Sometimes Strunk and White are right

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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?

Here's what I'm hoping those of you with your hands up were going to say.

1. Singular they is very natural for most speakers, and it is increasingly common, especially among younger people.

2. The prescriptivists who warn you off it, telling you to avoid Everyone should bring their own drinks and say Everyone should bring his own drinks instead, are dopey old coots and you shouldn't listen to them.

3. That doesn't mean Sandy Brindley made a good decision about using it above. She has two noun phrases to keep apart semantically here, both with anaphoric pronouns depending on them: people and a rape victim. She is focusing here on rape of women, as the first sentence in the quotation shows. Her use of singular they for the references back to a rape victim ("judge a rape victim by what they wear, how drunk they were", etc.), though grammatical, is extremely and unnecessarily confusing. The feminine pronoun would have been a vastly better choice:

Even though people believe they wouldn't judge a rape victim by what she wears, how drunk she was, or if she had been flirting, they often do.

4. If the use of singular they was a careless on-the-fly thing on her part, Sandy should do more preparation for speaking in public. If it was a deliberate and carefully made decision to avoid specifying the sex of rape victims, out of some sort of must-be-even-handed avoidance of mentioning anybody's gender, then it was a really dumb decision, stylistically inept, and totally undercut anyway by the direct mention of women in the previous sentence.

5. So sometimes there are very bad decisions to use singular they: sometimes Strunk and White are right. But the bad cases, as here, don't imply that the right policy should be never to use singular they, any more than train wrecks imply that the right policy is never to use trains.

6. My complaint about Strunk and White's The Elements of Style has never been that everything they say is always wrong (though I do argue that most of their claims about grammar per se are misguided). What I argue against is, first, the fetishizing of vapid (though undeniably correct) style advice that is completely unhelpful because of its vagueness ("Be clear", etc.), and second, over-general discouragement of constructions (adjectival modification, the passive, singular they, etc.) that are sometimes a good stylistic choice and sometimes not. (The latter is the old problem of educators who think if they do it too much they should be told not to do it at all. It's mindless policy and leads to obnoxious stylistic bullying.)

7. The way to avoid needless bad choices in the grammatical structure of your writing is not to learn a short list of things you must always avoid; it's to be sensitive to what's a good idea and what's a bad idea, on a basis of knowing the difference. There's a reason why Sandy should have avoided singular they in what she wrote: she had some cases of plural they fighting with the singular ones in the same sentence. Don't set up two competing sets of identical pronouns fighting with each other in the same sentence if you can avoid it. That's a good recommendation, not a silly one. Whereas "Don't ever use singular they" is a silly one.

OK, homework for this week is to read all the posts on singular they on Language Log, including the many on Language Log Classic (see the search box and custom search link on our front page). Budget some time for this; the topic has exercised us at least fifty or sixty times. Class dismissed.

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59 Comments »

  1. Carl said,

    July 1, 2010 @ 5:28 am

    Clearly, the right thing to have done is use the gender neutral singular pronoun "he."

    [Yes, that is exactly what is recommended under the cruder versions of the traditional prescriptivist wisdom. But Strunk in his original 1918 version of Elements was subtler than that: even with antecedents like nobody, he said you should use he "unless the antecedent is or must be feminine." So he would have gone along with the commonsense choice of she here. —GKP]

  2. Sili said,

    July 1, 2010 @ 5:29 am

    though grammatical, is extremely and unnecessarily confusing.

    Well, rereading the sentence with that in mind, I can see how it can be confusing, and how "she" would have been less ambiguous.

    But before getting to your analysis, I read it straight through without a moments pause, and it didn't even register that this was a case of singular they – two cases, even.

    So unless I've suddenly transformed into a superparser, "extremely and unnecessarily" is a tad much.

    [This is why I stress in my point 1 that singular they really is extremely natural in Standard English now. You're (clearly) a fluent native speaker, and very used to it, and you read for the sense and had no trouble with the syntax. Excellent. But your good luck in having rapidly and intelligently processed the sentence without mishap doesn't nullify my observation that in retrospect this was a very poor bit of pronoun management. The two sets of they with their separate antecedents are not distinguished in any formal way; yet they could have been, easily. —GKP]

  3. Xmun said,

    July 1, 2010 @ 5:43 am

    The "they" that Sandy Brindley uses is absolutely normal 2010 idiom. Although there are two referents, they are easily distinguished, and it's not in the least ambiguous. Get used to it.

