Singular they with personal name antecedent

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

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


Startling, didn't you think? My claim has always been that you just can't get singular they with a proper name of a person as antecedent. And now, here is an example of it. If you think the letter is unremarkable and fully acceptable English, then we have a counterexample to my claim. On the other hand, if you find their the second sentence jarringly inappropriate, the sentence is just evidence that I'm right. You be the judge.

I happen to think the use of their sucks canal water, so I'm still happy with my claim (though I did once come close to thinking I had found a counterexample myself: see here).

But then that's just what I would say, isn't it? You can't really trust me once I've stated my generalization and hitched some of my street cred as a grammarian to it. What you've got to decide is whether the evidence you see and hear convinces you that my generalization simply has to be discarded. If so, tough for me: I'll just have to get used to the fact that I was once (just once) someone who was wrong on the Internet.

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  1. Rodger C said,

    September 1, 2010 @ 10:48 am

    I suspect that the applicant's name has been added to a standard message.

  2. digory said,

    September 1, 2010 @ 11:03 am

    Isn't there room between "unremarkable" and "jarringly inappropriate"? I thought it slightly odd, but no worse than that. In fact, as a scientist in a field where personal pronouns are often a subtle indicator of rampant sexism, I gave a small mental thumbs up. Anyway, I'm with Rodger — looks like cut'n'paste into a boilerplate letter.

  3. Mr Punch said,

    September 1, 2010 @ 11:05 am

    I wonder if this could be a case of aggressive gender neutrality in the hiring process – a standard phraseology that bends over backwards to avoid anything that might prejudice the reference. (Presumably the referee might be familiar only with the candidate's work, and not know, ah, them personally.)

  4. John Lawler said,

    September 1, 2010 @ 11:07 am

    I have noticed that on Facebook, singular referential they is often used to refer to people of obvious gender in "status update" notices, e.g. "Isabel Stanley also commented on their status". This is apparently a matter of how Isabel Stanley has set some of the features on their "Info" page; I've never tried to do it, so I don't know the details. The point is, it's done on purpose, though what purpose is not clear.

  5. John Baker said,

    September 1, 2010 @ 11:07 am

    Would you have a different reaction if the given name were sexually ambiguous?

    [No, that's an important point (which you would know if you had followed the link I gave. For me, ??Chris lost their wallet sounds really, really strange, and the fact that the speaker happens not to know whether it's a Christopher or a Christine that they're talking about doesn't make any difference. On the other hand, Someone called Chris lost their wallet is perfect. I'm not an opponent of singular they at all (here and there among these comments you will see signs that some people think I am, but they just haven't read what I've said about it in my dozens of posts on the topic); I'm a singular they user who finds proper names don't work well as the antecedent. That's not a warning that others shouldn't; it's not a declaration that they're wrong; it's a reflective observation on my own internal syntactic reactions. —GKP]

  6. Bruce said,

    September 1, 2010 @ 11:08 am

    I'm with digory and Rodger. It seems like boilerplate and slightly odd but no more than slightly odd to me.

    Even if I were sure it was not boilerplate I think it would only seem slightly odd.

  7. MattF said,

    September 1, 2010 @ 11:10 am

    I agree that it's jarring– my immediate thought was that "their suitability" is an unsuccessful attempt at gender-free boilerplate.

  8. sep332 said,

    September 1, 2010 @ 11:14 am

    That didn't even stand out to me when I read it. Apparently I'm just used to "aggressive gender neutrality" on the internet.

  9. Richard Hershberger said,

    September 1, 2010 @ 11:21 am

    I too am in the "boilerplate" camp, but I disagree with Mr. Punch's characterization of this as "aggressive gender neutrality". Assuming the boilerplate is used for both male and female applicants, gender neutrality is just common sense. Replace "Gerald" with "Mary" and "their" with "his" and the result is absurd, except for those in the ever-shrinking group who have managed to persuade themselves that "he" is gender neutral.

    My criticism of the letter is that it was sloppily executed. In my profession I frequently mail correspondence which may include standard language. I routinely cut and paste this in, but this means that I need to go through and check for gender agreement. This is simply part of producing a professional letter. The use of "their" in the university's reference check tells me that they have thrown in the towel. There is no hope that anyone will make the effort to do it right, so "their" is used even though it is a poor fit.

  10. Mark P said,

    September 1, 2010 @ 11:30 am

    If it's boilerplate, why not give just a little thought (I timed myself at about two seconds) and replace "their" with "the applicant's"?

  11. Ginger Yellow said,

    September 1, 2010 @ 11:31 am

    "Isn't there room between "unremarkable" and "jarringly inappropriate"? I thought it slightly odd, but no worse than that. "

    That's pretty much my response. I wouldn't have written "their" myself, but I don't find it particularly jarring. Then again, I'm very relaxed about singular "they" as a rule.

    I wonder if its use in this case is influenced by excessive concern about/internalisation of gender sensitivity in HR.

  12. tashi said,

    September 1, 2010 @ 11:33 am

    Mr. Black certainly won't have put his gender on his CV, so the university only has his name to go on. They probably use "their" in the boiler plate in case they get applications from people named Lindsay, George or Phil, whose gender the HR people can't figure out. Also HR people would probably be worried about liability if it became obvious that they had taken the time to figure it out.

  13. Erin said,

    September 1, 2010 @ 11:33 am

    This probably isn't relevant to the example in question, but not everyone fits neatly into the category of "man" or "woman"–as with sexual orientation, there aren't just two options. There are a variety of gender-neutral pronouns out there, but singular "they" is my favorite, and I think it is appropriate to use it with a proper name of a person as antecedent in some situations.

  14. Dean said,

    September 1, 2010 @ 11:33 am

    Honestly, wouldn't have noticed it if it weren't pointed out.

  15. Leo said,

    September 1, 2010 @ 11:39 am

    John Lawler: Facebook uses "they" if the user hasn't specified his/her/their gender on his/her/their profile.

  16. logodaedalist said,

    September 1, 2010 @ 11:42 am

    It is weird to me. My only two guesses are that either it's a premade template that all one has to do is insert the name and position, or that they're just trying to be as PC as possible and based on the fact that some names are gender-ambiguous, assuming that all names could possibly refer to someone of either gender…

  17. D. Sky Onosson said,

    September 1, 2010 @ 11:43 am

    I find this completely unremarkable, and I'm sure I myself say things like this all the time (though probably in much more informal settings). If the topic of the post didn't give it away, I don't think I would have picked out the "error" even if you asked me to find it!

  18. Amy Stoller said,

    September 1, 2010 @ 11:51 am

    I agree it would have been better had the letter been edited to remove "their" and substitute "his" for the pseudonymous male job applicant.

    But it only raises my eyebrow a little, since to my sorrow I find I can no longer expect decent proofreading and copy-editing even in proofreaders and copy-editors; let alone in a word-processor cranking out umpty-ump boilerplate letters per day.

    Incidentally, did you not mean "sex," rather than "gender"?

  19. Faldone said,

    September 1, 2010 @ 11:51 am

    I initially thought that the point of the post was going to be revealed below the fold, so I guess I didn't find it very odd. The Facebook use of singular they is triggered by the person not stating their sex in the Personal Info.

  20. Josh said,

    September 1, 2010 @ 11:52 am

    If the blog post hadn't indicated what to expect, I don't think I would have found anything objectionable in that message.

  21. Daniel Rowlands said,

    September 1, 2010 @ 11:55 am

    This seems like a perfectly reasonable usage to me, if a slightly atypical one. In practice–at least in many fields–there will be many cases of people whose gender can't be figured out from their name, and not just names like Pat or Phil, but non-English names where the gender may be obvious to someone from the right culture, but is completely ambiguous to the average English-speaker. Thus, there will be a lot of cases where you'd have to use "they"; it makes sense to want to be uniform, especially in an HR context where one doesn't want to be accused of some sort of discrimination, so why not use a gender-neutral phrasing for everyone?

  22. digory said,

    September 1, 2010 @ 12:00 pm

    Tashi makes a great point. Assuming you don't put your gender on your CV, they have only your first name to go on — and guessing genders from names, while reasonable for a name like "Gerald", is a hazardous business in general, and for an HR department in particular.

  23. JLR said,

    September 1, 2010 @ 12:07 pm

    Does anyone know how facebook handles the situation in other languages, where the analogue of 'their' might not be an option?

  24. Joe said,

    September 1, 2010 @ 12:13 pm

    For those of you find this ok, would you only use "their" or all the inflectional forms of "they" when the antecedent is a proper name?

  25. J. W. Brewer said,

    September 1, 2010 @ 12:17 pm

    So will Prof. Ladd rise to the challenge and write a reference letter using only they/them/their/theirs when referring to the applicant?

  26. michael farris said,

    September 1, 2010 @ 12:24 pm

    After a little thought, I think that structurally it's not odd at all. On the other hand, sociolinguistically it is a little odd for a university to be using 'their' afer a name. I approve, but it's not something you see everyday.

    I also assume this is boilerplate with as few open spots as possible. After all, that's the whole point of boilerplate – I've done office work and every blank is an opportunity for someone to make a mistake, if I were writing a similar boilerplate letter I'd probably use 'their' until overruled.

    I also think that alternatives like

    'grateful if you could provide a reference on his or her suitability for this post.'

    'grateful if you could provide a reference on the applicant's suitability for this post.'

    are worse than it is as written.

  27. Dw said,

    September 1, 2010 @ 12:35 pm

    I'm with Pullum. This letter made me want to puke.

  28. michael farris said,

    September 1, 2010 @ 12:38 pm

    Dw, didn't think they'd check those references, did you?

  29. Confused said,

    September 1, 2010 @ 12:42 pm

    Not wanting to get on a soapbox about it, but all this stuff about use of singular their "sucking canal water", and labelling it "aggressive gender neutrality" smacks a little of gender privelege. Personally, I do find this perfectly valid and acceptable English, and even if it is boilerplate convenience, I think it's a step in the right direction to making singular "they" acceptable.

    Hypothetically speaking, let's imagine that Dr. Gerald Black was a neutrois. (since his salutation is gender neutral, it's not really clear that they are not). Neither "his" or "her" would be appropriate in this situation. What would be the grammatically correct form? Or are you going to pretend that intergender people don't exist, or if they do, should be forced to conform to one or the other?

  30. Scott said,

    September 1, 2010 @ 12:59 pm

    Looks like someone needs to check her standard English usage…

  31. Walter Underwood said,

    September 1, 2010 @ 1:13 pm

    I would never write that, but I didn't find it jarring. I might not have noticed without it being pointed out.

