A conversation I had with a telemarketer yesterday:
Him: "Is Bonnie there?"
Me: "Who's calling?"
Him: "This is Joe."
Me: "Joe from what company?"
Him: "Are they there?"
Me: "How can you call Bonnie a 'they'?"
Him: Confusion and a quick hanging up
It was cool that I could insert grammar into this fascinating conversation with Joe from whatever company. Another way I annoy telemarketers is ask if they need editing or proofreading help. I'm sure they do but they usually hang up before I can try to sell them my services.
So is it ever OK for me to be a "they"? "They" refers back to a plural subject, and I'm certainly not plural (though I do have children). Joe should have asked, "Is she there?" He knew he was looking for a female person, so he should have used "she," or he could have repeated my name.
There are some who allow a plural pronoun to refer back to a singular subject if the gender is unknown. In conversation I suppose it's fine to say something like "Anyone who hides their money under their bed is crazy." In formal writing, though, I recommend rewording the sentence so you avoid this problem: "People who hide their money under their bed are crazy."
I can't wait for the next telemarketer to call. "They" just might get an earful from me.
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