David Pogue assails singular they

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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.

It's not just the point about grammar that made me wonder about Pogue's book reviews:

It's odd, though, that a book this carefully considered completely misses another possible Facebook effect: in an age in which one click establishes a new "friend," young people may be losing the skills to build real friendships and negotiate real social encounters.

Yes, they may be losing those skills. Or, they may also be getting better at developing those skills. Who knows?

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47 Comments »

  1. Tim Martin said,

    July 7, 2010 @ 6:13 pm

    Oh god, that last bit reminds me of the "texting is making our kids worse at writing" nonsense. Evidence please!

  2. Fred Wickham said,

    July 7, 2010 @ 6:13 pm

    I get into skirmishes with the anti-technology fogies all the time — probably because I'm 69 and they expect me to be their ally. In a recent piece on Salon, the writer rued the passing of "your welcome" in favor of "no problem." Hey, language changes. Because no reasonable term for "he/she" and "him/her" has come about, "they" is the default for people who don't like stilted constructions.

  3. Mark P said,

    July 7, 2010 @ 6:19 pm

    Whatever they have at the NYT, it must be contagious.

  4. Xmun said,

    July 7, 2010 @ 6:34 pm

    "your welcome"? Is that Fred Wickham's mistake or Salon's? Make it "you're welcome" — which, by the way, is a phrase I have always detested (not being American) although I know it's just the AmE equivalent of "de nada", "bitte", etc.

  5. Xmun said,

    July 7, 2010 @ 6:36 pm

    But I quite agree with Fred Wickham about singular "they", and I'm 74!

  6. vic said,

    July 7, 2010 @ 6:40 pm

    I had a totally different interpretation of that last part – he didn't say that that was an effect of Facebook, he just said he thought it was something the book would have included, given how deeply it went into other effects. The quoted paragraph comes right after three grafs where he speaks positively of Kirkpatrick's discussions of privacy, commercialism, international expansion, and Facebook's potential.

    I must admit though that my interpretation might be affected by being a longtime fan of David's writing.

  7. language hat said,

    July 7, 2010 @ 6:43 pm

    which, by the way, is a phrase I have always detested (not being American)

    Do you detest everything that isn't said the way you say it?

  8. Jim said,

    July 7, 2010 @ 7:22 pm

    To be fair, the second example he quotes is jarring (at least to me) because of "every Thefacebook user". Even if that "the" is part of the proper name, it still sounds strange because normally *"every the …" is not grammatical.

    The first sentence also strikes me as questionable, but again not because of singular "they"… though I can't put my finger on exactly why. "He carried his stuff himself" sounds odd to me too, if maybe a little bit less.

  9. Josef Fruehwald said,

    July 7, 2010 @ 7:48 pm

    @Tim Martin, I think that Pouge's last point is worse than "texting is making our children's writing worse." Of course, evidence is necessary, but at least texting and writing are the same modality. A reasonable empiricist might still suspect there was an effect before the all the data came in.

    Calling connections on facebook "friends" is probably best thought of as metaphorical. To think, or suspect, that the way people make metaphorical friends on facebook has an effect on the way they make friends in the real social world requires quite a lot of reasoning by metaphor. To put it strongly, it requires belief in some kind of word-magic, where activities involving one set of entities called "friends" can have an effect on some other set of entities, also called "friends," even if almost nothing else about nature of these sets and their psychological and sociological situations are the same. This is the stuff of pseudoscience and poorly constructed religious sermons.

    @language hat, Not to defend particular statements, but I think it's actually ok to admit to having language attitudes. We're all just people, living in some social world, so we all are going to think something or another about the way another person speaks. Also, if one doesn't recognize their own attitudes, they'll be less prone to check themselves and think "I may be unjustly evaluating this person because they use 'like' or 'basically' or AAVE features, or the cot-caught merger."

    Admittedly though, being too willing to publicly declare some attitudes is likely an indicator of over ccurmudgeonlyness.