    This might be missed because it is so far away from the antecedent. Who says "I would be grateful if you could provide" instead of "Please provide"? Get to the point. Please.

  32. Not My Leg said,

    September 1, 2010 @ 1:17 pm

    This being Language Log I was probably looking for something 'off' when I read the message, and that being the case, immediately recognized the singular they with a proper name. Having said that, I don't have a particular problem with it, and question whether I would have given it a second thought if I read it outside of the context of a language blog.

  33. Peter Taylor said,

    September 1, 2010 @ 1:18 pm

    JLR asked

    Does anyone know how facebook handles the situation in other languages, where the analogue of 'their' might not be an option?

    It depends on what the Facebook users who opted in to translate that language go for. Facebook can't be bothered to spend money on professional translators. I've seen some shockers in the Spanish localisation.

  34. Will said,

    September 1, 2010 @ 1:21 pm

    I find this entirely acceptable, and I'm certain I wouldn't have noticed if not pointed out to me. I probably wouldn't personally write something like this, but it doesn't strike me as problematic. Maybe I've been conditioned by automated boilerplate text, particularly on Facebook (as many others have pointed out, singular they with personal name antecedent is common on Facebook). But even if so, that doesn't change the fact that it seems unremarkable to me.

  35. Thomas Thurman said,

    September 1, 2010 @ 1:34 pm

    It doesn't stand out as odd to me.

  36. JR said,

    September 1, 2010 @ 1:39 pm

    I found it a little odd, but not so much that I would have found it remarkable without being pointed it out. Certainly not jarringly inappropriate.

    The sense I got from it was more awkward in an overly formal sense. As if perhaps gender-neutral "they" was a marker of highly formal speech, like a mutant "tu-vous" or the royal "we".

  37. Matt said,

    September 1, 2010 @ 1:40 pm

    The sentence didn't bother me in the slightest.

  38. Aaron Toivo said,

    September 1, 2010 @ 1:42 pm

    I honestly have difficulty conceiving of this not being acceptable to some.

    The pronoun choice is of course meaningful, and it is not much to do with gender issues: using "they" distances the speaker/writer from their referent, which comes across as coldly professional, in the manner of a stereotyped lab experimenter who refers to each of his subjects only by number. ("Subject 14 reported experiencing the scent of chamomile upon the electrical stimulation of their anterior hippocampal commissure"…) If the writer in this case had used "his" instead of "their" it would have slightly cracked that little wall of disinterested professionalism by adding a small element of personal warmth and familiarity.

  39. John said,

    September 1, 2010 @ 1:43 pm

    I actually had to read three times to find what you were saying was odd, twice before reading the following text and once after. Reads perfectly fine to me.

  40. groki said,

    September 1, 2010 @ 1:57 pm

    for me it's only a whiff of canal water: noticeable but not jarring. and like Confused, I'm in favor of the usage as "a step in the right direction." also, Walter Underwood noted the distance from the antecedent. to me it seems that, as the referential cloud of "their" drifts back across almost two sentences, much of the jarringness dissipates.

    so, how much more jarring, from the standpoint of "their" usage, is the following (admittedly clumsy) restatement?

    Dr Gerald Black has sent us their application for a position of Lecturer …

  41. Bobbie said,

    September 1, 2010 @ 2:00 pm

    "..he is male, and his real name couldn't leave you in any doubt about that." Really?? Are you sure??
    I have met females named Irving, Hunter, Wing (Caucasian), Sam, Frankie, Carter. I know of males named Marion, Evelyn, Carroll, Beverly.
    So how can anyone be **sure that Gerald (or Robert or Michael or Walter) is a male??

  42. Xmun said,

    September 1, 2010 @ 2:12 pm

    My son Jeremy uses "they/them/their" like that all the time in his speech, with antecedents that are unambiguously singular and definite. I don't know why. I think it's probably just because it's easier. He doesn't have to work out which is appropriate, him or her or it.

    [What's Jeremy's age? —GKP]

  43. D. Sky Onosson said,

    September 1, 2010 @ 2:19 pm

    Joe asked: "For those of you find this ok, would you only use "their" or all the inflectional forms of "they" when the antecedent is a proper name?"

    I could definitely see nominative "they" as a referent to a proper name antecedent, even (especially?) where the referent is well known to both parties in the conversation.

    For some reason, I'm having a harder time thinking of good examples with "them", which feels more as if it specifies plural reference a little more forcefully, though I couldn't tell you exactly why.

  44. eye5600 said,

    September 1, 2010 @ 2:20 pm

    Speaking as a mathematician and computer programmer, it's a straight error in number.

    [Mathematics and computer science have nothing to do with this. I'm assuming that Any student who doesn't understand this algorithm should make sure they come and see me is fully grammatical. The issue is whether the singular antecedent of they can be a singular human proper name. —GKP]

    "On behalf of the Department of Criminology at the University of Penzance, I would be grateful if you could provide a reference for Dr Gerald Black who has applied for a position of Lecturer."

  45. digory said,

    September 1, 2010 @ 2:23 pm

    Indeed, Ben Zimmer covered the Facebook issue on this very Log:
    http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=281

    FWIW, my Facebook account still doesn't have a gender and they don't hassle me about it.

  46. Rubrick said,

    September 1, 2010 @ 2:23 pm

    It didn't bother me too much. I suspect that's largely because their appeared in a separate sentence from its antecedent. If it had been "Dr Gerald Black has decided to apply their talents to the field of criminology" I would have found it very jarring indeed.

    I should also mention that my initial reaction is suspect, since the title of the post and the opening paragraph telegraphed what was coming.

  47. R. Daneel Olivaw said,

    September 1, 2010 @ 2:26 pm

    I'm just curious about why you chose the pseudonym Gerald Black. Was it a reference to the two Isaac Asimov short stories about a character with that name? Or just a coincidence?

    [Coincidence. I don't know the Asimov stories. —GKP]

  48. George said,

    September 1, 2010 @ 2:29 pm

    I too found it jarring.

    If the employer was being extra careful about gender, the letter could have just repeated the name: I would be grateful if you could provide a reference on Dr. Black's suitability for this post.

    Maybe the rule (you just can't get singular 'they' with a proper name of a person as antecedent) should be modified to: You can't get a singular 'they' with the proper name of a person whose gender is known.

  49. Uly said,

    September 1, 2010 @ 2:34 pm

    I think it's odd, and that as a general rule when you CAN alter the sentence to neatly avoid singular they, you SHOULD (usually by switching the antecedent to a plural), however, this strikes me as the logical conclusion of the greater acceptability of singular they.

  50. Chris Vosburg said,

    September 1, 2010 @ 2:36 pm

    I'd substitute "the applicant's" for "their" in the boilerplate and be done with it, dodging gender neutrality and singular/plural agreement issues altogether.

  51. Luis said,

    September 1, 2010 @ 2:37 pm

    It's a form letter. END OF LINE. (As for the Facebook thing, I am pretty sure that's what happens if you don't specify a sex for your profile. Perhaps aggravated by the fact that a lot of sex-unspecified profiles are groups, businesses, or couples.)

  52. Mark F. said,

    September 1, 2010 @ 2:43 pm

    It didn't stand out to me because the person's name was rather far from the pronoun, so my attention wasn't called to the mismatch between the generality of the chosen pronoun and the specificity of the actual name.

    For me, "Gerald Black wants their resume to be considered" sounds really bad, but the example you showed didn't stand out.

    Perhaps that only means that, as an error, it is an easy one not to notice.

  53. Emma Ehrhardt said,

    September 1, 2010 @ 2:43 pm

    It sounds fine to me, but I say that as a 24 yr old who's been active on Facebook the last 4.5 yrs. I wouldn't doubt if my exposure to similar things there has conditioned my acceptance of this instance here.

  54. Chandra said,

    September 1, 2010 @ 2:52 pm

    To chime in with Bobbie above, there was a female customer at the pharmacy where I used to work named Michael.

    I didn't find the paragraph jarring, but that's at least partly because I had a good idea of what was going on before I read it. I wish I had been able to read it with no prior introduction to see if the "their" jumped out at me. My guess is that I would have noticed it as being non-standard, but wouldn't have been particularly surprised.

  55. Mr Fnortner said,

    September 1, 2010 @ 2:55 pm

    The use of "their" is jarring because of the proper name antecedent–it ineptly mixes two levels of precision in one utterance. The use would be just as jarring (though not with the same grammatical question) if the sentence had been, Someone has applied for a position of Lecturer in the Department of Criminology at the University of Penzance. I would be grateful if you could provide a reference on Dr Gerald Black's suitability for this post.

    That aside, is anyone concerned about the preposition "on" in a reference on their suitability for this post? Would not a better sentence be I would be grateful if you could provide a reference regarding [or addressing] his suitability for this post.?

  56. Derry said,

    September 1, 2010 @ 2:59 pm

    It doesn't bother me. I don't think I'd be worried by the addition of "If they request it, a copy of this reference may be shown to them." either.

    But then, my name is considered ambiguous by some and just wrong by others. It can be quite fun seeing people jump when you come into room and know they've been making assumptions.

  57. Nick D said,

    September 1, 2010 @ 3:01 pm

    This is 100% fine for me; I agree with Emma, above. I'm 22, and my intuition is that this is startlingly common in online media. I might actually /say/ this one.

    But I find Mark F's example very jarring. Hm.

  58. Derry said,

    September 1, 2010 @ 3:03 pm

    But (please forgive the double commenting) I might find it more jarring if the applicant's name had been given as Mr. Gerald Black.

  59. Bob C said,

    September 1, 2010 @ 3:06 pm

    The message sender could have said "Dr Black's suitability" and avoided this whole brouhaha.

  60. Lemuel Pitkin said,

    September 1, 2010 @ 3:08 pm

    Seems perfectly normal to me. Not sure I would have noticed, if it hadn't been pointed out.

    Inferring gender from name is just asking for embarassing mistakes. Using alternatives like "the applicant's" is extra work, and can sometimes (tho not in this case) result in awkward constructions. "Their" seems like the logical choice.

    And even if this particular usage is still unusual, it's part of the larger evolution of singular "they", which is a familiar and long-standing development in English. Once you accept singular "their" in principle, why should you expect the line but-not-after-a-proper-noun to remain uncrossed?

