Against atheyism

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This week's NYT On Language column features Patricia T. O'Conner and Stuart Kellerman defending singular they ("All Purpose Pronoun", 7/26/2009). They lead, topically, with the value of shedding five characters from "he or she" to help stay under the limit of 140 characters per tweet. And they blame the retreat from singular they to sex-neutral he on Anne Fisher:

If any single person is responsible for this male-centric usage, it’s Anne Fisher, an 18th-century British schoolmistress and the first woman to write an English grammar book, according to the sociohistorical linguist Ingrid Tieken-Boon van Ostade. Fisher’s popular guide, “A New Grammar” (1745), ran to more than 30 editions, making it one of the most successful grammars of its time. More important, it’s believed to be the first to say that the pronoun he should apply to both sexes.

Minus the topical lede, much of this material is to be found in their excellent recent book, Origins of the Specious: Myths and Misconceptions of the English Language, which is organized as a collection of bite-sized essays with clever heads. Specifically, this week's column draws on "To He or Not to He" (pp. 137-138), and "Gender Bending" (pp. 141-145).

O'Connor and Kellerman urge the anti-they forces ("atheyists"?) to give up their misguided and hopeless fight:

Meanwhile, many great writers — Byron, Austen, Thackeray, Eliot, Dickens, Trollope and more — continued to use they and company as singulars, never mind the grammarians. In fact, so many people now use they in the old singular way that dictionaries and usage guides are taking a critical look at the prohibition against it. R. W. Burchfield, editor of The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage, has written that it’s only a matter of time before this practice becomes standard English: “The process now seems irreversible.” Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) already finds the singular they acceptable “even in literary and formal contexts,” but the Usage Panel of The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) isn’t there yet.

It’s a shame that grammarians ever took umbrage at the singular they. After all, they gave you a slide. It began life as a plural object pronoun and evolved into the whole enchilada: subject and object, singular and plural. But umbrage the grammarians took, and like it or not, the universal they isn’t universally accepted — yet. Its fate is now in the hands of the jury, the people who speak the language. Yes, even those who use only 140 characters a pop.

It's a bit disappointing that O'Conner and Kellerman fail to cite scripture.

Still, it would be nice if the Gray Lady's management decided to give this couple Safire's gig when he retires, assuming that Dave Barry continues to hold out. There's a decade's worth of columns in their book, and plenty of evidence that they could spin out more as targets of opportunity arise.

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56 Comments »

  1. K.B. said,

    July 25, 2009 @ 10:39 pm

    I've always preferred the singular "they", and when ever someone complains, I offer to change it to she-he-it-they, which of course one would have to shorten to the first letter of each word…

    Great blog, BTW, from someone who doesn't know the slightest thing about grammar – or much about language either :). I always learn something here, and am often amused as well!

  2. Yuval said,

    July 26, 2009 @ 12:47 am

    In many cases, more than just five characters are trimmed: the verb forms of "they" are usually lighter: "read" vs. "reads", etc.

  3. Timothy Martin said,

    July 26, 2009 @ 1:14 am

    Overall a good article – the disappointing part for me is that they make it sound like singular they isn't already standard, in the sense that everybody already uses it whose mind hasn't been tainted by prescriptivism. There's no "jury" on the matter needed – just a revision of textbooks that include ridiculous prescriptivist rules.

  4. D.O. said,

    July 26, 2009 @ 3:01 am

    And the book mentions Language Log too. And some bloggers by name. Whoa!

  5. Kellen Parker said,

    July 26, 2009 @ 3:42 am

    I'm a strong supporter of singular they. I tend to believe, twitter aside, that it's just a more appropriate form when gender is unknown. the various forms of "he/she" all strike me as more than a little absurd.

    I'm not certain too many people think it is all that standard. More than once I've been in a situation where I've used it and been swiftly corrected by a friend. When teaching I've taught it as fully acceptable for use in spoken English, only have my students told to disregard this by other teachers in the department. That may just be the prescriptivist kool-aid speaking, but it's happened often enough to make me think it being standard is still a little ways away.

  6. Vincent said,

    July 26, 2009 @ 4:15 am

    From aesthetic judgement, rather than any prescription, I shall continue to use "he" to apply to both sexes, and shudder at ignorant uses of "they" – e.g. when speaking of someone unnamed but whose sex is already known to the listener – a misguided usage similar to using "partner" in reference to one's husband or wife when the listener is already aware that one is married.

    My principle is not to obey any verbal prescription; but to follow the usages I learned from well-educated adults in distant childhood; on the grounds that there is no valid reason to change them, and that language is a true democracy.

  7. Dierk said,

    July 26, 2009 @ 4:52 am

    Vincent, you do not follow verbal prescriptions but what teachers told you – isn't the latter a contradiction of the former?