    [I think, Xmun, that you may have forgotten who you are talking to. I have stressed over and over again, including here, the point you assert. It is me that is "used to it" and the standard usage books that are biased in the wrong direction. However, your claim that the "two referents ... are easily distinguished" is too casual. Anyone who thinks a sequence like "if they had been flirting, they often do" might not momentarily mislead simply isn't paying attention. —GKP]

  4. Graeme said,

    July 1, 2010 @ 5:59 am

    A more complex sentence or issue might have led to ambiguity.

    It did jar that in one breath she highlighted 'women' and in the next cloaked the gender. But I imagine in her trade she has trained herself to use neutral language and was on auto-pilot.

    [That was my impression: falling back into the usual singular they use on auto-pilot when for once there was quite a good reason to avoid it. But as you see, I'm taking flak here. —GKP]

  5. Morgan said,

    July 1, 2010 @ 6:01 am

    I can't agree that this sentence is in the least confusing. It scans easily and clearly in context. Perhaps someone unfamiliar with the concept of rape or the accusations usually leveled at victims might have the opportunity to stumble over "what they wear, how drunk they were…", but no native speaker could lack the cultural literacy that makes these phrases practically cliches.

    The two referents for 'they' could cause confusion in a similarly-structured sentence for a more ambiguous context, but then, context is everything with referents anyway.

    [I can only repeat: Anyone who thinks a sequence like "if they had been flirting, they often do" might not momentarily mislead a reader simply isn't paying attention. A lot of the time people's fluent command, cultural awareness, and unconscious brilliance at accommodation blind them to flaws in prose composition that really do deserve criticism on clarity grounds. Though I can see I'm going to spend the whole of the next few days taking flak for saying so. —GKP]

  6. Ginger Yellow said,

    July 1, 2010 @ 6:13 am

    It seems to me that what's really interesting about this example is why it's so easy for fluent speakers to parse.

    [Yes; in a way, that's the thing I'm pointing to. Here there really was a confusion trap, and there are rational reasons for critiquing the pronoun choice; and yet the magic of the way semantic considerations can elude such traps saves most of us from blundering into them. We understand flawlessly even when the sentence handed to us was, retrospectively considered, quite uncooperative in its design. —GKP]

  7. Bruce said,

    July 1, 2010 @ 6:18 am

    I'm with Sili, I thought it read fine, though I can see why using "she" might have been a better choice. I don't think there's as much in it as you suggest.

    [I didn't think you wouldn't understand it. And I don't think I said that there's a lot in it. My point is a very small one: here a trap was set for the unwary by a needlessly ambiguous choice of pronouns that (unusually) actually could have done with an editorial correction if it had been in written rather than spoken English (Sandy was speaking spontaneously, I think); yet still people understand the sentence fairly well. Amazing. —GKP]

  8. Steve F said,

    July 1, 2010 @ 6:20 am

    I am a passionate defender of singular 'they' whenever a gender-neutral pronoun is required (I was one of only a few commenters who found 'Pat has changed their Facebook profile' absolutely acceptable on one of the many previous Language Log posts GKP mentions) but I agree that in this case it is, maybe not 'extremely', but certainly 'unnecessarily' confusing. But even if – like Sili and Xmun – you don't find it confusing at all, it's certainly pretty weird – though not as weird as a supposedly gender-neutral 'he' would have been. Perhaps we can charitably assume that Sandy Brindley has so internalised the principle of maintaining gender-neutrality when referring to rape-victims (after all, male rape-victims do exist) that she forgot that she was explicitly talking about women in this case: easily done, I suppose, but a bit clumsy.

  9. Ray Girvan said,

    July 1, 2010 @ 6:27 am

    As Sili and Xmun have said, I wouldn't even have noticed it if GKP hadn't drawn attention to it. And as Morgan says, the clothing / drunk / flirting aspects are so standard to mention in this context that I didn't find any confusion between the people "they" and the victims "they".

