in s. This is an exception to the rule that verbs used with singular subjects must end in s. Irregularities like this are the norm in languages.

    Languages are a kind of optimsed mixture of top-down grammatical rules and bottom-up associations between words. The word “they” became associated with verbs without s because it was originally plural. When people started using it as a singular they continued to use the verbs without s with it.

      1. I Me Mine, I Me Mine, I Me Mine

        … hmmmm

        “I kept coming across the words I, me and mine in books about yoga and stuff … [about the difference between] the real you and the you that people mistake their identity to be … I, me and mine is all ego orientation. But it is something which is used all the time … “No one’s frightened of saying it, everyone’s playing it, coming on strong all the time. All through your life, I me mine.”[1]
        – George Harrison, 1997

        Source :

  21. I’m not at all convinced that ‘they’ was used as a singular pronoun historically; it seems to me far more likely that instead, ‘they’ was a convenient shorthand for ‘he or she’, ‘them’ for ‘him or her’ and ‘their’ for ‘his or her’.

  22. Singular antecedent followed by singular they = ambiguity if not confusion. We have a perfectly fine genderless third person personal pronoun, it. I don’t understand why we replace he or she with they instead of it. I must lack intelligence.

  23. What do I think?
    I think you’re probably a nonce and trying to cause a stir about trannies and the like takes a bit of society’s heat off you.
    Doesn’t surprise me.
    When you find someone making evolution their thing it’s often for nefarious purposes.

    “It’s perfectly natural to be attracted to a child for she has the greatest number of fertile years left so I’m just following my evolutionary design.’

    “What about those trannies, though? That’s some unnatural shit marking an evolutionary dead end.”

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