  8. Reinhold said,

    July 26, 2009 @ 6:17 am

    The Times should give Bryan Garner Safire's column . . .

  9. Vincent said,

    July 26, 2009 @ 7:29 am

    Dierk, no contradiction. I refer not to prescription but example, which is the natural the way every child learns its native language.

  10. Ellen said,

    July 26, 2009 @ 8:49 am

    Vincent. Personally, I find the use of "he" to refer to a female (including unknown gender situations) to be aestheticly ugly. But, if you are willing to offend females who have different aesthetic views than you, well, that's your choice.

  11. alexander said,

    July 26, 2009 @ 10:17 am

    I'm surprised you didn't include a cartoon to illustrate this since it was the subject of the crossover when xkcd author Randal Munroe made a comic in the style of Dinosaur Comics. Link.

  12. stripey_cat said,

    July 26, 2009 @ 10:26 am

    I'm faintly surprised that no-one has brought up the issue of binary gender inherent in he/she – not every human being clearly identifies with one or the other. Also, I'm not too keen on the implicit assumption that gender is important in every grammatical context. (For the record, despite a very feminist upbringing, I'm not too bothered by "he" as gender-neutral, just as man for the anthropos sense leaves me unmoved; although I'd prefer a separate animate-but-not-gendered pronoun and a distinction between man-aner and man-anthropos, I accept that one word can have two meanings!)

  13. Bridget said,

    July 26, 2009 @ 10:31 am

    Marvelous post!
    I'm a big fan of the singular "they" and have found at least one situation where it seems to be the only alternative that doesn't require excessive words or explanation.
    As a pregnant woman at the point where I don't know if my baby is a boy or girl, I've found that "they" works really well. I can't bring myself to refer to the baby as "it" and "he or she" becomes excessively wordy.

  14. J. W. Brewer said,

    July 26, 2009 @ 11:38 am

    I am again struck by what seems the elephant-in-the-room or non-barking dog in this context, namely the overwhelming resistance in English to using "it" to refer to a post-infancy human being of unknown or unspecified sex. (Bridget's subjective discomfort with "it" at the in utero stage is I'm sure not unique, but non-standard. She should expect to put up with it from strangers until the kid is 2 or 3 years old, however.) The complete unacceptability of that simple alternative is what presumably drives all of these workarounds and attempted innovations, but somehow the unacceptability of the "it" alternative is treated as a priori obvious rather than explained, explored, or even challenged as reflecting unsavory or outmoded political attitudes toward non-humans.

    Note that the human/non-human distinction seems stronger here than the animate/inanimate distinction. It is acceptable (albeit not necessarily required) to use "it" to refer to a specified individual non-human whose sex is both known and salient to the topic of the sentence. E.g. (from an Australian newspaper story): "A farmer has been banned from Brisbane's Royal Show for doping a cow to make its udder bigger."

    I'm not necessarily campaigning for this resistance to be overcome and suppressed, but is it peculiar that it's generally not even discussed as potentially up for grabs, even among those who (in other contexts related to "generic he" or other allegedly "sexist" usages) seem to believe that it's a-ok for usage to be compelled to change for political or "logical" reasons?

  15. Brian Barker said,

    July 26, 2009 @ 12:27 pm

    In Esperanto, which Arika deals with in her book, the English word "they" has the more exact definitions of either "oni" or "ili".

    See http://www.apertium.org/ or http://www.lernu.net

  16. Charles Gaulke said,

    July 26, 2009 @ 12:57 pm

    "It" is generally avoided because people often analyze it as specifically neuter rather than gender neutral. We're pretty comfortable using it with things we generally think about as unsexed, but we rarely think of people that way because we consider gender part of our identity.

    I never realized singular they was controversial until I was in my teens, and I briefly made an attempt to stop using it before deciding it was silly, particularly since, learning by example, I saw it used by so many writers I admired. Like others here, I'm a little surprised to learn that dictionaries are considering it may be becoming standard usage rather than acknowledging it always has been.

    To Vincent: If language is a true democracy, how can you label those usages misguided or ignorant? Ignorant of the particular, evidently very narrow, examples of your own childhood? Misguided in the writer's desire to accurately convey what they mean, rather than conform to your aesthetic preferences? Surely not, but if not, then what could you mean?

  17. William W said,

    July 26, 2009 @ 1:12 pm

    There are at least two different ways that "they" is used in the singular. The first is to refer to some indefinite singular person. "Each student should put their book on their desk." The motivation here is to use the one common human-referent-pronoun that is gender-neutral: they. "One" in most varieties of American English seems far too stilted. It's an imperfect solution since "they" is, in fact, plural, but it can be singular by fiat. In this, the situation is no more complex than using "he", which is made gender neutral only by fiat.