  61. Nathan Myers said,

    September 1, 2010 @ 3:11 pm

    In a scene near the end of "Chasing Amy", a lesbian character (played by Joey Lauren Adams) is deliberately vague to her lesbian chums about her new beau (played by Ben Affeck). "You'd like them", she says, arousing instant suspicion and only momentarily delayed hostility. Cowardice is even worse than disloyalty.

  62. Jefffey Straszheim said,

    September 1, 2010 @ 3:22 pm

    A quick and unscientific survey of my coworkers gives two who were bothered by it and one who thought it sounded a bit odd, but not too odd.

  63. Lemuel Pitkin said,

    September 1, 2010 @ 3:26 pm

    Nathan-

    I was thinking of that scene too. And the important thing is that the chums didn't ask her why she was talking funny, but why she was being vague about which team she was playing on. Of course there wasn't a proper name involved.

  64. J. W. Brewer said,

    September 1, 2010 @ 3:29 pm

    Perhaps not in academic CV's or even cover letters accompanying the same but I have found UK business correspondence to sometimes very explicitly indicate the sex of the sender in a way that US style generally doesn't — ironically enough as an apparent result of the greater tendency to use sex-obscuring initials. So a letter might be signed, e.g. not Deborah E. Jones but "D E Jones (Mrs)." This is, in context, a courtesy to the recipient, who might wish to respond and not wish to get stuck figuring out how to address the response. Not everyone is so hoity-toity as to have a sex-neutral courtesy title like Dr. or Prof. that can be used to duck that issue.

  65. John Roth said,

    September 1, 2010 @ 3:41 pm

    I find it sufficiently odd that it calls attention to itself, but then I'm a member of the older generation and a lot of modern usages still haven't become totally transparent.

    I suspect that the people who think that it's a form letter are correct. While it's possible to generate the correct pronoun, it requires that the form be generated from a data base entry that contains the gender, otherwise a lot of people are simply not going to bother supplying the information.

  66. maevele said,

    September 1, 2010 @ 3:47 pm

    I'm a big proponent of normalizing the singular They, both as a gender neutral pronoun and in mroe general circumstances. I did not find this jarring at all.

  67. Sili said,

    September 1, 2010 @ 3:47 pm

    A bit odd, perhaps.

    But I agree that it's an elegant choice for a form letter. Some of the applicants might well be female, and this saves the author for having to check if they've corrected all the gendered pronouns in the message. It's not like dr Black is likely to be the only candidate – academia is fierce.

  68. richard howland-bolton said,

    September 1, 2010 @ 3:57 pm

    @Jefffey Straszheim bit OT I know, but having been brought up on the British spelling of 'co-worker' I always get this terrible and unavoidable mental image from the US un-hyphenated version of teenage boys out in the sticks who have got bored with mere cow tipping.

  69. language hat said,

    September 1, 2010 @ 3:58 pm

    I thought it slightly odd, but no worse than that.

    Same here. Geoff, I fear English is sailing off without you!

    [I'm fully capable of catching up with it. Don't worry. But at the moment I'm just trying to figure out which way it's going. —GKP]

  70. msH said,

    September 1, 2010 @ 3:59 pm

    I noticed it, I don't know if I would have if you hadn't drawn attention to it. It's noticeable and a little odd. I find it hard to say if I think it's wrong or not, because I noticed it mainly as a fairly good solution to a practical problem, looking at it from the application developer's point of view.

    The trouble is that the system has two problems to solve here, and in this case the solutions are somewhat contradictory. We have to solve:

    (a) the problem that the gender is sometimes known and sometimes not, and
    (b) the problem of sounding like a computer – because we are one.

    For me, "their" has solved (a) well – in all situations except this very common one, and acceptably in this one. And it's also made a good stab at (b) because it sounds like something a real human being would write. The obvious alternatives, like "this applicant" or "this person", seem stiff and unnaturally formal. They draw attention to themselves, and thereby the computer, failing somewhat at (b) but solving (a) better. I think there's a tradeoff.

    "His or her" with a gendered name is the worst-case scenario, drawing attention to the computer to an absurd degree. A total failure at (b) and unacceptable as a solution.

    But there may be other circumlocutions, or total rewrites, that reach a better compromise.

  71. Roy Peter Clark said,

    September 1, 2010 @ 4:02 pm

    Sorry if it's already been suggested, but what about "the candidate's suitability" for the job. Some of my friends in journalism would refer to that as "writing around" the problem.

  72. BobH said,

    September 1, 2010 @ 4:54 pm

    I'm voting for jarring. But I can't swear that I would've noticed it if you hadn't pointed it out.

  73. Joyce Melton said,

    September 1, 2010 @ 4:59 pm

    In a world with women named Michael and men named Shirley — and the increasingly obvious observation that there are people who don't neatly fit in one of two boxes — singular they is going to get more and more use.

  74. Ken Brown said,

    September 1, 2010 @ 5:11 pm

    @George said: "Maybe the rule (you just can't get singular 'they' with a proper name of a person as antecedent) should be modified to: You can't get a singular 'they' with the proper name of a person whose gender is known."

    But you can. Its anecdotal of course, but for the last few years I have been trying to pay attention to odd things I overhear spoken (and sometimes blog about them). I have certainly often heard singular "they" being used for people whose sex is known. I think its nothing at all to do with politically-motivated gender-neutrality. For example a man telling an anecdote about one of his brother's girlfriends and using "they" consistently rather than "she". In a pub, neither the speaker nor listeners (other than me) with a university education, and most people present working as drivers, builders, carpenters and similar jobs. The London equivalent of Joe the Plumber can use singular "they" while telling sexist jokes.

    Is there are regionalism to this? I'm from the South East of England, in my 50s, speaking what I would prefer wasn't called "Estuary English". Singular "they" seems common and unexceptional to me. I use it often in formal and informal situations and suspect that I have done since childhood. Though as I wasn't recording the way I spoke I can't really know that. Might be a false memory.

  75. LassLisa said,

    September 1, 2010 @ 5:12 pm

    Looks acceptable to me. A tad stilted, because it does make it apparent that the author (or script, etc) does not know the gender of the person. And so there is that momentary "haven't you _interviewed_ them?" moment of incredulity before I realize it's surely a form letter or one of many similar requests sent out without great thought/effort/individualization.

  76. Xmun said,

    September 1, 2010 @ 5:19 pm

    [What's Jeremy's age? —GKP]

    He turns 39 in November.

  77. Ray Girvan said,

    September 1, 2010 @ 5:39 pm

    Ken Brown: I'm from the South East of England, in my 50s, speaking what I would prefer wasn't called "Estuary English". Singular "they" seems common and unexceptional to me.

    Data point seconded. I'm from Gosport (central south coast), where in my childhood they spoke something like a hybrid between Hampshire accent and what's now called Estuary. To me, singular "they" always has been completely normal, and it was quite a surprise to encounter, decades later, the view that it's wrong.

  78. J. W. Brewer said,

    September 1, 2010 @ 6:20 pm

    Obviously there are *some* given names used in Anglophone cultures that do not reliably indicate sex, and some individuals who are counterexamples to the generally strong sex-indication signal of a particular name (e.g., W.B. Yeats' wife apparently really was named "George"), but surely the question is how significant a percentage of the population that really applies to and whether that percentage is increasing over time. At least in the U.S., there does not impressionistically seem to be a dramatic decrease in the use of sex-indicating given names in recent decades despite lots of social ferment about sex roles etc. Novel names generally get sorted to a sex by some tacit cultural process (so, e.g., Taylor is predominantly a girls' name but Tyler predominantly a boys' name, although ex ante the opposite assignment might have seemed just as plausible). There seem to be no names that are common to the top 100 for girls and top 100 for boys born in the U.S. in 2009, and those on one of those lists that are also sometimes used for the other sex are rarely used with anything close to 50/50 distribution. To take the first two random examples I tested, 79% of children named Avery in 2009 were girls, and 89% of those named Cameron were boys.

    The relevance here is that surely as a matter of pragmatics the extent to which resort is made to singular they to avoid the risk of "getting it wrong" ought to some extent be driven by how common the sort of ambiguity that might lead to that risk actually is.

    Here, were I to have received the request, I likely would have assumed the sender knew full well the sex of the candidate but was too lazy to customize the form letter template. (Although being able to retroactively justify sheer laziness as instead reflecting a concerted attempt at a progressive worldview is I suppose something of a bonus?) That would, all else being equal, probably make me feel less inclined to respond to the request.

  79. Curt Anderson said,

    September 1, 2010 @ 6:25 pm

    I'm not too bothered by it. It's slightly odd, but not completely bad. Someone mentioned the Facebook status 'their', i.e., "Susie Q. commented on their status," which I find very odd. In contrast to Facebook 'their', I think the original example above is better.

  80. Geraint Jennings said,

    September 1, 2010 @ 6:30 pm

    Seems completely normal to me (BrE). Sort of thing I probably say all the time. Would never have noted that this is the sort of construction that some people find odd, if it hadn't been specifically pointed out. Even when pointed out, have trouble really empathising with the objections. Even if it was suggested I might reword to accommodate other people's (to me) bonkers objections, would feel uncomfortable so doing.

  81. empty said,

    September 1, 2010 @ 6:45 pm

    Definitely jarred here, but not outraged.

  82. George said,

    September 1, 2010 @ 8:02 pm

    @Ken Brown: I proposed the modification as a 'descriptive' not a 'prescriptive' rule based a personal judgement of grammaticality.

    it seems from a number of comments here that there is a generational thing going on. My jarred reaction was that of someone who acquired their grammar deep in the last century in the American south. Others, some confessing their relative youth, seem to find it perfectly grammatical.

  83. Nathan said,

    September 1, 2010 @ 8:07 pm

    @J. W. Brewer: Even 89% might not be enough to make me confident in using "his" for Cameron, if I were sending out a lot of letters. But as several people have said, there were felicitous ways to avoid singular they in the original letter, and it's still a good idea to look for such.

  84. bloix said,

    September 1, 2010 @ 8:12 pm

    I don't find it odd, just clunky. To me it feels stylistically bad, but not grammatically incorrect.

  85. Diane said,

    September 1, 2010 @ 8:17 pm

    @ JW Brewer

    You forget that this letter related to an academic position. I should think there would be a relatively large number of foreigners applying for those sorts of positions, whose gender might not be immediately obvious from their names. So I think you are underestimating the size of the problem.

  86. Ken Brown said,

    September 1, 2010 @ 8:53 pm

    @George: "it seems from a number of comments here that there is a generational thing going on."

    I'm wondering if its location more than generation. Is this usage more common in Britain than North America? (or in parts of Britain?)

