English Grammar

someone vs them

Hello dear GG users,

Here are two sentances - received in my correction mail context - which have something in common, including my surprise everytime I meet this amazing shift from singular to plural form.

"I am bound to get in trouble if the teacher comes in and sees me smoking..... In this sentence, the speaker speculates that they will be punished if the teacher discovers them smoking."
Is the speaker smoking alone or with his band? Why not " The speaker speculates that he will be punished if the teacher discovers him smoking"?

What about this one?
"We say 'to play a joke on someone' to express the action of teasing or joking around with them."
If I play a joke on someone, I play it on him/her, I maybe don't take the risk of playing a joke on them all!

I am wondering about this rule which makes an idiom expressed in a singular form (someone) coming to a plural form (them) in a general sentance.

Am I clear? Does anyone understand my trouble? Thanks for your help.


  • I am not the best qualified to meet your concern, mate. I hope that sooner or later someone will do it.
    In the mean time, I'd tell you that I think English may use plural to tell generalities. Isn't it the case here?
  • Thank you for trying, Sandy, maybe the quotation of an idiom in its singular form must be extended to a plural when it is explained as a generality. It's probably a very natural way and doesn't sound strange to english speakers but creates a trouble in the mind of learners trying to point out a logic (or a rule) in all this!
  • What a sharp eye, Mademoiselle Lila-white, like an "eagless". I would never have noticed that.
    And what a cracky return once again, Sis. All for one and one for all! It's all the same to us, whether lass, lad or ape. We're plural.
    Yep, Mademoiselle Lila-white, you're right, it's a really tough matter the English grammar. No use poring over that to much.
    Ta mates
    Lord Ĉapablanca
  • Well, this confusing 'them', respectively 'they' is a not-so-rarely used solution for the following problem: I have a singular person, and I know what that person did, but I don't know 'his or her' gender - and I need a pronoun for this person as reference, without nailing me down on a gender.

    You see, I had the same problem in this sentence, and I solved it by using 'his or her'.

    Using 'his or her' is one solution for this problem. Another approach, with is older, but not that widespread, it the use of 'them', respectively 'they'.

    So, alternatively, I could say "I know what that person did, but I don't know THEIR gender."

    That's a legitimate way to solve the problem of a non-gender-specific reference. Indubitably, it sounds unfamiliar, even incorrect to foreign ears, but it's commonly accepted, even though it contravenes grammar rules at first sight. It sounds like singular and plural are being mixed up, but actually it doesn't.

    In former day, when the male gender was also accepted as gender-neutral pronoun, it was
    sufficient to say "but I don't know HIS gender', because it's implies that the person in question
    could be male as well as female. But since the 'male primacy' was abolished also in language,
    for very good reasons, the matter has become a little more complicated. And one way to
    resort to a simply, succinct pronoun is the use of 'them/they'.

    That's the convention, or rule if you like, behind the confusing sentence.
  • In order not to to give a bad example, a little correction: 'It sounds like singular and plural are being mixed up, but actually they aren't.
  • Yet how about things? Lila and white are colors. But lila and white is? not the same, isn't it?
    Ta mates
    Lord Capablance the wary greeting the King of the whacky!
  • Oh, sorry Whacky. I've just mixed up something!
    I mean -
    Lord Capablanca greets Whacky the King of the wary!
    But your example doesn't mix up anything. Even if it seems it were mixed up the number.
    Ta mates
  • Great, I like the idea of eventually being all mixed up in a plural gender-neutral including white flowers, lords and kings! And welcome to everybody. Thank you guys!

Please sign in to leave a comment.