  10. fs said,

    July 7, 2010 @ 7:49 pm

    Ugh, that last bit – Mr. Pogue, please don't try to insinuate that a book's lack of coverage of your pet theory somehow constitutes its failure as a piece of informative writing. Tim Martin is calling for evidence (presumably for Pogue's theory), but I agree with vic in taking Pogue's statements simply to be a vain wish that the book had vindicated or even acknowledged his own curmudgeonly peeves. Nevertheless, such wishes do not belong in a book review, unless they are shown (or generally accepted) to be wishes held by a large segment of the book's probable audience. THAT is the kind of evidence I would like Mr. Pogue to display.

  11. Richard Howland-Bolton said,

    July 7, 2010 @ 7:54 pm

    As an Englishman I have to deliver a counterblast to this undeserved emnity towards one of the greatest contributions of the US to the English Language. You're (if perhaps not 'your') welcome is the most wonderful phrase.
    Consider this: we English, when receiving thanks, can only squirm, and mumble stuff like "Oh …Oh …think, think… um… think nothing of it"–which of course has the distinct disadvantage that it sets things up so that the giver of the thanks inevitably and immediately does start to think nothing of it! And so all our nobler actions are peremptorily dismissed and so over the years we develop a reputation for being somewhat fainéant and useless.
    Now compare that tragedy of embarrassment and failure with the joys that are enjoyed by the citizens of this warm You'rewelcoming country:
    instead of concentrating on the unworthiness of the receiver of thanks and the triviality of his act, the You'rewelcome-equipped 'Mercan can bask in any thanks, deserved or not.
    And it's so versatile, it can cover the whole gamut of receiving thanks from “Oh thanks for opening the door for me” “You’re welcome” to “Oh thank you, thank you, thank you for saving the life of my only child and ensuring that she will eventually play the violin again!!! And then grow up to win the Nobel Prize for Peace!!!!” “You’re welcome”.
    Indeed I've just this minute started a campaign to have the day after Thanksgiving renamed from the rather boring "The Day After Thanksgiving" to the absolutely scintillating You'rewelcomegiving Day.

  12. Richard Howland-Bolton said,

    July 7, 2010 @ 8:02 pm

    The Metathesis Fairy strikes again:
    for emnity read enmity throughout.

  13. Xmun said,

    July 7, 2010 @ 8:17 pm

    language hat asks me: Do you detest everything that isn't said the way you say it?

    Not at all. I quite often pick up and use new expressions I hear and like the sound of. I dislike "You're welcome" for a reason. I got sick of the sound of it when I was staying as a guest in my brother's hotel in Maine. I thought his staff were too obsequious.

    On the other hand, when my wife's young cousin from New Jersey came to stay with us for a few days, it was a delight to hear her talking, but I'm afraid I can't now remember what the strange expressions were that we so enjoyed hearing.

  14. Ray Girvan said,

    July 7, 2010 @ 8:26 pm

    Richard Howland-Bolton: You're … welcome is the most wonderful phrase

    Absolutely. It's a fine and venerable idiomatic response:

    Sir, I thank you; Sir, I thank you, said the frog to the crow, and then, oh;
    Sir, you're welcome; Sir, you're welcome, said the crow to the frog again, oh.

    - The Frog and the Crow, cited in Notes & Queries, 1851

  15. Adrian Morgan said,

    July 7, 2010 @ 8:29 pm

    I'm surprised to see commenter Xmun identifying "you're welcome" as AmE.

    I don't know whether "you're welcome" was originally AmE, or whether it is proportionally more common in AmE, but speaking as an Australian who has lived in Britain (as a child of < 6 years), I do know that it is well-established globally. Here in Australia, it's the primary and least marked expression for acknowledging thanks. In Britain, politeness rituals vary a lot more with region, social class, etc, but I'm pretty sure "you're welcome" has been an established and respectable option for decades.

  16. Matthew Kehrt said,

    July 7, 2010 @ 8:48 pm

    When on several occasions, I (an American) have been in London, I tend to hear "cheers" used as a response to "thank you". This has the unfortunate effect of utterly shutting down my mind and deeply confusing me, because that is in no way the response I expect. To my brain, there is only one possible response to "thank you" and that is "you're welcome". "Cheers" just isn't the right number of syllables; I can't even parse it fast enough to figure out what is going on.

    Of course, I don't mean this as a real criticism, so much as a comment as to how baffling I find this.