    Another use of singular "they" is to refer to a definite person. "I'm seeing a friend tonight. They'll be waiting for me at 7." The motivation behind this, I think, it to avoid stating the gender. I've known several heterosexual men who use this when they want to avoid clarifying whether the "they" in question (almost always a woman in my experience) is a friend, girl friend, date, FWB, or something else.

    Do others have any thoughts on this second type of use of singular "they"?

  18. William W said,

    July 26, 2009 @ 1:22 pm

    Vincent, I think you've confounded several things here. The focus of this Language Log article is not using "they" to refer to "someone unnamed but whose sex is already known to the listener" as you put it but instead to use it to refer to an indefinite person whose gender isn't known. Grammar prescriptivists tend to argue for using "he" in such situations: "Each person should bring his own lunch."

    I wonder if you really use "he" to refer to people whose gender is known but who remain unnamed. Would you say, "I was talking to his wife and he said…" in which "he" would refer to the known but unnamed wife? Or, if you were talking about a woman whose name you didn't know, would you say, "I saw this woman on the bus today and he was reading a book about…", where "he" refers to the unnamed woman?

  19. Mark F said,

    July 26, 2009 @ 1:46 pm

    One problem with these discussions of whether some construction is or is not standard is that, in fact, it's often really a question of expected frequencies. It's good to know that Austen used the construction a lot, and that it shows up in the KJV, but but what I may want to know is whether it'll bother the reviewers of my grant proposal, and that depends on how often they're used to seeing it in grant proposals. I just saw it in a conference paper I was reading, and it jumped out at me — I really don't think it's established itself as commonplace in that kind of writing.

    I'd be interested in knowing the ratio of generic he to singular they in the KJV. If it's pretty high, as I suspect it is, then I'd say that weakens the KJV example as a defense of the construction.

    The more I think about this, the more I understand how there is a continuum between usage and grammar. The evidence shows that Singular They is clearly grammatical, but not that it's the preferred construction in formal writing. I would like to see it become the preferred form, but there is no guarantee that will happen. It could conceivably go the other direction, and vanish entirely even from informal speech.I don't see that happening, but either direction of change is just a matter of changing frequencies of usage patterns.

  20. Mark F said,

    July 26, 2009 @ 1:54 pm

    I just realized I made basically the same point earlier. I was told at the time that the KJV used singular they several times. Oh, well.

    [(myl) I believe that the cited two posts give a fairly complete list of KJV instances of singular they. As for the KJV frequency of generic he, I'm not sure that there are any clear-cut examples at all. We'd be looking for cases like Deuteronomy 17:5

    Then shalt thou bring forth that man or that woman, which have committed that wicked thing, unto thy gates, even that man or that woman, and shalt stone them with stones, till they die.

    where it's clear that an individual of unknown sex is the referent, and where a form of he is the anaphor.

    There are plenty of cases like Esdras 4:11

    And these keep watch round about him, neither may any one depart, and do his own business, neither disobey they him in any thing.

    but it's not clear to me that these are really sex-neutral as opposed to indefinite masculine. ]

  21. Larry Sheldon said,

    July 26, 2009 @ 2:03 pm

    On a related topic (not yet addressed, to my knowledge):

    Will the students of tomorrow be able to write essays when there a general penalty at 140 characters? (They have already forgotten who to write in the face of the dreaded column-inch and makeup.)

    Will graders be able to stay with a topic past the 140 character attention span?

    [(myl) I'd be surprised if in ten years the 140-character limit survives in any form other than as a trivia question. ]

  22. J. W. Brewer said,

    July 26, 2009 @ 2:25 pm

    Opened the KJV to a random page toward the beginning, and found a clearcut "generic he" on the following page: "When either man or woman shall separate themselves to vow a vow of a Nazarite, to separate themselves unto the LORD: He shall separate himself from wine and strong drink" etc etc etc. Numbers 6:2b et seq. Here's another example found with another minute's quick random scanning (scanning in a hard copy by eye, not googling for some particular concatenation of words): "He that sacrificeth unto any god, save unto the LORD only, he shall be utterly destroyed." Ex. 22:20 (subject to any information based on extratextual sources that this passage was deemed inapplicable to females). Maybe I got lucky and opened at just the right pages (and I was intentionally looking in the Pentateuch because of the high incidence of legislative-type passages), or maybe there are a lot more where they came from.

    [(myl) The Numbers example is by no means unequivocally in favor of generic he ("...either man or woman shall separate themselves..."). And in the Exodus passage, were women allowed to make sacrifices of the kind under discussion? But this should be referred to some real biblical scholars.]

