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Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Criminal Sentence 155: Am I a "They"?

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.


Nimia Gamo said...

Hi Bonnie. In the Philippines, it is perfectly alright to ask, "Sino po sila?" (Who are they?) over the phone because it is a formal, respectful way of saying "Who is this?".

Anonymous said...

Wikipedia has some interesting notes on the larger conversation around the singular 'they':