  10. Aaron Toivo said,

    July 1, 2010 @ 6:56 am

    I'm one of the younger speakers who so readily use singular-they in all sorts of places, and I must question whether there might not be a more subtle linguistic change governing the pronoun choice here. Because I do not believe I could have naturally used "she" in that sentence. "They" is required by my internal grammar, because the antecedent – "a rape victim" – is insufficiently specific for a sexed pronoun to work. Not only did I read the original example easily and correctly, but when I read your proposed replacement with "she", it is jarring. My mind goes "who?" and my eyes instinctively dart back to see if there was a particular woman mentioned that I'd missed.

    But when I replace the indefinite article with a definite one, for an antecedent of "the rape victim", your example with 'she' is suddenly perfectly good (and indeed, preferable).

    Testing this hypothesis on potential counterexamples seems to generally uphold it… but there is a big gray area when the antecedent noun/NP is intrinsically gendered. For example "… judge a woman for what she wears …" and "… judge a woman for what they wear …" both feel natural.

    None of this is to suggest you are not right about the use of standard written English; I propose only the possibility that the native speech of some people may have acquired a new rule they don't realize is new. But then it's also possible I have merely acquired my native language imperfectly, as we all do in tiny subtle ways. :)

  11. NW said,

    July 1, 2010 @ 7:47 am

    We could test whether we are developing a specific/non-specific distinction (as Aaron Toivo suggests) by constructing a sentence containing only a single sex-marked, non-specific antecedent:

    A woman who has been raped is sometimes judged by what she wears.
    A woman who has been raped is sometimes judged by what they wear.

    Or even, in case the relative clause is affecting anything:

    A woman is sometimes judged by what she wears.
    A woman is sometimes judged by what they wear.

    Here I clearly prefer 'she'. It might be a weight thing: the original sentence sounds better than these simple ones with 'they'.

  12. David said,

    July 1, 2010 @ 8:03 am

    I can't believe the obvious has been overlooked in the comments: why are we all assuming that a rape victim is female? It is just as conceivable (though less common) for a man to be raped, making "they" an acceptable gender-neutral selection.

  13. John Cowan said,

    July 1, 2010 @ 8:10 am

    I agree in part with Aaron: I don't think the pressure toward singular they here comes from conscious NonSexistSpeak, but rather from the indefiniteness of the reference. Which suggests in turn that singular and plural theys are represented separately in the speaker's mind, so that they do not seem to her to conflict.

    Anyhow, is there evidence that the use of singular they is actually increasing, or might that be the Recency Illusion? There does seem to be evidence that its regular use with an indefinite and semantically unbleached noun antecedent, as opposed to a pronoun like someone or a bleached indefinite NP like a person, is fairly recent — but I doubt if anyone really knows.

  14. John Roth said,

    July 1, 2010 @ 8:13 am

    For me, at least, the issue is point 3 in the laundry list in the original post. I try to avoid using the same pronoun for two different antecedents. Some readers will cruise right through, some readers will be confused.

    As far as the "singular they" is concerned, I don't consider the usage to be singular at all. The author is clearly using a specific case as an exemplar for a whole group, and it's the group that's standing behind the grammatical antecedent.

    John Roth

  15. Mark P said,

    July 1, 2010 @ 8:25 am

    I, too, as a native speaker, read the quote with no problem. But it didn't take me long to figure out what GKP's point was when I looked back at it. Would a non-native speaker be able to read this without stumbling? Is the singular they common in other languages?

  16. Tim Martin said,

    July 1, 2010 @ 8:35 am

    Her use of singular they… is extremely and unnecessarily confusing.

    Do you have objective data to support this? I know you're an expert, but this post does basically amount to taking your word for it. I would ask, just how likely is this to confuse someone, especially someone who isn't a linguist who has been trained to see it?

    Also, how grammatical is the use of "she" here? How often do native speakers (whose they use hasn't been tainted by prescriptivism) choose to insert "he" or "she" instead of "they" in sentences with unspecific referents? I'm guessing (and please correct me if I'm wrong), that we use "they" with unspecific referents the vast majority of the time, AND when we use "he" or "she," it is a conscious, effortful decision. If this is true, how grammatical would it be to not use "they" in a situation such as this?

  17. Larry Lard said,

    July 1, 2010 @ 8:42 am

    1) There might be a cross-pondial thing going on here. Sandy Brindley is from Rape Crisis *Scotland*, quoted in a *UK* newspaper. Do we have an idea of the relative pondial preference for singular they? Might be interesting to learn the UK/US/other-ness of the English spoken by the commenters who parsed this without error. Personally (UK) I had no problem at all, and struggle to see that there is even a problem here

    2) @GKP's point 3: how much does your analysis change if the first sentence has 'people' in place of 'women' ?