    Is the claim in O'Connor and Kellerman's book that Anne Fisher simply invented "generic he" out of whole cloth in the 1700's, or simply that she may have been the first one to specifically commend it in a usage-advise book? The KJV translators may have had to learn their English prose style without the benefit of reading books giving them advice on the subject, of course.

    [(myl) Their claim, specifically, is that Fisher wrote "the first [English grammar] to say that the pronoun he should apply to both sexes". In this they follow "the sociohistorical linguist Ingrid Tieken-Boon van Ostade" (say that five times fast, if you can).]

  23. J. W. Brewer said,

    July 26, 2009 @ 2:54 pm

    Just to clarify a potential ambiguity, by "deemed inapplicable" in reference Ex. 22:20 I mean so deemed by 17th century Anglophones who thought they had an informed view of Mosaic-era legislation (and/or were supposing they understood what the text meant when they heard it quoted in a sermon). The issue here is the use of generic he in KJV-style or -era English, not the meaning of the underlying Hebrew (either originally or as interpreted in subsequent rabbinical tradition), which I am not competent to address even superficially. (The LXX at least in its http://www.myriobiblios.gr version has a construction that *may* be roughly analogous to an English "generic he," but my Greek is so rusty no one should rely very much on that impression and I haven't bothered to look at the Vulg.)

  24. Ellen said,

    July 26, 2009 @ 2:56 pm

    I'm curious about singular they for a specified person whose gender is not known. Which strikes me as non-standard. Is this a new usage, or simply more common? I've no doubt that the interent had made the situation of referring to someone without knowing their gender more common. Anyone have any pre-Internet examples?

    [(myl) How specified does the person have to be? A few examples where the antecedent is someone, from LION:

    ...the symbolism ... is the sort they used to have in the Academy before someone put their foot down... (W.H. Auden, Letters from Iceland)
    Sure way to sour someone: turn their light into a thing. (Andrei Codrescu, Comrade Past & Mister Present)
    Someone else now sets their briefcase next to that door and unlocks it (Mark Cox, A Stone)
    ... she was aware now ... how surprised people would be were they to turn the corner of a building and find someone with their forehead, nose and palms touching the ground. (Leila Abouleila, The Translator)

    It's easy to find plenty more like that. And we've cited a number in earlier posts, for instance here. ]

  25. J. W. Brewer said,

    July 26, 2009 @ 3:28 pm

    The point of the Numbers example is that he and they seem to be coexisting in some degree of free variation. If you search the string "he shall surely be put to death" (not to be too negative-sounding about the Scriptures . . .) you get 6 hits in the KJV, of which 2 seem in context to require or strongly suggest a male antecedent and the other 4 of which seem potentially generic. Obviously if you're talking about an unspecified person engaged in a sort of activity which would be predominantly but not 100% performed by males (like being a lawyer or physician in the U.S. 50 years ago, or being a professional race car driver or serial killer today) the line between "generic he" and "indefinite masculine" may be debatable.

  26. Ellen said,

    July 26, 2009 @ 4:34 pm

    Well, someone/they sounds standard to me.

    What strikes me as non-standard is something like, "If Spacer359 has a problem with that, let them argue with me about it." To me, that sounds wrong. I'd use "he or she".

    It's that sort of usage I'm wondering about the history of.

  27. Mark F said,

    July 26, 2009 @ 5:54 pm

    I'd say one of the more famous uses of "generic he" in the KJV is "He that hath ears to hear, let him hear," which the NRSV renders as "Let anyone with ears listen." The editors of the NRSV made it a point to use inclusive language when the original text did not specify a gender. You can find other examples by searching on "he who".

    In Joseph M. Williams' essay "The phenomenology of error", which I found out about here, he talks about a category of constructions that distracts him no matter whether the prescribed version or its alternate is used. In formal writing, "singular they" is like that for me. No matter what the author does, I'm liable to notice it and be bothered a little for one reason or another. (Or it may just blend into the flow. It all depends.)

  28. Karen said,

    July 26, 2009 @ 6:22 pm

    Anecdotes are just that, but I don't use "they" to "conceal" gender. I say "I was talking to someone at work and they said …" because "someone" is indefinite and so is "they". I also say "Each person should bring their lunch" and I would argue the weird thing is to expect "they" in one clause and "he" in another – surely you wouldn't say "When he heard the fire alarm, everyone ran downstairs, leaving his coat(s?) and laptop(s) behind".

  29. Ellen said,

    July 26, 2009 @ 6:40 pm

    I think "they" referring back to "everyone" isn't an example of singular they. "We" could also be used: "…everyone ran downstairs, leaving our coats and laptops behind".