    "He or she" (&c) seem to me to be strongly marked as an attempt to avoid sexist language, "they" doesn't. Colloquial rather then formal perhaps.

  87. Dave said,

    September 1, 2010 @ 9:13 pm

    Seems fine (29yo, AmE). It doesn't seem to me to have anything to do with possibly not knowing the applicant's gender. Although this particular instance is almost certainly a form letter written before the applicant was selected, I suspect that's a red herring.

    Also, Mark F's example strikes me as a bit odd, but not awful. Certainly worse than the posted one.

  88. Erik said,

    September 1, 2010 @ 9:17 pm

    I'm really just chiming in to add another self-reported data point in the "didn't even notice" category.

    Not long ago (maybe a few years ago), I would've told you that using they or there with an obviously known referent would be jarring, but that I supported such usage. Why? Because of all the acceptable proposed solutions to the problem of the absence of a gender-neutral pronoun, it's the only one with any remote hope of becoming acceptable within my lifetime. And I'm sick of having to think about gender every time I want to talk about someone.

    Of course, uses like this still sounded weird to me, even if I fully supported them. (I'd never use a word like "puke" or a phrase like "sucks canal water" to describe my unease at someone else's nonstandard usage, but as long as people are just describing their gut reactions, I can understand that.) But I've recently discovered that my own gut reactions can be modified over time*, (even if I don't want them to be modified!)

    I've been making a conscious effort of never correcting someone for omitting gender information. Any time I don't know gender, I'm resisting the effort of asking just so that I can assemble a sentence. With efforts like this, my aversion to sentences like the one mentioned here has slowly faded, and I guess now I don't even notice them!

    *While teaching college freshmen logic, I've been forced to recognize that the mathematician's view of the rigidity of the order of negation and quantification (not all are vs. all are not) is not the most normal view. While I maintain that a strict distinction is better, I was able to recognize that other people (especially my students) might find it unnatural. But I only understood this intellectually; sentences like All men are not pigs still sounded just wrong to me. I could never hear what my students heard there. But over time, I started to actually hear it without wincing. In my classroom, I insist on a strict distinction, but I get where they're coming from, much to my chagrin.

  89. Zhengyang Lu said,

    September 1, 2010 @ 10:00 pm

    I felt like what you should've done is made the title a little more ambiguous and put the sample in the very beginning. That way, we would have just read it and not have looked for what you were trying to point out.

    In any case, the sentence passes okay for me, I think.

  90. Kim Belcher said,

    September 1, 2010 @ 10:04 pm

    @Joyce Melton
    "In a world with women named Michael and men named Shirley…"

    It's funny that you used Shirley as an example of a very feminine name. It was a man's name until the publication of Charlotte Brontë's Shirley in 1849:

    "Shirley Keeldar (she had no Christian name but Shirley: her parents, who had wished to have a son, finding that, after eight years of marriage, Providence had granted them only a daughter, bestowed on her the same masculine family cognomen they would have bestowed on a boy, if with a boy they had been blessed) – Shirley Keeldar was no ugly heiress…"

    Wikipedia article

  91. The Ridger said,

    September 1, 2010 @ 10:22 pm

    Indeed, like Shirley Florence was once unambiguously masculine: names don't stay "gender-neutral" long.

    But at 54, I found the sentence oddly refreshing, not jarring. I don't know if I'd have written it, but I don't object to it. And I know the kids in my classes use "they" with names all the time.

  92. Debbie said,

    September 1, 2010 @ 11:05 pm

    The writer of this form letter shows that 'they' are lazy and that 'they' lack creativity. So GKP, where do I board that ship?

  93. blahedo said,

    September 2, 2010 @ 12:20 am

    I *think* I wouldn't produce that usage, but I wouldn't swear to it; I am definitely towards the "freely" end of the singular-they usage curve. I don't find it jarring to read (and despite the priming had to read it twice to see it, even). I do think singular-they is on the rise in acceptability, at least in part because more of the people that use it are willing to defend it. I've run across several of my (college) students who had gotten into fights with high-school teachers about it and were able to cite the fact that "Jane Austen used it too"—that particular positive meme seems well-established.

    Which isn't to say that all "they"s are created equal. "They" as referring back to a quantifier ("everyone", "someone") is at this point borderline standard and only improving in acceptability (it's certainly common enough). The reference to a known person of known sex/gender is certainly lower on the spectrum, but honestly, the usage is just too… useful. I can't see it doing anything but increasing in popularity and acceptability.

    I'm 32, Illinois with a 6-year stint in New England, but I think this is a pretty broad phenomenon at this point.

  94. Kai Samuelsen said,

    September 2, 2010 @ 12:21 am

    I have to throw my hat in with the unremarkable crowd. I think 'they' is moving from a singular pronoun with an unknown antecedent to functioning more like an impersonal 3sg pronoun.

  95. Marok said,

    September 2, 2010 @ 1:02 am

    "The issue is whether the singular antecedent of they can be a singular human proper name."

    Are there any similar rules in English grammar? Do there exist other scenarios where pronouns are specifically (dis)allowed only when the antecedent is a proper name?

    If one decided that this usage is wrong, it's hard to know what would be the basis of the decision. Either "they" can refer to singular persons, or it cannot. I don't see how any middle ground is even possible. If someone wants to argue for a middle ground, they have to make a strong case that English pronouns can mark a distinction between proper and improper names at all. I'm not convinced that such a case can be made.

    This usage is jarring not because "Gerald Black" is proper, but because "Gerald Black" is singular. However, if you allow that "they" can have singular antecedents sometimes, then you're licensing this usage too. "No proper antecedents" sounds like purely imaginary rule. I see no evidence that English works this way.

  96. solace said,

    September 2, 2010 @ 1:25 am

    Must've been an Asian person writing – It's rude to point (indicating the person's gender).

  97. Murugaraj said,

    September 2, 2010 @ 1:39 am

    "But what gender is a hotel, in the sense not of a building but of an entity that can perform a show? Not clear. So the bus driver used singular they. And quite right too."
    (Postcard from Vegas, 2: syntactic data collection on the strip).

    So, is not the use of "its" better than "their" here?
    Or am I at disadvantage because I'm a nonnative English speaker and miss something here?

  98. Joe said,

    September 2, 2010 @ 2:08 am

    I think that people who are taking Professor Pullum to task here are forgetting who they are talking to. He's done probably more than any other linguist I can think of to make "singular they" acceptable. I think the question raised in the post is whether this particular example represents a widescale change in the use of "singular they," is acceptable because of the particular environment it occurs in, or is simply some kind of performance error. The example above is borderline for me because of the distance separating the pronoun from its antecedent. I think that by the time I get to "their," I forget that a personal name is the antecedent and I then treat the antecedent as indefinite: "someone," "an applicant," etc. (I can imagine the boilerplate originating in something like, "A candidate has applied for. . . Would you comment on their suitability…" ) When the pronoun is closer, I think the acceptability decreases markedly: Do people accept, "Dr. Gerald Black has submitted their application for the post of Lecturer ?" If not, how much distance is required? Is "Dr. Gerlald Black applied for the job but the SC didn't select them?" better? So I think the question is whether distance is the relevant factor (and is the fact that Lectuter is a bare role NP relevant?), whether this use of "singular they" is confined to a particular genre (admin speak), or whether there really is a change in the use of "singular they."

  99. Nijma said,

    September 2, 2010 @ 3:01 am

    You have to wonder if those who find the usage to be offensive don't really think what is so jarringly inappropriate is the presence of women in academia.

    [Forgive me for being frank, Nijma, but this is a really silly comment. There is not a single occurrence of the word "offensive" in the post or the comments, except for yours. You are making this up. Nobody (least of all me) says this usage is offensive; even its enemies only find it irritating in a sort of logical way that the antecedent takes singular number agreement and the pronoun takes plural agreement. And the issue is certainly not about politics: almost all linguists (this is a young field that really only grew up since the 1960s) are politically progressive, and the representation of women in linguistics is huge compared to most fields. We're talking about a syntactic question: does they allow singular personal name antecedents? My phrase "jarringly inappropriate" is an attempt to describe the reaction one has to ungrammatical word sequences, like *She killed himself or *Don't hurt I. Likewise my "sucks canal water" locution (not to be taken seriously; hearing an ungrammatical sentence is not nearly as unpleasant as the taste of canal water). I'm talking about what are the correct generalizations concerning how words are to be put together in a given language. Perhaps this would be the clearest way to make the point: there is nothing contradictory about the idea of someone being quite radically in favor of increasing the representation of women in academia but finding that their native language has no gender-neutral 3rd person pronouns at all. A French-speaking feminist activist, for example, with only il, elle, ils, and elles to choose from in her language. —GKP]

  100. Mac said,

    September 2, 2010 @ 3:31 am

    Come on. I'm definitely older generation (61) and for most of my linguistically aware life I've felt the need for a sex (not gender) neutral pronoun. Practically all other European languages have it for possessives and manage to get along without descending into anarchy. Maybe AmE speakers can afford to be more pedantic about it because they have less contact with non-natives, but American Robins, Spanish Consuelos and French Jean-Maries were the bane of my early life.

  101. Joe (same as above) said,

    September 2, 2010 @ 4:00 am

    Sorry, one final quote.

    If it wasn't clear from the post, I wonder whether the basic "rule" for "singular they" still holds: "they" requires a plural inflected antecedent when it is being used as a referring pronoun. The default cases is that "they" is used referentially when the antecedent is a proper name or definite NP. However, there are contexts when "they" can be used non-referentially even though the antecedent is a proper name or definite NP. So now the issue becomes defining the contexts in which a person can reasonably assume that "they" is or is not being used as a referring pronoun.

  102. Ken Brown said,

    September 2, 2010 @ 5:34 am

    @Joe: "Do people accept, "Dr. Gerald Black has submitted their application for the post of Lecturer ?" "

    Yes, I think I do. Not very common, I probably wouldn't say it myself, and its an an odd mixture of the formal and colloquial, but it rings no syntactical alarm bells.

    Maybe I am suffering from the reverse of the recency illusion: because this is normal to me, I assume it must always have been. In ordinary speech in the area I live I mean. And where "always" means since some time before I was born.

    @Nijma "You have to wonder if those who find the usage to be offensive don't really think what is so jarringly inappropriate is the presence of women in academia."

    No you don't have to wonder that and I don't think that is at issue here at all. If people are going to be sexist they will be regardless of pronouns.

