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Dec 2018 - Year 20 - Issue 6

ISSN 1755-9715

A Grammatical Misunderstanding Between Two Native Speakers of English

A few weeks ago, while I was in the UK, this rather attractive and very pregnant young lady cut my hair. I made a point of remembering her name. Unfortunately, I have since forgotten it. After a few minutes of haircutting, I asked the obvious question:
“So how long is there to go?”
She replied:
“Not long now. They’re due in four weeks.”

My brain took a moment to process this information:

  • They’re due in four weeks.
  • They are due in four weeks.
  • 'They' = third person plural subject pronoun.
  • Conclusion: We are dealing with more than one baby.

My response was: “Oh, are you having twins?”
She said: “No. Why do you ask that?"

So, after some further investigation, it turned out that this mother-to-be had decided not to know whether her baby was a boy or a girl. She could have said: "It's due in four weeks.” But the problem with 'it' is that it is a neuter pronoun. In other words, it is great for referring to things. But babies are tiny little people. And so to avoid referring to it as a thing, she chose to use singular ‘they’.

In my 46 years on this planet, this is the very first time I have ever become aware of a misunderstanding involving singular they. Anyway, if my calculations are correct, she will be having her baby any day now. She might have been called Corinne. Good luck, Corinne!

Please check the British Life, Language and Culture course at Pilgrims website.

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  • A Grammatical Misunderstanding Between Two Native Speakers of English
    Jamie Keddie, Spain