  30. Jair said,

    July 26, 2009 @ 7:18 pm

    I was always a fan of using "he" as a gender-neutral pronoun, considering alternatives like "he or she" or the singular they to be unnecessarily politically correct. That is, until I read this article by Douglas Hofstadter. Really puts a different perspective on the issue…

  31. Nick Lamb said,

    July 26, 2009 @ 7:37 pm

    Note that the 140 characters is not a technical limitation of any kind. It's an arbitrary rule enforced only to emphasise brevity. Anyone worried that it will somehow cause a "decline" in the standard of writing ought to question why they haven't previously expressed proportional concern about the brief poetic forms such as (since we're talking about English) limericks. Somehow despite more than 100 years of exposure to this form ordinary people can put their thoughts on paper without using an AABBA structure or being obscene. And Mark's quite right – if Twitter lasts _10_ years in its current form it'll be doing better than anyone in the industry expects.

    [(myl) While it's not a restriction generically inherent in the concept of cellphone text messaging, it *is* deeply embedded in the GSM SMS standards. As Wikipedia explains,

    Transmission of short messages between the SMSC and the handset is done using the Mobile Application Part (MAP) of the SS7 protocol. Messages are sent with the MAP mo- and mt-ForwardSM operations, whose payload length is limited by the constraints of the signaling protocol to precisely 140 octets (140 octets = 140 * 8 bits = 1120 bits). Short messages can be encoded using a variety of alphabets: the default GSM 7-bit alphabet (see GSM 03.38 for details), the 8-bit data alphabet, and the 16-bit UTF-16 alphabet.[26] Depending on which alphabet the subscriber has configured in the handset, this leads to the maximum individual Short Message sizes of 160 7-bit characters, 140 8-bit characters, or 70 16-bit characters (including spaces).

    While stupid standards can hang around longer than one might think, I don't think that this one has the type of advantages that have stuck us with qwerty and the English spelling system, or the Chinese and Japanese with Hanzi/Kanji.]

  32. D.O. said,

    July 26, 2009 @ 10:31 pm

    I just red an account of H. Clinton's interview on "Meet the press". She is routinely using singular they for unanimated objects (countries), which clearly can be called it. Quotations (from politico.com):

    It’s not only that North Korea has, against the international norms … proceeded with this effort, but they also are a proliferator

    Every country faces challenges. We have our challenges. Russia has their challenges

    Of course it is possible that she mentally substitutes "leadership of North Korea" for North Korea and "people/leadership of Russia" for Russia and then uses they as for the collective noun. But still

  33. Lukas said,

    July 26, 2009 @ 10:33 pm

    Well, the KJV is a translation. Looking at the Massoretic Text, in Deuteronomy 17:5, we have ûsəqaltām bāʔăḇānîm wāmēṯû "and you shall stone them with stones so that they die", with Hebrew plural pronouns corresponding to "them/they".

    So the generic they/generic he might be a reflection of what the KJV translators found in the texts they translated… in which case it could not tell us much about contemporary usage patterns. And is "a man or a woman" really all that singular?

    [(myl) The above-cited posts compare most if not all of the quotations to the originals, for what it's worth. The correspondence is mixed, as I recall.

    As for the number of "a man or a woman", the expression would take singular verb agreement in general, though in the quoted passage there's "which have [not has] committed that wicked thing".]

  34. Joshua said,

    July 26, 2009 @ 11:36 pm

    William W: The example of "Each student should put their book on their desk" as referring to "some indefinite singular person" does not seem to fit, because the reference to "each student" seems to presume that there is more than one student involved. "Each …" is grammatically singular but it usually refers to a group rather than a single example.

  35. Sili said,

    July 27, 2009 @ 3:02 am

    Presumably it's an editing error, but I just noticed an extreme case of singular they on BBC News:

    Later, in the tent-camp a short distance outside the minefield, the women eat lunch before relaxing for a break in the shade.

    One mother plays with their daughter, who is looked after in the camp while the women are at work.

  36. mollymooly said,

    July 27, 2009 @ 6:07 am

    @D.O.

    She is routinely using singular they for unanimated objects

    As you later imply, using "they" rather than "it" for collective nouns is a different issue from using "they" rather than "he" for epicene nouns. The former (notional agreement) is a plural they.

    @William W

    "One" in most varieties of American English seems far too stilted.

    "One" will only work in a subset of generic sentences where "he" is rarely usable in any case. "He that hath ears to hear, let him hear" cannot become "One that hath ears to hear, let one hear"; let alone "Each student should put one's book on one's desk." These are not merely stilted in American English: they are ungrammatical, at least in the intended sense, in any English.

  37. Andrew said,

    July 27, 2009 @ 11:19 am

    Joshua: I think that 'each' is normally counted as singular because, although it relates to a group, it requires us to think of each member of that group as an individual. Contrast 'Each student should put their book on their desk' with 'The students should put their book on their desk', which could relate to a book and a desk which students collectively own.

