Archive for singular "they"

On when listening is better than talking: A call for contemplation and empathy

The following is a reply from Emily M. Bender, Natasha Warner and myself to Geoff Pullum’s recent posts (A letter saying they won, 12/4/2017; Courtesy and personal pronoun choice, 12/6/2017).

Respected senior linguist Geoffrey K. Pullum recently used the widely-read platform of Language Log to remark on the fact that his grammatical tolerance of singular they only goes so far (A letter saying they won, 12/4/2017). For Pullum, singular they cannot be used in reference to a personal name; example sentences such as Kimi said theyi were going to the store are ungrammatical for him. This fact is not in dispute, nor is the fact that this is a salient grammaticality judgment for Pullum. What is in dispute, however, is the appropriateness of a series of choices that Pullum has made in reporting this grammaticality judgment. Those choices have clearly hurt people. The following is an effort to explain the hurt that these choices have caused and to give Pullum — and everyone from his defenders to those who don’t see what all the fuss is about — another opportunity to respond with contemplation and empathy as opposed to defensiveness and continued disrespect.

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Courtesy and personal pronoun choice

My most recent post started out as a very minor note of approval about the continuing spread of singular they in journalism. Then the person who sent me the quote realized that Phillip Garcia, named in the cited newspaper story, had a preference for being referred to with the pronoun they, which nullified the point. So I modified the post to acknowledge that. I added a side remark that this caused a difficulty for me: although I find singular they fully grammatical and entirely natural with many types of antecedent, that's not true for singular personal name antecedents. I didn't reject the notion of following Garcia's preference; I said "I'll do my best, but it will be a real struggle."

Ironically, on re-reading the paragraph I saw it was more of a struggle than I thought: within minutes of learning about Garcia's preference I had unintentionally disrespected it by using "he". So I went back and corrected myself, overtly, the way people do in speech ("Phillip Garcia's profile reveals that he is — sorry, that they are…"). It was not snarky; it was an honest admission that I had found it hard to make an instant change to my syntactic habits. But it prompted an angry and disappointed reader signing in as Cass to comment* that my post was "immensely transphobic", and failing an immediate apology, "Language Log needs to take him off this blog."

This is Language Log, so let's be careful with our word choices. What has transphobia got to do with this? My young friend Magnus, born about 18 years ago as the daughter of a good friend of mine but now militantly trans-identified and male, expects to be called "he". I respect his wishes, of course. The use of they under consideration here has (normally) nothing to do with being trans. It's the requested usage of those who (whether trans or not) hate the binary sex distinction that Magnus has rebelled against in his own way; they wish to be referred to in a way that does not assign them to a sex category at all. I have young friends of that persuasion too, and I do my best to avoid the gendered third person singular pronouns when talking about them. I respect their choice.

Yet for simply touching in passing on a slight problem for the they-preference, I am suddenly the conservative hate figure of the week, targeted for dismissal and subjected to streams of hostility in an intemperate guest post by Kirby Conrod and a welter of comments underneath it. This hostility is, to put it mildly, unmotivated and misdirected.

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If you can't say something nice…

This is a guest post by Kirby Conrod.

[Note from Mark Liberman: Kirby Conrod seriously misinterprets (and/or misrepresents) the post they attack, and makes false assertions about its author's opinions and practices. Eric Bakovic should have recognized this, and it was wrong for him to have posted the piece rather than trying to remedy the misunderstandings privately. See "Courtesy and personal pronoun choice", 12/6/2017, and "Linguists and change", 12/15/2017, for an attempt to balance the scales.]

I'm sorry to see that the venerable Geoff Pullum is so desperately behind the times. I don't mean to be snarky, I genuinely am sad about it. It's not just a matter of being un-hip to the cool new language change in progress (singular "they" is making inroads syntactically in the types of antecedents speakers will use it with), but rather a methodological and disciplinary unhipness that really makes me feel bad.