    What seems to be happening – as Prof. Pullum and others have shown again and again – is that singular "they" has always been possible in English these contexts but competed with "he" and other usages, and has recently increased its range, in that more people seem to be using it, in more ways, and in more formal contexts. For some English speakers (including me) that looks like increased acceptance of our colloquial informal speech into formal situations. For others it feels like a deliberate attempt to avoid sexist language.

    The question here. I think, is whether or not the sentence in the OP is an example of a new extension in the syntactical range of "they" or in its social range. Or just a mistake.

    In other words, we assume that in some past time no bureaucrat wrote things like "I would be grateful if you could provide a reference on their suitability for this post." if they knew that they were talking about a known person. Now at least one does.

    Is that (a) something no-one would have said before, but now some people do?
    Or (b) something that some people used to say but would not have put in an application form?
    Or (c) an accident with a word processor?

  103. army1987 said,

    September 2, 2010 @ 7:31 am

    (not a native speaker)
    I too found it weird but not jarring, but probably would find it jarring if the "they" and the proper name were in the same sentence.

    @J. W. Brewer:
    According to http://www.babynames1000.com/gender-neutral/ in 2009 in the US there were born 298 boys and 283 girls called Rory.

    @Erik: (not all are vs. all are not)
    "All that glisters is not gold." Apparently not has scope over all whether it's before or after. Can anyone tell why this is different from e.g. many?

  104. language hat said,

    September 2, 2010 @ 9:24 am

    I think that people who are taking Professor Pullum to task here are forgetting who they are talking to.

    Huh? Who's "taking him to task"? He wrote:

    Startling, didn't you think? My claim has always been that you just can't get singular they with a proper name of a person as antecedent. And now, here is an example of it. If you think the letter is unremarkable and fully acceptable English, then we have a counterexample to my claim. On the other hand, if you find their the second sentence jarringly inappropriate, the sentence is just evidence that I'm right. You be the judge.

    And a lot of people are saying "No, I find it unremarkable," which pleases me (and presumably Geoff) because it advances the cause of singular "they."

    There are a few idiotic comments like "Must've been an Asian person writing," but those have nothing to do with taking Professor Pullum to task.

  105. J.W. Brewer said,

    September 2, 2010 @ 9:40 am

    army1987, thanks for the link, that's an interesting list. But those <600 Rorys are in the context of approx 4 million 2009 U.S. babies whose names are in the database. My hypothesis is simply that if first names in Anglophone contexts left one with genuine uncertainty about the bearer's sex, say, 20-30% of the time instead of 2-3% (and I think that's probably a high-end estimate), language usage would likely change in various ways it (thus far, in most contexts) hasn't. Having a standard form letter that is calculated to avoid difficulty with the rare case at the cost of making it sound odd or ungainly in the vast majority of cases is . . . perhaps not ungrammatical but certainly bureaucratic. And I don't mean that as a compliment.

  106. Joe said,

    September 2, 2010 @ 9:42 am

    @Language Hat

    If you see GK's response to John Baker above (I only just now noticed it), you would see that he too felt that various responses assumed that he was opposed to all uses of "singular they." That's what I was referring to, perhaps not directly enough (Nijma's and Mac's were also right before mine, so I didn't feel quite the need to make a direct reference).

  107. John Cowan said,

    September 2, 2010 @ 9:46 am

    I doubt if Nijma (who is quite familiar to me from the Hattics) is speaking of either you or any other commentator here; but you know very well that there are people who are offended, not merely surprised, by this construction, and Nijma's account of their conscious or unconscious motivations may well be entirely correct.

  108. Joe said,

    September 2, 2010 @ 9:58 am

    @John Cowan,

    I did not mean to cast any aspersions on Nijma, and if I unintentionally did so, I apologize (I now see her response appears after mine, but thought I had read it before I posted mine, so I must have been thinking of my second post). Anyway, I just got a feeling reading over some of the responses that (a few) people were assuming that GK was opposed to the use of "singular they." I probably shouldn't have begun the post that way, as GK is more than able to defend himself. Again, I apologize if I have caused any offense.

  109. joe said,

    September 2, 2010 @ 10:07 am

    . . . And I have no idea why I keep writing GK rather than GKP.

  110. Rodger C said,

    September 2, 2010 @ 10:07 am

    @J. W. Brewer: I'd think a 2%-3% chance of legal action if an applicant's gender were misclassified in what they (ahem) regarded as a prejudicial manner would be enough to give any personnel department pause. As far as I'm concerned you're free to defend, as you repeatedly seem to by implication, the linguistic practices of ca. 1955, but the legal system of 1955 no longer exists, at least not in America.

  111. digory said,

    September 2, 2010 @ 10:37 am

    Mac, you want a gender- (not sex-) neutral pronoun. You know very little about the (biological) sex of people you interact with; what you have to go on is their gender presentation.

  112. Kapitano said,

    September 2, 2010 @ 11:24 am

    It always puzzles me that people can be offended by a linguistic form. They treat use of one form or avoidance of another as a moral issue – as though using forms like "Where are you at?" or "I don't have some spare change" cause the user to become an evil person, and avoiding them makes them virtuous again.

    I suppose it's not surprising – learning to be rational is largely a matter of separating factual issues from emotional ones, and not many people make that journey.

    FWIW, I find nothing remotely strange about using 'they' to point to a singular anaphoric referent.

  113. John said,

    September 2, 2010 @ 11:36 am

    @groki: I think the distance is relevant. The sentence you gave "Dr. Gerald Black has sent us their application…" has a closer reference than the original, and I'm not sure how I judge it; I think it's okay, but it may be marginal.

    I tried to come up with a reference as close as I could, and I'd be curious if anyone judges these as acceptable:

    Gerald loves themselves.
    Gerald, their application submitted, is under consideration.
    Gerald, they think to themselves, why don't you apply?

  114. marie-lucie said,

    September 2, 2010 @ 12:05 pm

    I am among those who did not notice the "their" at first reading. I think that "they/their" for a singular noun is more common when the person is considered as somehow generic. In the case of "Gerald Black", the pronoun would probably have been "his" rather than "their" if it had been in the same sentence as the name. For the sentence in which "their" appears, corrections suggested have been mostly "the applicant's", not a repetition of the name. I think this is because even if the applicant was identified by name in the first sentence, the procedure of asking for a letter of reference is generic and applies to all persons in the same position as GB. In colloquial speech one might do the same to report an interaction with a person identified with a social function, such as a police officer, store manager, bureaucrat, customer, patient, and many others , when the actual person disappears behind "their" social function.

  115. J. W. Brewer said,

    September 2, 2010 @ 12:33 pm

    Leaving aside the question of how I can possibly recover from the damning, near McCarthyite accusation of being somehow associated with the year 1955 (which I don't remember, not having been born at the time), my claim is not that in every instance you have a 98% (or whatever) chance of correctly guessing the sex from the first name; it's that 98% (same disclaimer) of the time the specific name is such that you know you have a 99.9% (or whatever) chance of guessing right and the other 2% (or whatever) of the time the name by itself might leave you in sufficient doubt that (absent other data) it might be prudent to employ singular they or some other workaround. GKP has specified that the particular first name here fell into the majority unambiguous set, although some people seem for whatever reason to be unable to accept that aspect of the problem as presented. In order to make (almost) everyone happy, you could have a template for letters seeking references that had something in brackets saying [his/her/their] which then could be customized for each occasion it was used, giving the resulting product a, to my eye, slightly more personalized and less bureaucratic feel. Which would be a helpful feel for you to be conveying if you were asking me to do something for your benefit w/o offering to pay me (although admittedly if I knew and liked the candidate well enough I would want to help him — in this instance — enough to put up with infelicities of bureaucratic style).

    I take marie-lucie's point about the possible particular utility of singular they in situations where a person disappears behind "their" social function, but the whole point here is that the recipient of this letter was receiving the letter because he (Prof Ladd) actually knows the specific applicant personally, and is thus qualified to discuss how he ("Dr Black") differs from the median or generic bearer of the social function of applicant. So blurring the individual into the generic role seems in context like a counterproductive rhetorical strategy.

  116. Scott said,

    September 2, 2010 @ 12:41 pm

    Oh my, 115 comments! But my trusty ctrl + f has informed me that no one used the strings "transg", "trans g", or "trans-", so I think I'm making a new and worthwhile point:

    It is possible (though I admit unlikely in this case) that Dr. Black considers him/themself non-gendered or trans-gendered. I have a few friends who prefer not to have either male or female pronouns used to refer to them.

    Now, people might think that's silly, or think it's liberating, or not care at all. And I'm not here to defend or attack the usage; I just wanted to point out that some people use "they", "their", and "them" as singular pronouns in order to avoid any implication of gender for personal/political/ideological reasons.

  117. Rodger C said,

    September 2, 2010 @ 1:08 pm

    @J. W. Brewer: Well, bureaucrats don't mind sounding bureaucratic because they're typically deaf to the difference between their habitual language and ordinary polite English. Every so often they'll gesture helplessly in the latter's direction with some overelaborate phrase like "I would be grateful if you could provide."

    And of course, you being English, I should have said 1985. ;)

  118. Brandon said,

    September 2, 2010 @ 1:39 pm

    I had to read it three times and I didn't see what was off about it until you mentioned it. So I guess I'm in the disagreeing camp. If I had known the person personally I might have found it odd however.

  119. Ken Brown said,

    September 2, 2010 @ 1:41 pm

    Rodger C said: "And of course, you being English, I should have said 1985."

    Except that on this issue American English seems more conservative than British English.

  120. Rodger C said,

    September 2, 2010 @ 1:51 pm

    @Ken Brown: I wasn't referring to the use of "they," but to JWB's PC peeving. American English has always been more prescriptive about fine grammar points, where in Britain social gatekeeping has traditionally depended more on pronunciation points. This is the result of America's being a large country with a decentralized educational system.

    I'll never forget my shock at age 17, reading The Lord of the Rings for the first time and coming across the construction "as if … was"–and this at a highly charged moment, the attack on Weathertop. To an American adolescent, it seemed an unaccountable lapse of register.

  121. J. W. Brewer said,

    September 2, 2010 @ 2:29 pm

    Well, perhaps others will have to evaluate whether I've been peeving or prescriptivist (I don't think so, but perhaps I'm not the best judge), but I do unequivocally refudiate the charge (if it was being seriously advanced, which it may not have been — there's an ambiguity in how far back into the prior sentence the winky emoticon should be taken to refer) of being English. My native dialect is very much straight "standard educated" AmE, with a few odd Middle Atlantic pronunciation issues lurking in the vowels that don't affect my judgments of written texts. I am in fact perhaps that rara avis who finds both "generic he" and "singular they" perfectly acceptable in a wide variety of contexts and doesn't think that anyone should be browbeaten for political or other motives to abandon either usage. GKP's original question was interesting to me precisely because it posed the question of whether there are contexts in which singular they doesn't quite work — just as even the most avid user of generic he must admit there are a few contexts in which that construction cannot be made to work even for an extremely reactionary ear.