  17. Richard Howland-Bolton said,

    July 7, 2010 @ 8:52 pm

    @Adrian
    Well I must admit that I did very little research and that I haven't lived in the UK since the tail-end of the 1970s, but in the 30 years before that I never remember hearing it used: course it might just be that in all that time I never once thanked anyone for anything.

  18. Adrian Morgan said,

    July 7, 2010 @ 9:43 pm

    Likewise with the research … as stated, I was a child of < 6, and all I know is that I was never conscious of it being something other families didn't say … it would surprise me if the expression is really so rare throughout all demographics of BrE, is all.

    Only my statements about AuE should be regarded as authoritative.

  19. Nanani said,

    July 7, 2010 @ 10:06 pm

    Josef Fruehwald already said most of what I would have said, so I'll just chime in to say that it is epicly frustrating to see anyone deride online acquaintances, of any depth or provenance, as somehow not being "real".
    Do people subscribing to this theory believe everybody else on the internet is a bot?

  20. HP said,

    July 7, 2010 @ 10:09 pm

    As an 812-year-old revenant (woo! big shout-out to William de Wrotham, Lord Warden of the Stanneries! represent!), I find I'm not bothered at all by singular they, but I find the nasty modern habit of dropping the gender for inanimate nouns extremely crude. At least I can still call the ships of my line "she."

  21. Mr. Fnortner said,

    July 7, 2010 @ 10:35 pm

    I think we went through a phase when "[No.] Thank you." was the response to "Thank you." I, for one, am glad not to hear it very often anymore. Perhaps we could resolve all replies to "Thank you" to a simple "OK" and be done with it.

  22. the other Mark P said,

    July 7, 2010 @ 11:13 pm

    : in an age in which one click establishes a new "friend," young people may be losing the skills to build real friendships and negotiate real social encounters.

    How friends ever survived the telephone is a mystery, as it is well known that communication spoils friendship.

    Well, maybe not.

  23. Matt McIrvin said,

    July 8, 2010 @ 12:02 am

    There's a context in which "you're welcome" as a response to "thank you" actually sounds odd (to me) in AmE: following the "thank you" uttered at the closing of a commercial transaction, say, by a cashier.

    A "thank you" in return actually seems more natural in this case, perhaps since both parties at least nominally regard the transaction as win-win rather than as a favor performed by one party for the other.

  24. John Cowan said,

    July 8, 2010 @ 12:25 am

    Now if only we had a proper answer to "Welcome" as distinct from "You're welcome". A Bulgarian once told me that he thought this was a serious limitation of English, that corresponding to "Blessed is he that has come" in Arabic, there is nothing corresponding to "Blessed is he that is found here". So he proposed "Welfound".

  25. J. Goard said,

    July 8, 2010 @ 2:56 am

    @Mr. Fnortner:

    Well, in Korean, the typical response to a ritualized (not heartfelt) kamsahamnida 'Thank you.' is ney 'Yes.' How would that go over in English?

    A: I thank you.
    B: Yeah, you do.

    Curmudgeons ought to feel relieved that the latest influence has been from Romance. A few months of the above and they'd be begging for "no problem" to return.

  26. michael farris said,

    July 8, 2010 @ 3:32 am

    "I tend to hear "cheers" used as a response to "thank you""

    I don't spend any time in the UK but UK tourists in Europe seem to use 'cheers' _instead of_ 'thank you'. I don't know how widespread it is but I've heard apparent Brits of different ages and accents say it.

  27. Cecily said,

    July 8, 2010 @ 3:54 am

    Pogue's comment that 'in an age in which one click establishes a new "friend," young people may be losing the skills to build real friendships and negotiate real social encounters' shows how little he understands or has considered the subject.

    Many people (my uninformed guess is that it is the majority) use Facebook and other social networking sites solely as a way to stay in touch with friends they have made in the real world. For those, The Other Mark P's telephone analogy holds true.

    There are others who use it for making new friends, but many of those do so for commercial or nefarious purposes.

    Pogue's oversimplification should be meaningless, but is actually misleading.

  28. SeanH said,

    July 8, 2010 @ 6:59 am

    As a life-long UKer (East London), I concur with michael farris that "cheers" is in my experience a replacement for "thank you". I am also confused at the suggestion that "you're welcome" isn't something we say here. I say it all the time. Well, obviously, I only say it having been thanked for something in a context of sufficient formality to justify a proper response, but still, I say it. It's hardly uncommon.

