1
: those ones : those people, animals, or things
They dance well.
What do they want to do?
They aren't as popular as they once were.
2
used to refer to people in a general way or to a group of people who are not specified
You know what they say.
People can do what they want.
They say the trial could go on for weeks.
He's as lazy as they come.
3
a
used with a singular indefinite pronoun antecedent
No one has to go if they don't want to.
Everyone knew where they stood …E. L. Doctorow
b
used with a singular antecedent to refer to an unknown or unspecified person
An employee with a grievance can file a complaint if they need to.
The person who answered the phone said they didn't know where she was.
c
used to refer to a single person whose gender is intentionally not revealed
A student was found with a knife and a BB gun in their backpack Monday, district spokeswoman Renee Murphy confirmed. The student, whose name has not been released, will be disciplined according to district policies, Murphy said. They also face charges from outside law enforcement, she said.Olivia Krauth
d
used to refer to a single person whose gender identity is nonbinary (see nonbinary sense c)
I knew certain things about … the person I was interviewing.… They had adopted their gender-neutral name a few years ago, when they began to consciously identify as nonbinary—that is, neither male nor female. They were in their late 20s, working as an event planner, applying to graduate school.Amy Harmon
Can they be used as an indefinite subject?: Usage Guide

They used as an indefinite subject (sense 2) is sometimes objected to on the grounds that it does not have an antecedent. Not every pronoun requires an antecedent, however. The indefinite they is used in all varieties of contexts and is standard.

Can they, their, them, and themselves be used as singular pronouns?: Usage Guide

They, their, them, themselves: English lacks a common-gender third person singular pronoun that can be used to refer to indefinite pronouns (such as everyone, anyone, someone). Writers and speakers have supplied this lack by using the plural pronouns.

and every one to rest themselves betake William Shakespeare
I would have everybody marry if they can do it properly Jane Austen
it is too hideous for anyone in their senses to buy W. H. Auden

The plural pronouns have also been put to use as pronouns of indefinite number to refer to singular nouns that stand for many persons.

'tis meet that some more audience than a mother, since nature makes them partial, should o'erhear the speech William Shakespeare
a person can't help their birth W. M. Thackeray
no man goes to battle to be killed.—But they do get killed G. B. Shaw

The use of they, their, them, and themselves as pronouns of indefinite gender and indefinite number is well established in speech and writing, even in literary and formal contexts. In recent years, these pronouns have also been adopted by individuals whose gender identity is nonbinary, as illustrated in sense 3d of they.

Word History

Etymology

Middle English, from Old Norse their, masculine plural demonstrative & personal pronoun; akin to Old English thæt that

First Known Use

13th century, in the meaning defined at sense 1

Time Traveler
The first known use of they was in the 13th century

Dictionary Entries Near they

Cite this Entry

“They.” Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/they. Accessed 25 Jun. 2024.

Kids Definition

they

pronoun
1
: those ones
they won the game
2
: some people
they say it will be a hard winter
3
a
used to refer to a single unknown or unspecified person
b
used to refer to a person whose gender is intentionally not revealed or whose gender identity is neither male nor female

More from Merriam-Webster on they

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