    3) nit picking: I'm thinking 'wear' should be 'wore', to match the tense of the other two things done (or not) by the victim. Is this over-pedantic? Or even right?

  18. Luke said,

    July 1, 2010 @ 9:07 am

    The reason why people can parse the sentence flawlessly is not because we know 'they' in the sentence is 'singular they' but because 'a rape victim' is covered and forgotten by our minds processing 'they' as 'the normal plural they'. We successfully guess 'they' in 'if they had been flirting' indicates 'rape victims' as the meaning distance is shorter than to associate it with 'people'.

  19. Spell Me Jeff said,

    July 1, 2010 @ 9:29 am

    I think this is one of those etiquette matters.

    Most readers will be able to parse the sentence without a hitch. It is only some readers who may be momentarily stumped by the (semi) ambiguous pronoun. But the courteous writer takes care of those readers as well and takes steps to help them along.

  20. NW said,

    July 1, 2010 @ 9:31 am

    So why isn't it as confusing as it perhaps should be? Why do most of us feel there is only one natural parsing? Well, the clause 'how drunk they were' only makes sense in asyndetic coordination with the preceding interrogative 'what they wear'. Because of the asyndeton, the coordinator 'or' that follows is taken as the marker of a final coordinate. So the coordination (the complement of 'by') is read as ending with the word 'flirting', with the appropriate fall-rise intonation.

    The following words 'they often do' are then the main clause. The 'they' anaphoric to 'rape victim' has scope in the VP headed by 'judge', but we're out of that now, so 'people' in an adjunct to the main clause now has the scope.

    The only way that 'if they had been flirting, they often do' could be taken as structurally close is if the 'if'-PP was a supplement (better written with a comma, 'or, if'). In this case the anchor is 'or they often do', which doesn't make enough sense in coordination with the two previous interrogatives. As our parsers are still holding out for the main clause, there's no strong need to fit that final clause into the subordinate parts.

  21. Elena said,

    July 1, 2010 @ 9:39 am

    @Larry Lard: your third point is what caused *confusion* for me. Of course, I understood the intent of the sentence but the grammar did make me uncomfortable. There is a problem of parallelism in her list that perhaps hinders readers from differentiating the pieces of the sentence. It's hard to see that "by what they wear, how drunk they were, or if they had been flirting" fits inside the larger "Even though X, the result is Y" structure. By the time readers get to the people-they (and past the rape-victim-they), they've already forgotten what the overall structure of the sentence is.

    On another note, my initial reaction was to change rape victim to the plural rape victims, so that pronouns match their referents, but this might not alleviate the confusion.

  22. Mark P said,

    July 1, 2010 @ 9:40 am

    There is obvious sensitivity to using gender-specific pronouns. Yesterday's Slate had a piece by a military wife. In the second paragraph, she says, "About these pronouns: Female members of the armed forces make up an ever-growing and important portion of the military's enlisted and officer ranks, and I don't assume that all service members are male. However, my peers have always been fellow military wives, and my language reflects that.)"

    When I read the piece, I don't see what she's talking about. She uses "she" and "her" when speaking about a particular person, but no gender-specific pronouns when speaking about a military spouse or spouses in general. Apparently she is so sensitive to the idea of using a gender-specific pronoun that she apologizes and explains even when she doesn't really do it.

    http://www.slate.com/id/2258348/

  23. Amy West said,

    July 1, 2010 @ 10:21 am

    I'm with David on this: she's using the gender-neutral singular "they" because not only can the jury be a group of mixed gender, the class "rape victims" can be as well. Men *can be* and *are* raped. They have an even harder time with it because of the assumption by police, rape counselors, society, etc. that a male is the victimizer and a female is a victim.

  24. be.slayed said,

    July 1, 2010 @ 10:25 am

    It would change the tone slightly perhaps, but one option is to leave the gender-neutral singular "they" in place, and change "people" to "we", i.e.:


    …. Even though we believe we wouldn't judge a rape victim by what they wear, how drunk they were, or if they had been flirting, we often do.