  29. Plegmund said,

    July 8, 2010 @ 7:17 am

    I'd say the primary meaning of "cheers" in the UK is certainly "thanks", but I wouldn't be surprised to hear it used in response to "thanks", meaning something like "thank you for thanking me!". It's one of those all-purpose phatic words anyway, never really wrong; perhaps that helps explain any baffling quality.

    "You're welcome" seems quite current in UK usage to me: I never heard of it's being particularly American before: but I think it does have a non-U tinge, if not as strong as that of standard class shibboleths like 'pardon',or 'pleased to meet you'.

  30. Zubon said,

    July 8, 2010 @ 8:04 am

    Matt McIrvin: Don't most Americans engage in mutual thanks in that case, perhaps just acknowledge the cashier rather than respond? I cannot recall ever having heard someone tell a waitress or cashier "you're welcome" to their patronage. I do recall someone's essay on how wonderful the mutual exchange of thanks in a commercial transaction is, what with mutual appreciation, neither thinking of it as taking advantage of the other, Pareto optimality, and otherwise effusive about American capitalist spirit.

    Is "no problem" really sweeping American English? I see it frequently in my online peer group ("ty" "np" is far more common than "ty" "yw"), but I hear it far less often aloud.

  31. language hat said,

    July 8, 2010 @ 9:39 am

    I think it's actually ok to admit to having language attitudes. We're all just people, living in some social world, so we all are going to think something or another about the way another person speaks.

    Of course it is. We also frequently think thoughts about, say, overweight people that would sound awful if we said them out loud, so we don't. I don't really see how "I detest the way you speak" is much different.

  32. Jerry Friedman said,

    July 8, 2010 @ 10:01 am

    @ J. Goard

    Well, in Korean, the typical response to a ritualized (not heartfelt) kamsahamnida 'Thank you.' is ney 'Yes.' How would that go over in English?

    A: I thank you.
    B: Yeah, you do.

    Here in New Mexico (maybe mostly in Santa Fe), a common response to "Thanks" is "Uh-huh", especially if the favor was minor, such as pausing in the door one has pulled open and holding it so the next person can grab it easily.

  33. Buck Ritter said,

    July 8, 2010 @ 10:28 am

    Ah, language hat, the supreme arbiter of what is and is not politically correct. It's kind of you to take on that burden for your descriptivist colleagues, who as we all know are naturally live-and-let-live types.

  34. language hat said,

    July 8, 2010 @ 10:45 am

    Ah, language hat, the supreme arbiter of what is and is not politically correct. It's kind of you to take on that burden for your descriptivist colleagues, who as we all know are naturally live-and-let-live types.

    Sorry, I'm completely unable to parse your doubtless subtle and sophisticated use of irony, and I continue both to think saying "I detest the way you speak" is impolite and to have no idea what that might have to do with prescriptivism/descriptivism.

    [(myl) 'Buck Ritter', who has been an occasional commenter for the past few months, is almost always insulting, and almost never seems to have read or understood the material he's commenting on. Even allowing for their lack of relevance, his contributions rarely contain any content beyond his own disdain and sense of (usually misplaced) outrage. Future comments with that array of characteristics will be deleted.]

  35. Xmun said,

    July 8, 2010 @ 3:37 pm

    language hat: I continue both to think saying "I detest the way you speak" is impolite.

    Well, I was the one who originally used that word "detest", in reference to something I once heard in a hotel in Maine. I wasn't intentionally being impolite to any Language Logger, and I gave no hint to my brother's former employees (who, I'm sure, have long since forgotten I exist and won't be reading this) that I found their constant repetition of "you're welcome" both somewhat tiresome and also mildly amusing.

  36. Xmun said,

    July 8, 2010 @ 3:42 pm

    From which you may infer that the controversial word "detest" in my original post was, shall we say, hyperbolical.

  37. Bloix said,

    July 8, 2010 @ 3:54 pm

    From observation only, it appears to me that "you're welcome" is on its way out.

    For ordinary transactions between social equals or where social status is not being acknowledged (i.e. A holds the door for B, who says "thanks") the usual response is either "sure," "no problem," or "uh huh." Or perhaps, "no biggie."