    Regarding the translation of scripture; there are passages – especially in the Psalms – beginning, say, 'Blessed is he…' which can cause problems, because they may be read as generalisations – in which case 'Blessed are they' can be substituted without loss of sense – but may also be read as relating to a specific person, the Messiah.

  38. Anna Phor said,

    July 27, 2009 @ 12:45 pm

    @Vincent: You are of course at liberty to use whichever form you choose, but you should know that to my ear at least, use of a generic "he" to refer to either men or women is extremely jarring and makes me suspect misogyny.

    @Bridget: My fetus is an "it" at this stage, and has been since very early in the pregnancy. It's certainly [+animate], but when we first started talking about it, I suspect [-human]. It may gain the feature [+human] as the pregnancy progresses (and hence become a "they")–but of course now I am aware of the question and so monitoring it. So any data I generate is suspect.

  39. Ken Brown said,

    July 27, 2009 @ 1:03 pm

    stripey_cat said: "I'm faintly surprised that no-one has brought up the issue of binary gender inherent in he/she – not every human being clearly identifies with one or the other."

    I'm not sure its that relevant really. Most people who speak languages with a rich gramatical gender system (unlike English) seem quite capable of separating gramatical gender from the actual sex of the person or object they are talking about. Cue anecdotes about German girls or French tables.

    Andrew said: "there are passages – especially in the Psalms – beginning, say, 'Blessed is he…' which can cause problems, because they may be read as generalisations – in which case 'Blessed are they' can be substituted without loss of sense – but may also be read as relating to a specific person, the Messiah."

    I genuinely don't know whether "Blessed is he who comes in the name of the LORD", as used in Christian liturgy, originally referred to one person, or was generic.

    Sili said: "Presumably it's an editing error, but I just noticed an extreme case of singular they on BBC News: [...] One mother plays with their daughter…"

    I'm not so sure that that is an error. It might be normal English for the BBC writer. I think I could say something like that (its impossible to know of course because just thinking about it might bias my recollection, just as I can never be sure what my own natural accent really is…) A few months ago I was talking to a neighbour in the local pub and noticed that he used singular "they" to talk about one of his brother's ex-girlfriends. Not only a woman, but one who had been named previously. Its not the most common use but its not unknown.

    And plenty of natural human languages have no gramatical gender at all – or have noun classes that don't map onto sex. But that doesn't mean that people who speak them are any less sexist

  40. Haamu said,

    July 27, 2009 @ 2:58 pm

    It’s a shame that grammarians ever took umbrage at the singular they. After all, they gave you a slide. It began life as a plural object pronoun and evolved into the whole enchilada: subject and object, singular and plural.

    As we lost the ability to distinguish second-person number, the language got marginally less expressive — hence the appearance of forms like y'all and you guys to deal with this difficulty, right?

    I suppose the ultimate certification of singular they could be when we start seeing the appearance of the equivalent of th'all and they guys.

    [(myl) "Start"? {+"they all"} ⇒ 102,000,000.]

  41. Haamu said,

    July 27, 2009 @ 3:34 pm

    @myl:

    Well, they all isn't the same as the hypothetical th'all. Are you suggesting the "all" in a significant number of those 102,000,000 is there merely to mark the preceding they as a plural, rather than mean "all of them"?

    I'm not saying the expression doesn't exist — merely that I'm not familiar with it.

  42. Ellen K. said,

    July 27, 2009 @ 4:09 pm

    Third person pronouns, unlike 2nd person pronouns, almost always have an antecedent, so there's no need for distinguishing number or gender, other than in distinguishing between antecedent, and, even then, repeating the nouns is an option, as one would have to in a story about Bob and Bill. And other languages (so I've read) have other options for distinguishing between antecedents.

  43. D.O. said,

    July 27, 2009 @ 6:46 pm

    @mollymooly:
    Well, Russia and North Korea are not plural nouns per se. We need to make a substitution to get there. Our willingness to do so may be the evidence of the strength of singular they.

  44. stripey_cat said,

    July 27, 2009 @ 8:41 pm

    Ken Brown said I said: "I'm faintly surprised that no-one has brought up the issue of binary gender inherent in he/she – not every human being clearly identifies with one or the other." And he replied: "I'm not sure its that relevant really. Most people who speak languages with a rich gramatical gender system (unlike English) seem quite capable of separating gramatical gender from the actual sex of the person or object they are talking about. Cue anecdotes about German girls or French tables."