  25. Ellen K. said,

    July 1, 2010 @ 10:28 am

    @David: We aren't assuming rape victims are female. We are assuming that the rape victims referred to in that sentence are female, because the ones on the previous sentence are.

    I do kind of agree with the point the "she" would have been better. Except that we could easily substitute "rape victims" for "a rape victim" without any change in meaning. There's a sense that we really are talking about multiple people with the "they", despite the antecedent being singular in form.

    And I'm with Ginger Yellow in thinking it's interesting that it's so easy to parse. I've noticed other cases of the same pronoun having multiple antecedents where it's fairly easy to figure out, and others where it's harder, but doable. And I've observed that there are times when using the feminine pronoun for God would make a passage a lot clearer.

  26. Nick Lamb said,

    July 1, 2010 @ 10:48 am

    Clearly we need another pronoun (instead of using they twice, not because I'm opposed to singular they). Having a few extra spare ones would be good for disambiguating sentences like this. It might not help in speech, but it would in writing.

    [Yes; and believe it or not, some better-equipped languages (Navajo, for example) have a 4th person as well as a 3rd in their pronoun system. It's as if the morphology of the language gives you two distinct index numbers to attach to people or things you're talking about. It enables you to do much better when telling jokes that begin "A man3 walks into a bar and another man4 looks at him3 and he3 says to him4..." —GKP]

  27. Rick S said,

    July 1, 2010 @ 10:50 am

    In this case, the syntax of the sentence gives a strong clue that there are two distinct referents for "they". There are five occurrences of "they" in the sentence. The first and last are related by being complements of an "Even though NP VP, they VP" construction (where the first VP happens to also have a subordinate clause with they as its head NP). The middle three occurrences are related by a coordination within a PP. It's a simple middle recursion, with the referents perfectly parallelling the syntax. I believe that's why this sentence was so easily understood by many of us.

    @Prof. Pullum: I'm convinced that Ms. Brindley's second quoted sentence was intended to be more general than the first. The first was about the advertisement, which is specifically about "women who have been raped". The second was consciously intended to omit gender; it is a statement about people's failure to recognize their internalized prejudices toward rape victims (of either gender). To substitute "she" for "they" would have changed its meaning. Using singular "they" was therefore (virtually) necessary, and not "really dumb" or "stylistically inept".

    @Elena: I disagree that "by the time readers get to [the last 'they'] they've already forgotten what the overall structure of the sentence is." This sentence is of ordinary complexity, easily within the range of any adult native speaker and all but the greenest of ESL speakers.

  28. Ellen K. said,

    July 1, 2010 @ 10:52 am

    @Larry Lard, regarding your point 3, on "wear" versus "wore", I think "wear" is correct; that we aren't talking about judging a woman by what she was wearing at the time (which most people won't know), but by how they generally dress, how we see them dressed.

  29. mgh said,

    July 1, 2010 @ 11:17 am

    Peevish meta-peeving – too much for me.

  30. Coby Lubliner said,

    July 1, 2010 @ 12:55 pm

    GKP: Singular they is very natural for most speakers, and it is increasingly common, especially among younger people.

    I think there's a bit of a recency illusion going on here.
    Henry Churchyard has traced the use of singular they back to Middle English. Here's a nice quote from Shakespeare (Comedy of Errors, Act IV Scene 3):

    There's not a man I meet but doth salute me,
    As if I were their well-acquainted friend.

    Note the clearly gendered antecedent

  31. jimbino said,

    July 1, 2010 @ 1:32 pm

    I'm with the prescriptivists. I get sick of reading things like "If parents come to take the kid home, make sure they're circumcised first."

  32. Peter Taylor said,

    July 1, 2010 @ 1:42 pm

    She has two noun phrases to keep apart semantically here, both with anaphoric pronouns depending on them: people and a rape victim.

    Three. When I read the paragraph after the quote and realised that singular they was the point of interest, I glanced back and thought that it could be ambiguous with the Scots of the previous sentence.

  33. Kris said,

    July 1, 2010 @ 1:50 pm

    I think what makes this extra odd is that the speaker is using "they" as a pronoun for plural "people" AND for sigular "rape victim" in the same sentence.

    I would make the same mistake if I was speaking too, but if it was a prewritten statement, some speech editor somewhere missed this one.