  122. Lemuel Pitkin said,

    September 2, 2010 @ 2:34 pm

    Gerald loves themselves.

    But in that case, wouldn't it be themself?

  123. Joe (same as above) said,

    September 2, 2010 @ 2:34 pm

    May I ask people one more question about what they find acceptable? (and I really am interested in what people find acceptable, I'm not offended or making a judgement about them, or what not).

    Let's say that I have a cat named Alfie. Even though animals can be referred to by "it" ("the cat hurt its paw"), I find the construction "Alfie hurt its paw" to be ungrammatical. I have to say, "Alfie hurt his paw." And this holds even if I don't know the sex of the animal: "it" cannot be used if the animal is referred to by a proper name. The Cambridge Grammar mentions this point as well, marking "*Fido was wagging its tail" as ungrammatical. But I could expect that people might use "it" in this context, especially after the discussion here. Does anyone?

  124. Rodger C said,

    September 2, 2010 @ 2:48 pm

    @JWB: Sorry. I'm not sure how I got that notion.

  125. Rodger C said,

    September 2, 2010 @ 2:52 pm

    Lemuel Pitkin raises an interesting point: The reflexive of singular they is themself, at least to me. So it's really (becoming) a distinct pronoun from plural they.

  126. groki said,

    September 2, 2010 @ 2:59 pm

    Kapitano: It always puzzles me that people can be offended by a linguistic form. They treat use of one form or avoidance of another as a moral issue

    both language and morality (meaning the abstractions, as distinct from linguistic and moral behavior) are: intangible rather than physical; constructed socially by all of us yet implemented personally by each of us; and most effective, and understood to be so, when all parties play by the rules. so I suspect that some of the same neural circuitry is involved when we determine what's "right" either to say or to do.

    (also, I think the LOLcat-esque admonition "ur doin it rong!" underlies a great deal of human behavior.)

  127. Mary Kuhner said,

    September 2, 2010 @ 3:55 pm

    John writes:

    Gerald loves themselves.
    Gerald, their application submitted, is under consideration.
    Gerald, they think to themselves, why don't you apply?

    I would use "themself" in the first one if I said it. And then probably rephrase out of deep uncertainty as to whether "themself" is a word at all. But I flatly don't think I can say "themselves" of a singular individual.

    The second is, to me, only faintly stilted, not "wrong"–I would not be surprised to find I'd said this, though slightly surprised if I'd written it. (The sentence structure is one I don't use much, though, which might cause most of the surprise.)

    The third would again, for me, be "themself." Even then it does sound very odd, because the intense interior focus of writing someone's thought balloon does not go well with the slight distancing of the singular-they pronoun.

    I think that, for me, singular "they" is a singular form, despite its origin, and it wants to be treated as such. I am pretty sure I said to my son the other day, looking at an individual unknown to us who was climbing on a spiky fence, "If they don't stop they're going to hurt themself."

    Forty-seven, academic, US West Coast. (And female, but having two male colleagues named Jody and Gayle broke me of making assumptions based on names.)

  128. D. Sky Onosson said,

    September 2, 2010 @ 4:17 pm

    @ Joe:

    I wouldn't say "Alfie hurt its paw", but I could say "Alfie hurt their paw". I definitely have used that kind of construction, frequently I'm sure.

  129. George said,

    September 2, 2010 @ 4:50 pm

    @John:
    "Gerald loves themselves." Ugh!
    "Gerald, their application submitted, is under consideration." Ugh!
    "Gerald, they think to themselves, why don't you apply?" Ugh!

    Although we may be moving in that direction, I don't think we are there yet to that brave new world with an unconstrained, gender-neutral, singular pronoun for humans.

  130. George said,

    September 2, 2010 @ 5:07 pm

    Joe (same as above):

    I have no problem with 'it' for animals, particularly if the sex is not known. On the other hand, to me, animals about which the sex is known are 'hes' or 'shes.'

    I find "Fido was wagging its tail" perfectly acceptable, unless I know Fido's sex.

    I wonder what The Cambridge Grammar would say about, 'the dog was wagging its tail?

  131. Ellen K. said,

    September 2, 2010 @ 5:41 pm

    "the dog was wagging its tail", is fine.

    "Fido was wagging its tail", no. Makes me wonder what object Fido was wagging the tail of. "its" is too impersonal to use with a named animal.

    "Fido was wagging their tail", acceptable, but odd. It helps that "tail" makes clear that only one tail was wagged, thus helping out the singular they interpretation.

  132. Randal said,

    September 2, 2010 @ 5:41 pm

    This use of singular-they seems fine to me. A proper name can be an indefinite antecedent if it has not yet been connected to a known person. Consider this conversation:

    "Who was that on the phone?"
    "Some guy. They said their name was Dr Gerald Black."
    "Dr Gerald Black? Who the hell are they?"

    The use of singular-they in this letter suggests a similarly tenuous connection between the speaker and Dr Gerald Black. It indicates that from the speaker's perspective, "Dr Gerald Black" is nothing more than a name that appeared at the top of an application. No connection to a real person has been established.

  133. Bloix said,

    September 2, 2010 @ 5:58 pm

    "I wouldn't say "Alfie hurt its paw", but I could say "Alfie hurt their paw"."

    Really? Truly? To me, this isn't English. It's the sort of thing that linguists mark with an asterisk.

    *Gerald loves themselves.
    *Gerald, their application submitted, is under consideration.
    *Gerald, they think to themselves, why don't you apply?

    If Gerald is the given name of Gollum, then these are okay. Otherwise, no.

  134. Bloix said,

    September 2, 2010 @ 6:00 pm

    "Dr Gerald Black? Who the hell are they?"

    I refuse to believe that this sentence has ever been uttered.

  135. Bloix said,

    September 2, 2010 @ 6:07 pm

    "The use of singular-they in this letter … indicates that from the speaker's perspective, "Dr Gerald Black" is nothing more than a name that appeared at the top of an application. No connection to a real person has been established."

    And that's precisely why it shouldn't have been used. The message the letter conveys to the reader is this:

    "We would like you to do us an unpaid favor, requiring honesty, delicacy and tact on your part, whereby you will formulate and convey an opinion to us about a third party in a way that will assist us in making a decision of considerable importance to us, not to mention to the third party, and we will keep your response in our files in perpetuity, where it can never be of any use to you but could potentially cause you severe embarrassment in the future. Note that in making this request we cannot be bothered to determine whether this third party is male or female."

  136. language hat said,

    September 2, 2010 @ 6:26 pm

    I refuse to believe that this sentence has ever been uttered.

    That's nice. You can refuse to believe the sun rises in the east, too; it doesn't change reality.

  137. Kapitano said,

    September 2, 2010 @ 6:56 pm

    Groski: both language and morality … are: intangible rather than physical; constructed socially by all of us yet implemented personally by each of us … so I suspect that some of the same neural circuitry is involved when we determine what's "right" either to say or to do.

    It's an interesting notion, and if it's true I suspect we'd see patients who've had this common neural circuitry damaged develop problems in both the ability to distinguish 'correct' and 'incorrect' utterances and the ability to distinguish moral 'right' from 'wrong'.

    I-Am-Not-A-Neurologist – and a purely amateur linguist – but I don't recall reading about a correlation between damage to one and damage to the other. Does anyone here know better?

  138. Randal said,

    September 2, 2010 @ 7:09 pm

    I agree the use of singular-they makes the letter sound impersonal. That's exactly what you get when you use a construction that implies that "Dr Gerald Black" is an indefinite anybody.

    –> "…. Note that in making this request we cannot be bothered to determine whether this third party is male or female."

    A lot of the time an indefinite antecedent does have unknown gender, but singular-they attaches to the +indefinite, not the -gender. And, an antecedent can be +indefinite even if the criteria could clearly only be met by one person in the world.

  139. Julie said,

    September 2, 2010 @ 7:15 pm

    My native dialect is full of singular 'they,' and 'themself' is a perfectly good word in an informal register. But that letter looked odd to me. The slight distancing implied by 'their' is reasonable, and I would not have noticed if, say it had been a phone message. But it's not. It's a letter, and a formal one, at that. It feels like the wrong register. That said, I've insisted for many years that singular 'they' needed to be incorporated into formal writing. Of course I will need to adapt to the new cultural standard. But I think the change is a good thing.

    On the other hand, Ken Brown's anecdote seems really weird. I work next to a bar (and since California bars are non-smoking, the patrons stand outside) and I really don't think I've ever heard "they" used for a known person. Using "they" strongly suggests "I don't know this person."

    This is where I have a problem with John's examples. I would not be likely to say "Gerald loves themself," because the sentence implies that I know Gerald. Randal's examples are better.

    A dog who has been named has been granted a sort of "grammatical personhood," and is thenceforth "they" until I learn their proper gender.

    And Murugaraj, you are missing something. The hotel is generally considered as a building, not as a business. So the hotel is "it." The building, that is. By using "they," you transcend the building and include the staff as well. "This is hotel X. It's 300 feet tall and they put chocolates on your pillow."

  140. Julie said,

    September 2, 2010 @ 7:21 pm

    "We need an actor for this role. They must be over 5'9" and male. They also must be able to speak in a New York accent for this role."

  141. svan said,

    September 2, 2010 @ 7:54 pm

    I rarely use it with any domestic animal, named or otherwise. The exception to this is an unnamed animal towards which I have negative feelings – there is a tremendously mean cat in my neighborhood, that I believe to be male but routinely refer to as "it." Otherwise, I generally refer to all animals by male pronouns unless I know them to be female. I would, of course, NEVER do this to people. (FWIW, most of the pets I've had in my life have been male.)

    That awful orange cat came over, and it hissed at me.
    That awful Milo came over, and he/*it hissed at me.
    I saw a toad in the garden; he was as big as my fist.

    For people, I am perfectly content with "they," though I wouldn't personally use it when the gender of the person in question is definitively known. As someone with many transgender acquaintances, I am keenly aware that gender assumptions betrayed by pronouns can be very problematic. (I once knew someone who, in order to protect her partner, would just always refer to them by their name – "L told me that L needs to work on L's project this afternoon" – perhaps the most awkward language use I've ever encountered.) I'm ok with the letter as is, but I would choose to word it differently so as to avoid the pronoun altogether.