    That's why I don't have a problem with gender-neutral use of he. However, the deliberate use of "he/she" or "he or she" as a perceived improvement, to me, highlights a less-obvious prejudice than simple male/female sexism. Also, it occurred to me after posting the first comment, it emphasises the existence of (binary) gender in contexts where that is not necessary or appropriate. If it were a truly gender-neutral evolved usage, I wouldn't be bothered, but since it's a conscious attempt at the correction of a perceived fault, I'm going to take issue.

    Thinking a bit more about the use of "it", I personally tend to apply it to things without full human qualities* (rather than inanimate objects only, as I'd first assumed). Thus I will use "it" of animals in preference to "they", and also of human infants (although both alternate in informal usages, eg personal notes, I'll try to tidy it up in anything anyone else will read). Exactly when I transition to "they" is a bit fuzzy (as you'd expect!), but seems to begin somewhere around a child developing speech. I thought this might be because I'm not over-fond of babies, whereas I love kids once they're mobile and verbal, so I thought I'd test my partner. Despite being less interested in children than I am**, and also not being very fond of babies, he'd push the it/they boundary back to some time in the first six months, or so. Since a sample of two is highly non-representative, how do other people stack up, parents and non-parents? (Bridget: how far along are you in your pregnancy? Also, since it seems relevant, when do you feel an unborn gains full human status? Anna Phoor's post says she doesn't feel her, presumable fairly early stage pregnancy is fully human yet; what's your opinion on yours?) Also, I wonder given my own emphasis on communication, whether I'd change my view of infants if I'd worked with ones who'd been taught to sign.

    Also, does anyone make an exception to the "it" for higher-intelligence non-human animals? Apes, for instance?

    *debate at will!

    **harking back to a LL post a few days ago about use of me/I, I had initially written "less interested in children than me", but decided against the (to me, amusing) potential ambiguity.

  45. Stephen Jones said,

    July 28, 2009 @ 2:22 am

    As a pregnant woman at the point where I don't know if my baby is a boy or girl, I've found that "they" works really well. I can't bring myself to refer to the baby as "it" and "he or she" becomes excessively wordy.

    When it's born don't be surprised if a lot of people condole you on the death of the other twin.

  46. Stephen Jones said,

    July 28, 2009 @ 2:28 am

    A very common gender split in Indo-European languages is animate/inanimate. English makes the split between higher animals and humans/lower animals and things.

    The 'animate' gender in English is distinguished by sex but inanimate gender is not. The singular pronoun for the inanimate 'gender is 'it'.

    There are nuances. Babies in English are often demoted to the inanimate gender whilst cars are promoted to the animate gender. Dogs tend to vary according to your liking of them.

  47. Jangari said,

    July 28, 2009 @ 3:09 am

    Stripey_cat:

    Also, does anyone make an exception to the "it" for higher-intelligence non-human animals? Apes, for instance?

    The higher the animacy, the more likely the referent is to license a more personal pronoun. I routinely refer to domesticated animals as he/she/they, as well as other mammals for whom gender is likely to be a notable characteristic.

    Assuming that made no sense, I'll give an example.

    If I'm watching a documentary about Africa, for instance, and lions come into it, it's clear which are lionesses by their lack of manes, so I'll use 'she' to refer to one. The cubs are still as animate and, in my opinion, deserving of gendered pronouns, but it's less simple to deduce their sex, in which case 'they' will suffice.

    Having said that, I don't consider 'they' to be useful only when the sex of the referent is unknown, but also when the sex is unimportant. Someone above had a good example:

    I was talking to a friend at work and they said…

    This is perfectly natural to me and I use analogous constructions all the time. I make the subconscious decision that the gender of a relatively unimportant character in a report is entirely irrelevant to the conversation at hand. I guess this is a bit Gricean; convey as much information as you need to, without overdoing it. However, this can also be flouted, as with all Gricean maxims.

    A friend was telling me about one of her ex-partners, but this friend thinks singular 'they' is ungrammatical. The ex-partner was also a female, and my friend wanted to avoid giving away that she had been in a homosexual relationship. Not being able to avoid using a gender-specific pronoun, however, she found it very difficult. Instead, she used obvious workarounds such as 'this person'. Using 'they' here would have gone straight over my head as a flouting of a Gricean maxim, as it's more natural for me.

    Other instances, such as 'Each student must put their book on their desk' are a bit furry when it comes to semantic analysis. On one hand it's semantically plural, if syntactically singular (though I remember being chided once by the same friend for using what I thought was a perfectly natural use of "each + verb-PL") in which case using 'they' is appropriate, but on the other hand, the use of 'they' here could be thought of as unspecified. I.e., I'm imagining a class of both male and female students. This is the canonical use of singular 'they'; avoiding gender-exuberant assumptions.