    Also, if a non-native speaker can read the same sentence differently (I assume many would at least stumble a bit), then it is hard to say this is not a poor example. When I studied German, and when I read it today, if someone were to mix up pronouns, I would get a 100% different meaning from the message, even if a native speaker would understand fine. English is hardly as strict with its usage of pronouns and gender modifiers, but I think it could still be a little difficult to grasp… especially when used as a plural and sigular in the same sentence.

    That said, I understood this sentence perfectly the first time through, but I do not think that was the point of this post, that's probably why he said "Singular they is very natural for most speakers, and it is increasingly common, especially among younger people." This describes why most of us have no interpretation issue with the sentence and probably want to defend it.

  34. Matt Chan said,

    July 1, 2010 @ 2:17 pm

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

    Or perhaps this time we should also listen to the dopey old coots. Reading the result would certainly shake (if not necessarily shake out) many people's assumptions.

  35. Greg Bowen said,

    July 1, 2010 @ 4:29 pm

    @ Aaron Toivo

    I have to agree. While either 'they' or 'she' sounds acceptable to me, 'they' feels more natural, probably because of the indefiniteness of the antecedent.

  36. J. W. Brewer said,

    July 1, 2010 @ 5:13 pm

    I wonder if those who are jumping in to point out that *of course* rape victims can be male as well as female are potentially muddling two distinct sense of the word. "Rape" can be used loosely/colloquially to refer to any of a fuzzily-defined set of sexual crimes, regardless of what the local legal system may actually call them, or it can be used to refer to the specific crime called "rape" by the local legal system, as distinguished from other sorts of sex crimes. Exactly what constitutes "rape" as opposed to some other crime varies substantially from place to place.

    Newspapers are sometimes (especially if talking about specific individuals who have been charged with or convicted of specific crimes, and who could sue for libel if you get the details wrong) careful to be precise and focus on the latter sense; other times, they may be colloquial. This newspaper was Scottish. Based on 10 minutes of internet research it appears that with the recent passage of the Sexual Offences (Scotland) Act 2009, it became technically possible for a man to be the victim of rape (but only by another man, not by a woman), whereas previously that had apparently (subject to the limits of quick internet research!) not been the case as a matter of Scots law. By contrast, in my own home jurisdiction of New York it is possible in principle for a man to be raped by a woman, but not by another man (what might colloquially be called rape in the latter circumstance is treated by the N.Y. Penal Law as a different crime with a different name). I assume that there are still some jurisdictions out there in the English-speaking world where it is under no circumstances possible for men to be the victims of rape in the technical legal sense of the word, since that was in earlier generations the dominant rule. I should note that that was not necessarily or inherently an unenlightened or sexist rule, since a perfectly enlighted legislator could sensibly consider sexual assaults that could pose a risk of pregnancy to the victim to be qualitatively different from all other sexual assaults, without minimizing the seriousness of the latter category.

    In any event, even where the category of male rape victims is a non-empty set under whatever definition is considered salient, its unfortunate members are not necessarily subject to social prejudices that they were "asking for it" due to having dressed provocatively, drunk too much, etc etc., which was the context in which the article was deploying the pronouns that in context could usefully have been feminine.

  37. Matthew said,

    July 1, 2010 @ 6:18 pm

    I wish I could remember the exact wording used in the news report that I heard about Tiger Woods' divorce agreement but it was something like

    He cannot bring a girlfriend to visit his children unless he is married to them.

  38. The Ridger said,

    July 1, 2010 @ 8:18 pm

    "Anyone who thinks a sequence like "if they had been flirting, they often do" might not momentarily mislead simply isn't paying attention. —GKP]"

    The problem, for me, with that is that there aren't many complex sentences where when you pull out a sequence and isolate it from the rest of the sentence, it's not capable of misleading. In the sentence, that sequence doesn't mislead very many people. Surely it's fair to judge the entire sequence, instead of asking for individual bits to stand on their own?

  39. Steve Harris said,

    July 1, 2010 @ 9:02 pm

    When I first encountered the quoted paragraph, I interpreted the second they (the singular-referent one) as actually having a plural referent, "rape victims" (though that phrase nowhere occurs).

