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Tag: number

Can they be one person?

When we write about a person, it is sometimes not clear whether we refer to a man or a woman. Words such as somebody or person are neutral and can refer to either gender. That causes a problem for instance when we need to use a pronoun in the singular and still want to be gender-neutral.

One way is to write he or she and his or her or he/she and his/her

Somebody left his or her umbrella on the train.

The preferences a person has about what he/she does should be taken into account.

However, writing he or she, etc., looks a bit clumsy. Using they even if we talk about one person is nowadays generally accepted also by most style guides.

Somebody left their umbrella on the train.

Why would anybody want to end their life?

Each child played with their own toys.

Every teacher used their own method.

An umbrella hanging on a hedge.
Somebody left their umbrella here

In fact, they has been used in the singular (in writing) since the 14th century.

We can use the singular form themself if we refer to one person (and themselves is also correct).

Everybody must look after themself (or themselves).

It’s all about letting someone be themself. (Cambridge Dictionary)

To language purists the singular form themself may seem unnatural. However, it was used in English as early as the 1300s and there are examples from Emily Dickinson and F. Scott Fitzgerald well over a hundred years ago. Even if themself is still seen by a majority as nonstandard, the word is gaining popularity. And it is practical. After all, we write yourself and yourselves.

They is nowadays sometimes used to refer to a person whose gender is nonbinary, that is, who wants to be identified as neither male nor female. This use may still sound strange to many people.

Kim, our new coworker, wants to be referred to as they.

Sam drinks their coffee without sugar.

They was Merriam-Webster’s Word of the Year 2019.

Traditionallly, he used to refer to a person whose gender was unknown, but that use has come to be seen as sexist. Now some writers seem to want to counteract male dominance by using only the female forms she and her even when the reference may be to a neutral word such as person.

How can a person make sure that her views are taken into consideration?

To sum up, use they (and them, their) when the gender of the person referred to is unknown or irrelevant.

Avoid writing combined forms such as s/he or (s)he.

You can read about the use of gender-neutral titles here.

Amount and number

A number of people dressed in orange are wading out into a lake
A number of students were subjected to various freshman pranks by the lake

You need to understand the difference between amount and number.

There are things we can count and things we cannot count. With countable nouns we use number of and with uncountable nouns amount of. We can talk about the amount of time we work or about the number of hours we work.

A large number of cars had stopped behind the lorry.
The number of spectators was impressive.
She only drank a small amount of water.
I hadn’t expected that amount of work.

We can also use plural forms:
He drank vast amounts of beer.
Here you will find statistics related to numbers of taxpayers and registered traders.

With amount we say how much of something is present.
With number we talk about how many there are.

Notice how the verb form changes:

The number of students has increased every year since 2015.
The verb is in the singular because the main subject here is number. The word students could be replaced by another word such as cars, newspapers, attacks, etc.

A number of students have published a campus journal.
The verb is in the plural because the main subject is students. A number of can be replaced by, for example, some.

To sum up:
The number of … has the singular form of the verb.
A number of … has the plural form of the verb.

Both amount and number can also be used as verbs:
How much did it amount to?
Number the parts from 1–10 according to how you rate their functionality.

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