Who are “they,” anyway?

2 months ago

“They” surface in a lot of conversations, seem to know everything, and substantiate all kinds of claims. I’d sure like to know who “they” are. When researching or conducting interviews to write a factual piece, this type of vague referencing is maddening.

So many interactions are peppered with these two small words, I’m wondering if there’s a group of people who possess an encyclopedic knowledge of the Universe that I’m not aware of. Perhaps “they” make up the mastermind that is Google?

I, of course, Googled it. “So they say” has been a phrase meaning “that’s what people are saying” for a long time. A Google Books search finds instances going back to Shakespeare at least. In Love’s Labour’s Lost, act 4, scene 4 (1598). The Oxford dictionary coins it “It is rumored.” I’m uncomfortable putting all my eggs in a basket of rumors.

Does it make something right if a lot of people repeat it?

I think we know from experience (or chat rooms) that’s not necessarily the case. It’s the verbal rather than physical manifestation for “if everyone was jumping off a cliff, would you follow?”

The best case scenario of using “they say” is an attempt to be helpful. At worst, it’s baseless gossip or dangerous inaccuracies.

Here’s some examples of what I’ve heard, and I’d bet money that you have heard similar things: They say“The house is haunted;” They say “All good things must come to an end;” They say “It’s bad luck to spill salt;” They say “Drinking celery juice is a cure-all for almost every disease known to man.” 

People say all kinds of things in a pinch that aren’t necessarily true, and often put them to use when trying to comfort others during times of crisis. These are the pithy quotes you might find on candy wrappers, bumper stickers, posters, and inspirational websites. Unfortunately, classics like They say “Time heals all wounds;” or “God only give you what you can handle;” even if used with the best of intentions – can make you feel wrong for having the feelings you do, or that you aren’t handling a situation quite right. 

Are any of these “sayings” verified as facts?

There is a surprising amount of research on the celery, but certainly an individual’s state of mind is their own, as well as their belief in the paranormal. Superstition is a category all its own that would take a lot more ink to properly discuss.

The most innocuous use of “They say” is when someone simply can’t recall the source of information they’ve heard somewhere. Understandable, as we have so much coming at us from every angle. And some may be totally legit.

When you are writing content, you can’t afford to be wrong.

You can’t leave things to chance when writing to inform or educate others. What if the writer before you did this, and what you are reading as fact is actually perpetuating erroneous information? Rather mind-blowing when you consider those ramifications.

For general conversation or lighthearted debate, I can live with “they say.” But if we’re getting serious about things like dealing with trauma, how to treat a poisonous snake bite, or matters simply too individual to wrap up with a bow, I’d prefer a direct quotation, please, so I can evaluate the identity and validity of the source.

Okay, I have to go. They say you should stretch you legs every hour, and I’m not going to make my 10,000 steps unless I leave right now.