    Furthermore, when I read the paragraph aloud to my spouse, she had the same response: I asked if she had had any trouble with it (though distracted by our puppy biting her), and she sad no; when I pointed specifically to the ambiguous use of "they", she said, "Not a problem: I understood 'They wouldn't judge by what they wear' as having the first 'they' mean those who are judging and the second 'they' as meaning rape victims."

    I think what's going on here, in part, is interpretation of a singular referent (with indefinite article) as intending to be a class referent, so that casual reading and hearing of the text induces one to believe that a plural referent was used, even when that wasn't so.

    So, yes, there is a double-use of "they" here, which could have been avoided, logically, by use of "she" for one of the uses. But that would have particularized a class referent, inappropriately; there really is an intentionality with the use of "they" which is missing in "she".

  40. elizabeth said,

    July 2, 2010 @ 4:23 am

    I agree with Pullum that the use of she would have been better. I'm a (hopefully) native english speaker and writer (someone who always uses they as a gender neutral term by default) and found having two "they"s in the same sentence made parsing the sentence harder–literally on first reading I thought that the people judging were also wearing clothes and flirting! Now, I quickly realised that I was reading the sentence wrong as the content made no sense that way (it's not a great sentence really) but the mistake did occur.

  41. Ben Hemmens said,

    July 2, 2010 @ 5:17 am

    I'm baffled by how nasty you are to the speaker in point 4; coming from a Scot, referring to a Scot. The singular they is in my experience not only not new in Scotland, it is so ubiquitous that I doubt whether many ordinary people could think of a different way of saying this. And it doesn't lead to misunderstandings.

    So why the snotty* condemnation? I don't think it's a matter of public speaking, either. I'd expect someone to resolve the two "theys" into a they and a she, or some other solution, in a formal article or essay. In a quick interview given to some crappy little (free ?) newspaper, it simply isn't a problem.

    *eggcorn?

  42. Ben Hemmens said,

    July 2, 2010 @ 5:30 am

    "unconscious brilliance at accommodation blind them to flaws in prose composition that really do deserve criticism on clarity grounds. Though I can see I'm going to spend the whole of the next few days taking flak"

    Why assume that this was a piece of prose composition?

    You say yourself "quoted … talking". Quite possibly caught on her mobile on a bus somewhere. And having experience of giving telephone interviews to papers, I'd have to say she did well to a) have something printed that she actually seems to have said and b) find that it represents more or less the position of her organisation. Whereas if you tried to convey the message of this posting in a similar situation, I'd bet you an evening's worth of pints it would appear in the paper as an enthusiastic recommendation for the book by Stunk and Wright.

  43. Daniel Silliman said,

    July 2, 2010 @ 6:01 am

    Really wish this post had been headlined with the awesome crash blossom/pun: Sometimes they is wrong.

  44. Adrian Bailey said,

    July 2, 2010 @ 6:42 am

    I had no difficulty understanding the sentence in question. The human brain is a marvellous thing, isn't it.

  45. Ellen K. said,

    July 2, 2010 @ 7:38 am

    @Ben Hemmens: Prof. Pullum isn't Scottish. (Which he has pointed out previously). Yes, easy to think someone who was born in Scotland and lives there now is Scottish. That doesn't happen to be the case here, though, and he didn't live in Scottland before obtaining his current position.

  46. Ben Hemmens said,

    July 2, 2010 @ 7:47 am

    Well, neither am I, but I lived there for 5 years and it was enough to listen in to the way people talk.

  47. Ellen K. said,

    July 2, 2010 @ 7:57 am

    I think one is being kind to the newspaper in assuming Ms. Brindley worded it as quoted. Still, I think, after reading the comments, I can conclude, first, that, yes, it's quite possible for a native English speaker reading that to get it on first read with no trouble, and even on editing, to miss that it should be edited. (There is, though, the possibility that it's an accurate quote of a non-prepared statement.) But, at the same time, Prof. Pullum is not alone in finding it hard to parse.

  48. Ben Hemmens said,

    July 2, 2010 @ 8:58 am

    like i said, in a formal piece of writing i'd expect it to be fixed. i wouldn't write it like that.

    i'm just not surprised if a boulevard newspaper contains ordinary street language, nor if an activist whose work is in the area of communicating with ordinary people should be faulted for a mistake a professional writer should avoid. the sentence almost certainly served its purpose, in its context. and that's all we can ask of language.