    I'm a 27-year-old female native speaker of (primarily southern) American English.

  142. svan said,

    September 2, 2010 @ 7:58 pm

    So, is not the use of "its" better than "their" here?

    No, definitely definitely not "its." The one exception, perhaps, being if you are really mean and want to imply that the person is less than human (or even, for many of us, less than at least some animals).

  143. Rodger C said,

    September 2, 2010 @ 8:04 pm

    "L told me that L needs to work on L's project this afternoon"

    That's exactly how some recent liturgies treat the word "God."

  144. bloix said,

    September 2, 2010 @ 8:15 pm

    Julie – in your example the "they" impliedly refers not to the actor but to the applicants – the implication is that the actor will be chosen from applicants who meet certain criteria. This differs from the Gerald Black example, which refers to a single, known individual.

    Language Hat – one of the nice things about this blog is that people are generally reasonably polite to one another. Now, it may be that you were genuinely unable to identify a tone of voice that was intended to be self-deprecatingly humorous (there's enough genuine pomposity in comments threads that it can be hard to tell the difference), but having made the mistake, your decision to tell me that I'm an idiot doesn't advance the discussion and clutters up the thread.

    In any event, when I said, "I refuse to believe that this sentence has ever been uttered," what I meant was, "In 50 years of speaking and writing English, I have no recollection of ever having heard a sentence like this. Perhaps others have, but I tend to doubt it and I would like to see some documentation before I accept that it's generally accepted usage."

  145. George said,

    September 2, 2010 @ 8:26 pm

    Roger: "That's exactly how some recent liturgies treat the word "God."

    Yes, and it is awkward. The speaker is caught with not wanting to attribute gender to God and not willing to use 'it.'

    In fact, pantheistic leaning theologians who deny the existence of a personal, theistic being also tend to avoid the 'it' word.

  146. Nijma said,

    September 2, 2010 @ 10:31 pm

    this is a really silly comment
    Obviously, I can't force anyone to take my comments seriously, but the comment was made in all seriousness.

    Nobody (least of all me) says this usage is offensive; even its enemies only find it irritating
    If you look back at this thread you will find some strong language–"puke", "aggressive", and in the original article, "sucks". I can't comment on canal water–on this side of the pond it doesn't look different from any other kind of water–but I know for a fact I can't say "sucks" in front of my mother. I don't know how linguists measure the emotional content of words, but there is clearly some emotional reaction going on here that is not in, for example, the Refudiate Thread. It's not a simple question of something "sounding funny" or not sounding grammatical.

    the issue is certainly not about politics: almost all linguists (this is a young field that really only grew up since the 1960s) are politically progressive
    I didn't mean it as a political comment, more of a social one. There are certainly people who believe the only appropriate occupation for a woman is marriage, but since the Sarah Palin phenomenon, the political lines on that have gotten more blurred. The people who study such things say it really has more to do with generations and social class. But since several commenter have equated it with "politically-motivated gender-neutrality", I will suggest that among some people at least, it might be a litmus test similar to Reagan Airport/National Airport or Democrat/Democratic Party, and they might be reacting to what they might view as an unwelcome social phenomenon rather than a simple question of usage.

  147. groki said,

    September 3, 2010 @ 12:27 am

    Kapitano: It's an interesting notion, and if it's true I suspect we'd see patients who've had this common neural circuitry damaged develop problems in both the ability to distinguish 'correct' and 'incorrect' utterances and the ability to distinguish moral 'right' from 'wrong'.

    oops: my "neural circuitry" was too precise a term for what I was after, and I should have said something more amorphous like "mental processing": my claim is not so much that the same neurology is involved, but that the psychology is similar, in terms of mental heuristics, emotional feedback mechanisms, etc.

    in any case, I too would enjoy learning of any neurological findings on correlations between linguistic and moral impairments.

  148. Lemuel Pitkin said,

    September 3, 2010 @ 2:11 am

    Seems to me that Bloix — who can't imagine a hiring process that doesn't take a person's gender into account; not clear if he also expects due diligence on their race, sexual orientation and political views — provides some retroactive vindication to Nijma.

  149. PaulB said,

    September 3, 2010 @ 6:53 am

    I agree with Geoffrey Pullum. Except that I don't know what canal water tastes like.

    "…Bloix — who can't imagine a hiring process that doesn't take a person's gender into account…"

    I think this is unfair. Bloix simply can't imagine anyone using that construction unless they were unwilling to check the gender of the applicant and unwilling to take the very modest amount of time required to reword the letter to sidestep the issue altogether.

    However, judging by the weight of comments, it's quite possible that the writer simply considers the construction chosen to be unexceptionable.

  150. Ben Hemmens said,

    September 3, 2010 @ 7:03 am

    Pullum 1
    U of Penzance 0

  151. Nick Lamb said,

    September 3, 2010 @ 7:03 am

    Not jarring. Your generalisation is no longer true about (at least some types of) English in use.

  152. micdeniro said,

    September 3, 2010 @ 7:36 am

    Shouldn't "who" in the second line of the post be "whom"?

  153. Andrew said,

    September 3, 2010 @ 9:32 am

    Just to throw my hat into the ring here – as probably a near-correspondent of the junior HR person who wrote the letter (twentysomething British educated, and who has done comparable jobs in the not-so-distant past), the use of "their" wouldn't seem explicitly wrong to me in that sentence – certainly not enough to actively pick it out and change it.

    If I were writing it from scratch rather than as a form letter, I'd probably use "his suitability" in this case, but but that doesn't preclude thinking of "their"/"they" as acceptable. And if it seems acceptable, taking the explicit step of changing it – which introduces potential problems, especially when you're a bit bored and sending out such letters for a dozen different people – is unlikely.

  154. Ellen K. said,

    September 3, 2010 @ 11:31 am

    I see "their" in the quote as being impersonal.

    I also, after reading the comments, conclude that we really can't tell whether it's something grammatical for the writer, or a production error of some sort. Either seems possible.

  155. Bloix said,

    September 3, 2010 @ 12:20 pm

    Lemuel, your accusation of sexism is uncalled for. If I know the gender of a person, I use it, and I expect you do, too. If someone asks you "where's Mary?" do you say, "They're in the conference room"? Of course you don't. When you can, you use the gender-appropriate pronoun. Use of the plural would be odd and confusing. "Who is she with?" "They're by theirself."

    The thrust of this comment thread is that there are many people for whom "they" is no longer predominantly a plural pronoun and has become a generally available gender-free singular pronoun. That's a change that could occur, and perhaps it's occurring, but I have a very hard time believing that it has occurred.

  156. D. Sky Onosson said,

    September 3, 2010 @ 1:23 pm

    "I wouldn't say "Alfie hurt its paw", but I could say "Alfie hurt their paw"."

    Really? Truly? To me, this isn't English. It's the sort of thing that linguists mark with an asterisk.

    Yes, really and truly. No asterisk for me on that one. I say things like this to my children (about our cat) all the time.

    That's a change that could occur, and perhaps it's occurring, but I have a very hard time believing that it has occurred.

    This is an interesting point. What kind of evidence, and how much of it, would we need to be able to identify that a change has "finished occurring" (whatever that might mean)? It seems pretty clear to me that, as so many people report this usage as fairly normal (and irrespective of where my own judgement lies), that it's hard to question whether or not there is a change occurring. I can see how we might be able to answer questions like where it's occurring and for what population of speakers – but I'm really unsure where or how to draw the line between "occurring" and "has occurred".

  157. Bloix said,

    September 3, 2010 @ 2:41 pm

    Sky- Well, I'm puzzled, but I don't doubt you. Tell me what you think you think of this:

    "What's the matter with John?"
    "Oh, they're upset because their girlfriend broke up with them."

    If you wouldn't say that, then the change has not yet occurred.

  158. marie-lucie said,

    September 3, 2010 @ 4:46 pm

    Randal: "The use of singular-they in this letter … indicates that from the speaker's perspective, "Dr Gerald Black" is nothing more than a name that appeared at the top of an application. No connection to a real person has been established."

    That was my point: only the function (applicant for a position) is relevant in the letter, not the actual person applying. This is why the letter appears to have been written by a bureaucrat such as a person in the HR department, which sends such requests as a matter of course but is not personally interested in the applicants, not by, for instance, the head of the department that has interviewed Dr. Black or perhaps put him on the short list.

  159. Xmun said,

    September 3, 2010 @ 6:13 pm

    Forgive me if this has been said already (I haven't read every single one of the comments) but I think the OED entries on these singular uses of "them", "they", "their", etc., are sound. If the antecedent is an indefinite pronoun or noun, these singular uses of the third person plural have long been perfectly appropriate, e.g.
    "If anyone calls, tell them I'm out."
    What's jarring is an antecedent that's definite — not just a proper name but any other definite noun, e.g.
    *"If the plumber calls, ask them to fix the upstairs shower."

  160. Sandra Wilde said,

    September 3, 2010 @ 7:21 pm

    The career center at a university where I once worked, had a statement on its form for writing reference letters that you weren't allowed to refer to the student's gender, race, religion, etc. "It has been a good student"?

  161. marie-lucie said,

    September 3, 2010 @ 9:36 pm

    Sandra, then you would have to repeat the student's name (perhaps just the last name, but that would not work in Russian or Polish). So perhaps "this student", and "they" would be the best pronoun, in fact the only possible pronoun.

    Usually, persons issuing such blanket recommendations have not thought of all the possible ramifications.

  162. marie-lucie said,

    September 3, 2010 @ 10:10 pm

    *"If the plumber calls, ask them to fix the upstairs shower."

    This is only ungrammatical if you assume that the plumber must be male. If you cannot be sure whether a man or a woman will be fixing your shower, "them" is the right pronoun to use.

  163. Julie said,

    September 4, 2010 @ 2:46 am

    I'd consider "plumber" to represent an unknown quantity. If I know the guy, it becomes "If Joe Smith calls, ask him…." I'm saying "the plumber" because I don't know them.

    Even if I have a very strong suspicion the plumber is male, I will use "them," to distance myself, establishing that I don't know him personally.

    Although I use singular they constantly in my normal speech, it does feel very odd to be writing it this way.

  164. Will said,

    September 4, 2010 @ 10:02 pm

    I agree with Julie about the plumber.

