Archive for singular "they"

Popes and prophets

Professor Heinz Giegerich has pointed out to me that in the wake of Pope Benedict's resignation of his position at least two BBC reporters have been referring to the next pope, whoever that might be, using singular they. I don't have specific word-for-word quotations, but (apparently) reporters have been using phrases like The next pope will find that they, or Anyone who expects the cardinals to elect them, and so on. Further evidence (to be added to evidence like the case of "They are a prophet") that singular they is not motivated solely or necessarily by ignorance or indecision about which gender is appropriate. The next pope, whoever they may be, will surely be a man, so the pronoun he would be appropriate and unobjectionable. But we have no idea which man, so singular they also feels entirely appropriate, contrary to what all the dumb usage pontificators say.

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Sweden's gender-neutral 3rd-person singular pronoun

Slate has an article lambasting Sweden's growing enthusiasm for total gender neutrality, and it raises the profile of a move, actually originating in the mid 1960s, to get hen established as a new pronoun meaning "he/she/it", eliminating the forced choice between han "he" and hon "she".

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Annals of singular their

From the first comment on Paul Krugman's blog post "Rat Race America", 9/19/2010, a rare first-person singular their:

I'm a tech entrepreneur who works their brains out and has had some success for myself and my investors. I live among hedge fund guys and VC's who take home $1m/year +.

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Singular they with personal name antecedent

Bob Ladd just got a message requesting an academic reference letter for someone who I will refer to as Gerald Black. I am concealing his name, but not his gender: he is male, and his real name couldn't leave you in any doubt about that. Further concealing the identity of the innocent, let me say that he is applying for a job at a university that I will refer to as the University of Penzance (there isn't one), in the Department of Criminology (that isn't the real field; all of this secrecy is beside the point, but you will see the point in a minute). The message begins:

Dr Gerald Black has applied for a position of Lecturer in the Department of Criminology at the University of Penzance. I would be grateful if you could provide a reference on their suitability for this post.

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David Pogue assails singular they

I'm a fan of David Pogue's tech reviews in the NYT, but his recent review of David Kirkpatrick's The Facebook Effect: The Inside Story of the Company That Is Connecting the World has me wondering whether I care much for his book reviews. For example, Pogue writes:

Kirkpatrick's writing is low-key but also workmanlike, and punctuated by jarring grammatical constructions ("Everybody carried their stuff themselves"; "every Thefacebook user had their own public bulletin board"). Ouch.

Two examples, and both involve singular they? Not much variety there, which indicates to me that there's probably not much variety in the constructions Pogue finds jarring in the book. So why even mention this? It's clear that Pogue has plenty of other justifiable reasons to dislike the book; this comment about grammar seems entirely unnecessary — and, as has been discussed here on Language Log so many times that it's not worth trying to compile a list of links (but see the Wikipedia page on the subject), singular they is just not that big of a deal.

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Sometimes Strunk and White are right

Here is Sandy Brindley, of Rape Crisis Scotland, quoted (in the Metro newspaper, 29 June 2010), talking about an advertisement her organization has published:

The advert has been designed to shake out ingrained prejudices many Scots have towards women who have been raped. Even though people believe they wouldn't judge a rape victim by what they wear, how drunk they were, or if they had been flirting, they often do.

Now, you're a Language Log reader; you've probably read about singular they and the prescriptivist prejudice against it. What do we want to say about the use of pronouns in the second sentence in this quotation?

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What he used to be and who they are now

Edward Wyatt ("Creators of ‘Lost’ Say the GPS Unit Is Plugged In", NYT 1/28/2010) quotes Damon Lindelof, an executive producer of Lost, exploring the use of they as an indefinite singular pronoun in free variation with he:

“There’s an inherent process when you’re ending something to sort of be thinking about the beginning,” Mr. Lindelof said. “One of the things that I think we are trying to do — all of us, the actors and the writers as well, in the sixth season — is to show the audience the before,” as well as the after.

Therefore episodes in the final season will continue to provide plenty of back story. That way viewers “have some sense of, ‘Oh, this is what he used to be and who they are now,’ ” Mr. Lindelof added. “So you really get a sense of how far that person’s come.”

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Singular they trudges on

Over on ADS-L, Larry Horn read his NYT carefully:

One additional highlight of the Virginia Heffernan guido/guidette piece in today's N. Y. Times Magazine section is a nice example of a plural pronoun with singular sex-known but indefinite antecedent, a phenomenon we've discussed in the past. Here's Sammi Sweetheart, describing the role she plays in the MTV Reality show, "Jersey Shore", as quoted by Heffernan

"A Guidette takes really good care of themselves, has pretty hair, cakes on makeup, has tan skin, wears the hottest heels."

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The President and the pronoun

A nice example of the way singular they works was overlooked (like health care, the economy, and everything else in the past week of "racial politics") during the brouhaha over President Obama's press conference remarks about the arrest in Cambridge, Massachusetts of Professor Henry Louis Gates. Obama said:

. . . the Cambridge police acted stupidly in arresting somebody when there was already proof that they were in their own home.

Why would he use they and their, when the antecedent, somebody, is syntactically singular, and we actually know that the somebody he is talking about in this case was Professor Henry Louis Gates, who is male? Why did he not say proof that he was in his own home?

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As they arrive

The good folks over at Gmail have been busy lately, rolling out several new features of note over the past several weeks. I've recently used their new automatic message translation feature to render a hilarious translation into English of a Spanish message that my father recently sent, and I thought about blogging about that first until I even more recently had the opportunity to test their new mail and contact importing feature. You might think that this is less language-related for this blog, but think again. (And feel free to add your funny message translations in the comments — you know you want to.)

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Candidates must be a student

I recently learned about a praiseworthy initiative, the Google Lime Scholarship for Students with Disabilities, whose eligibility requirements are expressed (in part) as follows:

Candidates must be:

  • A student entering their junior or senior year of undergraduate study […]
  • […]
  • A person with a disability (defined as someone who has, or considers themselves to have, a long-term, or recurring, issue […]) […]

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Knuckling under

Linguists sometimes have run-ins with copy editors over points of usage: the linguists use variants that they know to be standard, but the editors edit them out in obedience to some fancied "rule of grammar". Frustration ensues.

On to John McWhorter (in Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English (2008)) on "singular they", a topic we've returned to many times on Language Log. The short version is that in certain (not all) contexts, singular they is entirely standard and has been so for a very long time. Yet many people believe, passionately, that it is always wrong, because it offends "logic".

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Facebook phases out singular "they"

As Eric Bakovic described here last year, Facebook uses they as a singular pronoun when the gender of the user is not known, leading to news feed items like: "Pat Jones added Prince to their favorite music." That's never been the most elegant use of singular they, since readers of these items tend to know the gender of Pat Jones, even if s/he hasn't told Facebook about it. Even more awkwardly, Facebook also uses themself when a reflexive pronoun is needed, as in: "Pat Jones has tagged themself in a photo." Well, now after some cross-linguistic difficulties, Facebook is trying to stamp out singular they by being more demanding about gender specification.

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