    Thinking further about this last example, I can imagine a situation in which a class full of only males (perhaps a mechanical engineering class) in which the teacher used 'they' when, by all reason, 'he' would be perfectly suited. This still seems perfectly natural to me as it seems to abstract away from the notion that gender is at all important in this piece of dialogue; who cares whether a student is a male or a female – it doesn't hinder their ability to put their book on their desk. Perhaps this falls under the unimportant (but known/knowable) category.

    So in my opinion, 'they' can be used for referents whose gender is either a) unknown, b) unimportant (whether knowable/known or not) or c) known, but avoided as an issue.

    Oddly, using 'they' to refer to an unborn baby irks me. "When are they due?" doesn't sit too well to me as a question to an imminent mother. "When is it due?" is much better. I don't have much of an explanation for this.

    There's much more to singular 'they' and I wish I had the time and patience to go into further detail. I mean, why can't I say:
    "I saw a baby wallaby, and they were eating grass." Aagh!

  48. Ken Brown said,

    July 28, 2009 @ 7:15 am

    I think I probably never use "it" for a human, even an unborn child. Either "she" or "he" if I know the sex, "they" if I don't.

    But of course I don't really know because I haven't been recording my own unprompted speech and next time I have to make that choice I might remember this discussion and change my behaviour to fit my self-description.

    Non-human animals get she/he/they as well usually. Probably. I suspect. Even insects and spiders if I can tell what sex they are. That might just be me showing off that I know how to tell what sex they are. (Actually I'm pretty sure that ants bees and wasps are generically "she" because they usually are, IYSWIM)

  49. The singular “they.” « Guns & Verbs said,

    July 28, 2009 @ 1:41 pm

    [...] the simplest way for him to get there is to fly out of Mexico." Not so. From the NYT, via Language Log: Traditionalists, of course, find nothing wrong with using he to refer to an anybody or an [...]

  50. Andrew said,

    July 28, 2009 @ 3:50 pm

    I'm doubtful whether I would use 'they' for a non-human animal. I suspect the reason is that non-human animals can be called 'it' – 'he' or 'she' is only used when the gender is marked for some reason – so there's no obvious call for 'they'. More specifically, my feeling is that an animal has to be 'he' or 'she' when it is referred to by name – thus, I might say 'keep an eye on the cat in case it gets out', but would always say 'keep an eye on Tibbles in case he gets out'. But when the animal is just specified as 'a wallaby' or the like, 'it' is fine.

    On 'it'; E, Nesbit (children's author, early 20th century) did use 'it' where either 'he' or 'they' might be expected; but I think this was always after terms such as 'somebody' or 'everybody', so one could claim that 'body' provided an antecedent for 'it'.

  51. P. said,

    July 29, 2009 @ 11:37 am

    The "singular they" camp can reach out to the "he/she" camp by conjugating "singular they" like "he/she/it."

    "You said someone would be joining us at the restaurant. Does they want to join us for the movie after, too?"

    "Someone left their bag here. They is going to be sorry when they get to their train without it."

    This is also good for clarity's sake.

    To Ken Brown:
    I also use "she" when referring to highly social insects like ants and bees, but I'm not bug-savvy enough to spot the difference between the boys and girls of the loner insects, like silverfish.

  52. Alexandra said,

    July 29, 2009 @ 8:00 pm

    Jair,

    Thanks for the link to that Hofstadter article. Really interesting satire!

  53. Ellen said,

    July 30, 2009 @ 6:08 pm

    P, no, because the singular they camp aren't suggesting a new usage of they. You're suggestion is suggesting a new usage of they. Two very different things.

  54. Bronwyn said,

    August 2, 2009 @ 11:03 am

    @Jangari

    "So in my opinion, 'they' can be used for referents whose gender is either a) unknown, b) unimportant (whether knowable/known or not) or c) known, but avoided as an issue."

    I think most people (most singular-they-accepting people, anyway) agree with this for singular they with a quantificational or generic antecedent. What seems to remain controversial, and perhaps without any long literary record to back it up, is using singular they to refer to individuals whose gender is known, as in:

    My doctor said they'd give me a prescription if the problem came back.

    This usage has been brought up a few times in the comments above. What interests me, since not all singular they users seem to accept sentences like this, is whether this use of singular they really is an innovation, not attested in the historical record.

  55. Language Log » Against atheyism | Learn English Online With Me said,

    August 2, 2009 @ 3:15 pm

    [...] here to see the original: Language Log » Against atheyism Share and [...]

  56. brotzel said,

    August 29, 2009 @ 3:13 pm

    Further to something Jungari said, I've also noticed that people use "they" and "my partner" when they don't to want to disclose a same-sex relationship. But in the context the opposite effect is achieved, since the unexpected imprecision is so glaring.

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