An explanation of the use of them and they in different contexts.
The use of pronouns, especially they, can be problematic for learners whose native language has different forms for they (a masculine form, a feminine form, a neutral form) or for languages who do not always require a subject pronoun for a verb. In the case of your Brazilian learners, whose first language will be Portuguese, there is a bit of both things going on. What follows is a full grammatical explanation of they and them (and all their contexts of use) followed by some teaching tips.
They and them are both pronouns, that is words which are used in place of nouns or noun groups. They and them are always used in place of plural nouns or noun groups in the third person. However the fundamental difference between the two in grammatical terms, is that they is a subject pronoun, and them is an object pronoun.
They is used to refer to the subject of a clause. In other words, it usually represents the ‘doers’ of the action described by the verb, and usually refers back to two or more people or things that were mentioned earlier:
The children were kind. They gave me a present.
Jan and Tom aren’t coming. They said they couldn’t make it.
Note that grammatical subjects aren’t always ‘doers’ of an action, but as a rule of thumb, the subject occurs at the beginning of a sentence, so this is the typical position of they:
Those cakes are delicious. They were made by my grandma.
They is sometimes used at the beginning of sentences to refer to people in general, or to refer to a group of people who are unknown or whose identity does not need to be stated:
They say that it will take several months to recover.
They’ve given Pablo another pay rise.
They is also sometimes used instead of the pronouns he or she to refer to an individual person whose sex is not known or mentioned:
One of the teachers was supposed to be coming, but they were ill.
Them is used to refer to the object of a clause. In other words, it usually represents the group of people or things that have ‘experienced’ the action described by the verb, and refers back to two or more people or things that were mentioned earlier:
I’ve bought some apples. I’ll put them on the table.
Them can be used as both a direct object pronoun as shown in the example above, or an indirect object pronoun. An indirect object refers to a third participant in the action described by the verb, often someone who receives something as a result of it. eg:
The kids were really excited. Jack gave them presents.
In the second sentence above, them is the indirect object and presents is the direct object. Like other indirect objects, them can be introduced by a preposition and placed after a direct object, e.g.:
Jack gave presents to them.
Them is also sometimes used instead of the object pronouns him or her to refer to an individual person whose sex is not known or mentioned:
If someone phones, tell them I’m not here.
3) Teaching tips
They/them = singular?
This is the most controversial use of they, as in If someone phones, tell them I’m not here, and one which was considered incorrect not so long ago (it’s still considered incorrect by many, especially in formal usage). This is an example of language change. Michael Swan writes in the last English Teaching Professional that ‘oral media have done much to rehabilitate the grammar of speech, and this is influencing written norms’. The use of them/them/their for a singular reference, he goes on to say, ‘has existed in informal speech for centuries (and) is becoming increasingly acceptable in more formal styles’. I wouldn’t burden my elementary students with this information, but it’s worth pointing out this use of they to intermediate or higher students.
4) Working on pronouns
One way of making students notice how different pronouns work in English would be to use a text in which several pronouns occur. Ask the students to underline the pronouns and discuss who or what each one refers to. Aside from raising awareness of pronoun use, it’s worth noting that this kind of exercise occurs in exams like the TOEFL (in the reading section), and therefore would be useful for students who are thinking about taking that exam or a similar one.
A good follow up to an exercise like that would be to give the students the same text but with some of the key pronouns (including a fair mix of he/she and they) removed. The students then try to put them back in.
You could also make your own worksheet to practise this. Choose two well-known people for your students, a man and a woman. Make sure they have something in common. Write some sentences that can only refer to the man, some that can only refer to the woman and some that can refer to both. Here are examples for two internationally famous Brazilians, the football player Ronaldinho and Gisele Bundchen.
He was born in Porto Alegre.
He plays with Barcelona Football Club.
She has been a model since she was a teenager.
Leonardo de Caprio is going out with her.
They are Brazilian.
They are very rich.
Ask the students to make three headings on the page (one for the man, one for the woman and one for both). Dictate the sentences above, but without saying he/she/him/she/her/they (say MMmm in its place). The students must write down the sentence with the correct pronoun in the correct column. So for example, you dictate:
Mmm has been a model since she was a teenager.
Students write the sentence She has been a model since she was a teenager in the Gisele Bundchen column. Ask students to check their answers together afterwards then go through them all as a group.
You could extend this activity by creating sentences which use the possessive adjectives his/her and their. These are notoriously problematic for Spanish and Portuguese learners!