First, let me address the rudeness: if a senior colleague of mine pulled this kind of self-conscious "he is–sorry, they are" on me in a professional setting, I'd file a complaint. If they did it in a casual setting, I'd have a nasty word for them. That's the kind of snide, intentional misgendering that I am not okay with. In writing, Pullum clearly has the ability to force a use of "they" even if he finds it distasteful. To do otherwise is profoundly disrespectful and borderline hostile, even as a supposedly self-effacing joke about his own grammar. It would've been easy to make the point of his difficulty in writing that sentence without using the wrong pronoun for anyone–and Pullum should seriously self-interrogate on why he thinks "he" would have been the alternative, anyways.

With that out of the way, I'll go into the linguistics first, then the methods.

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A letter saying they won

Evidence continues to pile up that singular they is naturally used in standard English whenever the antecedent is indefinite or quantifier-like (not a personal name, for example) and the sex of whoever it might turn out to identify is completely immaterial. My correspondent Daniel Sterman thought, and I thought too, that there was evidence of this being true now even in the writing of journalists. Sterman spotted this in an article by John Bowden, writing in The Hill, concerning Temple University PhD candidate Phillip Garcia, who has won the position of judge of election in Ward 21, Division 10, Philadelphia:

A Philadelphia resident was shocked to receive a letter Friday saying they won an election earlier in the month — apparently because no one else cast a vote.

"I literally yelled 'what the hell' when I opened the letter," Phillip Garcia told The Hill. "I've written my name in a few times during elections when no one else is listed for a position. It's just been a thing I do, with no expectation of, like, actually making an impact on the vote."

But we were wrong here (this post has been corrected in the past hour).

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Terror of singular 'they'

Joining a crowd of other recent fraudsters, Paul Roberts and Deborah Briton returned from their Spanish vacation and subsequently turned in a completely fake claim against the Thomas Cook package-vacation company, alleging that their time in Spain had been ruined by stomach complaints for which the hotel and the company should be held liable. They sought more than $25,000 in damages for the fictional malady. The judge sentenced them to jail. And in this report of the case my colleague Bob Ladd noticed that Sam Brown, the prosecuting attorney, showed himself to be so terrified of blundering into a singular they that he would not even risk using they with plural reference, preferring to utter a totally ungrammatical sentence:

*Sam Brown, prosecuting, said: "Both defendants knew that in issuing this claim he or she would be lying in order to support it."

Beware of struggling to obey prescriptive injunctions that don't come naturally to you; they can warp your ability to use your native language sensibly.

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Or the arbitrary cat, horse, or pig

I think Mark Liberman may have been concerned that perhaps my post "Pronominal reference to the arbitrary dog" hinted at being tempted toward the Recency Illusion. Not true, of course: even when surprised by some point of usage that I notice, I never conclude I must therefore be the first to have encountered it. On encountering the use of singular they for a dog, I didn't say "This has never happened before"; I said "we should expect this sort of use to increase in frequency." But anyway, just in case, Mark sent me some other cases of animals being referred to with singular they. They presumably indicate that where sex is irrelevant, the use of it should nonetheless be avoided, because it might offend the animal.
You see, the repetitive movement is not only serving as a way to promote milk flow, it also encourages maternal instinct and establishes a bond between a cat and their kittens.
When a cat died, their human family would go into a deep mourning and shave their eyebrows.

[By the way, notice that the foregoing example is ambiguous (cat's eyebrows vs. family members' eyebrows), and the ambiguity is caused solely by the refusal to use it for the arbitrary cat. People will risk being incomprehensible rather than change their mind about whether they could compromise on a pronoun gender choice. Or maybe the point is just that people do not avoid, and do not know to avoid, or even notice, dangers of ambiguity for the hearer or reader.]