  49. Army1987 said,

    July 2, 2010 @ 2:16 pm

    I didn't have to make any effort to figure out the referent of each they (and I'm not even a native speaker), probably for the reason explained by Luke; I was jarred for the same reason Graeme was, but I immediately thought about Aaron Toivo's explanation. Anyway, I would have used she after all for the reasons given by Spell Me Jeff.

  50. Diane said,

    July 2, 2010 @ 3:37 pm

    @David and Amy

    Actually, I had the same initial response as you: I figured Brindley used the word "they" because the rape victims could have been male or female. But if you look at the sentence before, she refers specifically to "women" who have been raped. While I can't agree with Professor Pullum that her use of the word "they" was extremely confusing, I do think that she should have used the pronoun "she" because people probably do judge male rape victims differently than female. It would have made it more clear that she was talking about *female* rape victims, not all rape victims.

  51. DaveK said,

    July 2, 2010 @ 5:52 pm

    I'm surprised no one mentioned the other problem in the quotation–the use of "prejudices… toward" when what is clearly meant is "prejudices…against". If there's no longer any distinction, then how do you express the concept of favoring someone unfairly?

  52. Ellen K. said,

    July 3, 2010 @ 12:16 am

    @DaveK. Not by saying "prejudices towards". That just doesn't mean favoring someone for me. Prejudice implies a negative pre-judgment unless positive is explicit, and "towards" doesn't do that. It reads to me as having a meaning similar to "at". I think "prejudices in favor of" would work well.

  53. Steve Harris said,

    July 4, 2010 @ 12:32 am

    Am I alone in my reading? I am interpreting singular-they in contemporary usage as meaning "I intend to reference a class of people, and I particularly don't want to the listener to think of an individual or imagine any individualized qualities; rather, what I have in mind, and what I want to convey to the listener, is a element of this class purely in the abstract."

    With this reading, using "she" would be not even optional; it would be wrong, as tending to convey a particularized subject (even if no particularities are specified) instead of an abstract one.

  54. Astra said,

    July 4, 2010 @ 9:35 am

    Sandy starts by saying "The advert has been designed to shake out ingrained prejudices many Scots have towards women who have been raped."

    That makes 'singular-they' absolutely necessary because "she" would re-introduce the ingrained prejudices the advert was just trying to shake out.

    We Neanderthal males really do need to learn how sexist and prejudiced it is to refer to a woman as "she". I'm trying to accustom my mother to being referred to by gender-neutral pronouns, but they doesn't like it. (Probably because they is an English graduate and spent their life teaching English at school, so they keeps trying to correct me.)
    .

  55. Ellen K. said,

    July 4, 2010 @ 4:20 pm

    Steve Harris, I think you are saying basically the same thing as others here, with regards to this example, except that you are generalizing to all uses of singular they.

  56. Steve Harris said,

    July 4, 2010 @ 5:46 pm

    Ellen,

    I won't attempt to analyze others' readings here. But what I'm getting at now is an intentional difference in using singular-they vs. using standard singular, so that they do not mean the same thing. Thus, it's not a matter of seeking either clarity or economy in expression, but of conveying the desired image to the listener. I don't think I've seen this distinction in intentional meaning articulated before, but maybe I'm wrong.

  57. Witbrock said,

    August 4, 2010 @ 12:50 am

    While you are, of course, correct with respect to "they", I think you go too far, even if it is to make a point, with:

    "I think, Xmun, that you may have forgotten who you are talking to. I have stressed over and over again, including here, the point you assert. It is me that is "used to it" and the standard usage books that are biased in the wrong direction."

    Please: "whom you are talking to", and "It is I who am 'used to it'". These cost almost nothing in effort, and are almost always stylistically preferable, and more decorative. We in English have so little inflectional morphology left that it seems a pity to abandon it completely.

  58. Addison Burns said,

    October 7, 2010 @ 1:37 am

    I think our language could benefit from spelling the singular they as "thay." It would still be pronounced identically; people wouldn't be required to change their speech.

  59. anon said,

    December 15, 2011 @ 3:52 am

    I enjoyed the choice of final pronoun in the opening sentence here:

    Fregoli delusion is a delusional misidentification syndrome which describes an individual’s mistaken belief that different people are in fact the same person in disguise who is able to change their appearance.

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