    Where a person of lower status is being thanked for providing a service for which he or she is being compensated, and wishes to acknowledge the nature of the relationship (e.g. a waiter, a personal assistant to the boss), the standard response is "thank YOU," meaning "it is my privilege to do you a service."

    "You're welcome" has become very formal, to the point that if used in informal situations it might be perceived as stand-offish or rude.

  38. Bloix said,

    July 8, 2010 @ 4:02 pm

    PS- iirc there's a scene in a Marx Brothers movie in which Groucho repeatedly says "thank YOU" in response to Margaret Dumont's thank you's. Perhaps someone recalls which one.

  39. Katy said,

    July 8, 2010 @ 4:08 pm

    Zubon, in my experience, "no problem" is indeed very common, but I hear it mostly from younger people.

    "Any time" also works nicely.

  40. Topher said,

    July 8, 2010 @ 5:20 pm

    In the summer of 69, when I was in high school, I worked at an amusement park selling soft-serve ice cream. I would always say "Thank you" just as the customer started to turn away (analyzing my own past unconscious behavior, I would guess that I took them turning away as a non-verbal signal of "transaction complete"). Sometimes, however, the customer would say "Thank you" first just as I handed them the change, to which I would reply "Thank *you*!". This became so habitual that when someone would stop to ask directions and thank me for the information I would automatically say "Thank *you*!" to be greeted by puzzled looks.

  41. michael farris said,

    July 8, 2010 @ 5:46 pm

    Topher, I spent a few miserable months behind the cash register of a convenience store. We were expected to thank every customer (whether or not they thanked us first) and ater a time I noticed I was saying Thank _you_ even when they didn't thank me first. I want to think that the intonation pattern differed slightly depending on whether my 'thank _you_' was the first or second thanking out there but I could be fooling myself.

    In non-corporate managed interactions I think I answer "thank you" with "no problem", "anytime" or even "my pleasure" more often than 'you're welcome'.

  42. Ray Girvan said,

    July 8, 2010 @ 9:22 pm

    the other Mark P quoted Pogue:
    in an age in which one click establishes a new "friend,"

    And that in itself is an anti-technology cliche that makes my back open and shut. I want to sit these people down in front of a computer and say, "Go on, establish a new 'friend', access the vilest pornography, steal someone's bank details … do whatever the hell it is bugs you about others doing on the Internet … with one click as you claim is possible".

  43. MJ said,

    July 8, 2010 @ 11:05 pm

    I'm a Chik Fil-a patron, and the employees there are apparently trained to respond to "thank you" with the rather distinctive "my pleasure."

  44. michael farris said,

    July 9, 2010 @ 2:15 am

    MJ, ewwwww. I do say 'my pleasure' but for personal, not commercialized relationships. On the other hand, "our pleasure" would seem to be completely okay for me. Odd……

  45. Jerry Friedman said,

    July 9, 2010 @ 12:14 pm

    I've been saying "My pleasure" or "It's a pleasure" to the people I'm tutoring this summer. Is that personal enough not to get an "ewwwww"?

    (Sometimes it's a pleasure and sometimes it isn't. See post about inability to understand simple sentences.)

  46. John said,

    July 10, 2010 @ 5:16 pm

    Argh, the "Facebook friends aren't real friends" argument. I'm already sick of hearing it from z-class standups and whingeing babyboomers, but to hear it suggesed as an actual psychological hypothesis from a professional is just panful. Don't think I can possily put my reaction better than Josef Fruehwald earlier – "[this] requires belief in some kind of word-magic, where activities involving one set of entities called "friends" can have an effect on some other set of entities, also called "friends,""

    If every Facebook contact was called a "pound" would all these sneering technophiles start suggesting that netizens were incapable of quantifying their own bank accounts?

  47. Topher said,

    July 11, 2010 @ 6:45 pm

    "I want to sit these people down in front of a computer and say, 'Go on, establish a new 'friend', access the vilest pornography, steal someone's bank details … do whatever the hell it is bugs you about others doing on the Internet … with one click as you claim is possible'."

    As the old adage says:

    "The journey of a thousand web pages ends with but a single click."

    Topher

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