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Pronominal reference to the arbitrary dog

Following Bean's guest post about being scorned by an 8-year-old child for not using singular they when it was appropriate, Language Log now presents the first evidence (to my knowledge) of a newspaper abandoning the usual use of it to refer to animals, and instead using singular they for an unknown arbitrary animal. This is from an article in the Metro (a free UK daily) on what to do if you find someone's dog close to death because it has been locked in a car on a hot day; I boldface the pronouns of interest:

Get the dog out of the car and move them to a shaded, or cooler area. Then, douse the dog with cool water and let them drink small amounts of it. Make sure the water is cool but not cold, to avoid shock.

If the dog is not displaying signs of heatstroke, let them rest while you establish how long they were in the car, and make a note of the vehicle's registration.

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Schooled on singular "they"

[This is a guest post by Bean]

My eight-year-old daughter in conversation with me last night:

Scene: I am giving her a sock, which she had brought home, only to find she already had both of her socks. So it logically must belong to some other girl (it's obviously a girl's sock).

Me: So, bring this lost sock back to school, and put it in the lost and found. Do you remember who was wearing it? Well, anyway if the other girl is looking for it she can find it. I'm assuming it was a girl so I'm going with "she".

Daughter [scornfully]: You mean "they".

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What a woman can't do with their body

Mark Meckes noticed a tweet about an interview with Emma Watson, who was being discussed in this Language Log post, and mentioned it in a comment thereto. It was completely off topic (and thus violated the Language Log comments policy), but I felt it was too interesting to be left languishing down there in a comment on a post about preposition doubling, so I'm repeating it here, where it can have its own post:

If you think @EmmaWatson is a hypocrite, maybe consider you shouldn't be telling a woman what they can and can't do with their own body.

Two occurrences of singular they (they and their), with the phrase a woman as antecedent!

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The Daily Mail deluding themselves

An amusing slip in the Daily Mail (online here), in an opinion piece by Dan Hodges on the decline of the Labour Party and its singularly unsuccessful leader Jeremy Corbyn. Hodges says that "anyone who thinks Labour's problems began on September 12, 2015, when Corbyn was elected, are deluding themselves."

It's unquestionably a grammatical mistake, of course. Not about pronoun choice, but about verb agreement.

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The craven feminine pronoun

The Times Literary Supplement diarist who hides behind the initials "J.C." makes this catty remark (issue of January 6, 2017, page 36) about Sidney E. Berger's The Dictionary of the Book: A Glossary of Book Collectors:

"Predictions were that the Internet would do away with dealers' catalogs and it is true that many a dealer has gone from issuing catalogs to listing her whole stock online." Bookselling and book collecting are among the world's stubbornly male pastimes — deplorable, no doubt, but less so than the use of the craven pronoun throughout The Dictionary of the Book (Rowman & Littlefield, $125).

J.C. (who, Jonathan Ginzburg informs me, is widely known to be an author, book dealer, and bibliophile named James Campbell) is objecting to the use of she as a gender-neutral pronoun. And you can just guess that a snooty writer in TLS who quibbles about other people's grammar choices would hate singular they. J.C. would probably regard it as "abominable", the way Simon Heffer does. Which can only mean that he advocates use of the traditional practice of he as the gender-neutral 3rd-person singular pronoun, the one that The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (CGEL) calls "purportedly sex-neutral he (see pp. 491–493).

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Choosing their pronouns for oneself

The following sentence can be found (as of 15 September 2016) in this Wikipedia article about the effects of rape on the victim:

Sometimes in an effort to shield oneself from believing such a thing could happen to their loved one, a supporter will make excuses for why the event occurred.

The clash in pronoun choice (the switch from one to their) makes this clearly anomalous. What exactly could have led to its being written? I think at least two unease-promoting factors are involved.

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Annals of singular 'they': another case with known sex

Karen Thomson, a Sanskritist and antiquarian bookseller living in Oxford, wrote to me to point out the following very significant example of singular they in a Financial Times interview with TV writer and director Jill Soloway:

People will recognise that just because somebody is masculine, it doesn't mean they have a penis. Just because somebody's feminine, it doesn't mean they have a vagina. That's going to be the evolution over the next five years.

You see what makes this not just a dramatic claim in terms of sexual politics but a linguistically very revealing example?

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