    I think singular they isn't so much a way to reference people of unknown sex as a way to reference people of unfamiliarity. The unknown sex aspect is a red herring, since it's always true that someone of unknown sex to the speaker is also unfamiliar to the them. This holds true regardless of whether that unknown person is definite or not (i.e. "Dr. Smith" or "a cashier") The indefinite aspect is also, I believe, not quite correct; it's also true that someone indefinite to the speaker is also unfamiliar to them, regardless of whether the sex is known or not (i.e. "a waitress" or "a cashier").

    So for me at least, if the person is unfamiliar to me, "they" is always okay to use, regardless of definiteness or sex-determinacy. If I happen to know the person's sex, the sex-specific pronoun is also generally okay to use. But even in this case in many instances I would opt not to use the sex-specific pronoun for the reason Julie pointed out — to make the unfamiliar aspect more prominent to the listener.

  165. MJ said,

    September 4, 2010 @ 11:06 pm

    I third the unfamiliarity idea. On a listserv I'm on, a person described how a clerk asked for her telephone number when he was processing a sale, and when the person politely declined to give her telephone number to the clerk, the clerk looked at the check she was using to pay with and started entering the number from it. The person reported this as "They started to put in my phone number from the check I wrote, and I asked them to stop."

  166. Ross Burns said,

    September 5, 2010 @ 1:40 pm

    Better to say his, not their. Her, not their. Why not simply use the information provided at the beginning of the first sentence? Sherlock liked clues. Use them.
    Also, I think 'his' sounds better with the following 'this'.

    I'm with Geoff Pullum.

  167. Ross Burns said,

    September 5, 2010 @ 2:02 pm

    Julie, you wrote: Even if I have a very strong suspicion the plumber is male, I will use "them" to distance myself, establishing that I don't know him personally.

    Since you have only a suspicion of the plumber's gender, though it is a strong one, should you not have wrote 'them' in place of 'him', instead?

    Showing consistency with what you first stated.

    Ross

  168. Ellen K. said,

    September 5, 2010 @ 2:33 pm

    Ross, there is the speech versus writing issue that she mentioned in that same post.

  169. Lemuel Pitkin said,

    September 5, 2010 @ 2:45 pm

    "If the plumber calls, ask them to fix the upstairs shower."

    This is certainly the construction I would use. I'll go perhaps a bit further than others, and say that to me "him" rather than "them" in this context would seem like an error, or at least a bit weird — it would indicate some particular reason for calling attention to the plumber's gender.

    Bloix simply can't imagine anyone using that construction unless they were unwilling to check the gender of the applicant and unwilling to take the very modest amount of time required to reword the letter to sidestep the issue altogether.

    That is not what Bloix wrote, tho. Bloix wrote:

    "We would like you to do us an unpaid favor, requiring honesty, delicacy and tact on your part … Note that in making this request we cannot be bothered to determine whether this third party is male or female."

    There's no suggestion that rewriting the letter was an acceptable alternative. It's clear that in Bloix's mind, determining the gender of a job applicant is a basic, essential part of the hiring process. That's what I was objecting to.

  170. bloix said,

    September 5, 2010 @ 5:28 pm

    "It's clear that in Bloix's mind, determining the gender of a job applicant is a basic, essential part of the hiring process."

    Well, it may be clear in your mind that that's what is in my mind, but it's clear in my mind that that's not what is in my mind.

    Determining a person's gender is not a "basic, essential" part of the process, but it's an unavoidable part of the process.

    Perhaps I'm confused over the stage at which the letter goes out to check references. I'm assuming that the letter goes out fairly late in the process – after the applicant has been interviewed. Perhaps these letters go out early in the process – as soon as the application packet has been received. If that's the case, then it wouldn't be so odd that the prospective employer doesn't know the gender of the applicant.

  171. Ross Burns said,

    September 5, 2010 @ 5:54 pm

    Sorry Ellen K.
    It was meant as a joke. And with it not having anything to do with the speech versus writing issue, I can understand any misunderstanding
    of it.
    What I meant was this: when you look at what Julie has written in her second sentence, she is unsure of the plumber's gender – using 'them' to express this. Yet immediately following that, she refers to the plumber as him. How?
    She has written of having only a strong suspicion of the plumber's gender. If they met, suppose the plumber turned out to be a woman who smoked 60-a-day!
    For consistency on Julie's part, what I am referring to would have to be written as: establishing that I don't know them personally.

    See what I mean?

    I hope that helps. And please, Ellen, don't ask me to repeat it, because that really would kill the joke! Everyone won't laugh again.

    Ross

  172. Rebecca said,

    September 5, 2010 @ 5:57 pm

    For me, it's slightly jarring, and like others, it becomes worse with proximity (or scope?) And it does seem, for me, to be an issue of proper name, not number or gender awareness. Eg, this sentence is fully grammatical and natural:

    Some woman lost their ring here and wants to know if anyone found it.

    Come to think of it, substitute "a Mrs. Jones" for "some woman" and it's not all that bad, either. But then, that's not quite a proper name anymore

  173. Xmun said,

    September 5, 2010 @ 7:34 pm

    Well, at least the waters of gender remain unmuddied in ornithology. When I spot the pair of paradise shelducks on the grass verge as I drive along the main road to or from town, the pair remain "they", the rather dull male is "he", and the female with the white head and neck is "she". Now please don't tell me the pair is really "it".

  174. Xmun said,

    September 5, 2010 @ 7:36 pm

    Um, I meant the waters of number.

  175. Ellen K. said,

    September 6, 2010 @ 9:09 am

    Ross, you didn't need to explain yourself, other than that it was a joke. The rest of it, there's no reason for you to think I didn't get that. Heck, I wouldn't have posted my reply if I didn't. Apparently you can imagine someone replying what I did without understanding all that. Okay. But I don't. No, don't explain, thanks.

  176. Ross Burns said,

    September 6, 2010 @ 1:53 pm

    Sorry, my bad!

  177. LC said,

    September 7, 2010 @ 3:53 am

    I do not understand the problem. "They" serves the function of a gender-neutral pronoun well. There is no other pronoun available that serves this function. People frequently use "they" in this manner without ever being misunderstood. Language users everywhere have embraced this use and it has become a natural part of their language. It is accurate, it is functional, and it is unique. Gerald is undoubtedly a man, but what about Alex? Kim? Kelly? "They" is used across the board for letters of this nature, for every name, to avoid embarrassment. It's not as if Gerald is being referred to as a woman. Why is Gerald unhappy?

    What exactly is the problem?

  178. Mandy B. said,

    September 7, 2010 @ 10:39 am

    LC – Kim, Alex, or Kelly would probably know about gender confusion with having names like those, so I would say they would usually refer to themselves as Ms or Miss or Mrs or Mr for the reader, especially in a formal letter.
    I say: If the gender is known, then why not simply use it?
    If it is not, and the matter concerns only one person, and you don't like the plural 'their', then it might be best to write the sentence with a few more words in it.

  179. Ellen K. said,

    September 7, 2010 @ 6:51 pm

    LC, the "problem" is, simply, that for some people, using "they" for a single, known, specified-by-name person, is not grammatical. It's not about whether or not it's logical to do so. It's an intuitive judgment. Professor Pullam knows what his judgment is. He invited us to share our own.

    It occurs to me, reading the comments, that some people think of this in grammatical terms ("they" with a proper name as antecedent), and some in semantic terms (seeing the pronoun as referring to the person, rather than referring back to the noun). For me it's the latter, as the represents how I seem to think in my own head when using pronouns.

  180. Jason Taylor said,

    September 8, 2010 @ 11:16 am

    @Ellen K

    'For me it's the latter, as the represents…

    Is it: that?
    Or the ??????? represents…

    I think we should be told.

  181. Ellen K. said,

    September 8, 2010 @ 11:26 am

    I totally don't follow your comment after the single question mark. But, yes, "the" should have been "that".

  182. ohwilleke said,

    September 8, 2010 @ 4:12 pm

    The use of the singular "they" is uncommon in something that short in such a formalistic context, but while it is not "fully acceptable," it is in no way confusing and is not "jarringly inappropriate" either. Indeed, in spoken English, as opposed to a letter making a formal request in an academic environment, it would be unremarkable, even if not strictly according to prevailing norms of standard English grammar.

    Presumably it was written by a secretary, possibly from dictation. If this was a form letter and was intended to be gender neutral, it would probably have said "the applicant's' instead of "their". It is the sort of thing that I would edit and insist on correcting on a slow day, but not if the world was in a tizzy and the office had more important issues on its plate in an isolated piece of trivial correspondence.

    Indeed, I would say that it is a less jarring usage to my ear that it would have been twenty years ago. I have grown inurred to it, and honestly, think that it may be the best solution to the grammatical hole that exists in the English language that it is trying to fill, in the long run.

  183. Jason Taylor said,

    September 8, 2010 @ 5:43 pm

    That's part of your sentence, Ellen K. I thought you would be able to recognize it, since you had to look at it again. Rather than write the whole thing, the used ellipsis shows the reduction of words and the question marks show where something else should be, because, in this case, what is your incorrect word wouldn't be at fault but a following word or words, perhaps, would be needed if that 'the' was used purposely.

    For the record, I thought you meant – that.

    This would have been better. Ellen K. Did you mean to use 'that' instead of 'the'?

    You are smart, and I bet you are hot, too. And you probably hate Ross Burns, and me.

  184. Ellen K. said,

    September 9, 2010 @ 9:37 pm

    I think I'll still to conversing here with those who don't speculate about my hotness.

  185. Ross Burns said,

    September 10, 2010 @ 12:38 pm

    Come on, Geoffrey (remember Rainbow?).
    Next!
    When are you putting up an observation you've made on a sports page or in a Mills and Boon introduction?

  186. Pflaumbaum said,

    September 11, 2010 @ 9:30 am

    That the pronoun's a fair way from the antecedent, that's all. Those of us without Prof. Pullum's experience with long-distance parsing soon forget exactly what the antecedent was, so jarring is minimal or absent, at least on a first reading.

    Surely the use of 'their' closer to a proper person antecedent, as in

    *John got up, went to the kettle and made their usual cup of tea

    - would sound bizarre to pretty much all of us?

  187. Ellen K. said,

    September 11, 2010 @ 11:07 am

    Pflaumbaum, but in your example, here's also a major difference of register. That is, it's a different speaking/writing context. So any differences in how bizarre that sounds, versus the original example, could be do to that rather than distance between the antecedent and the pronoun.

  188. bread and roses said,

    September 11, 2010 @ 1:32 pm

    @ Mandy- "Kim, Alex, or Kelly would probably know about gender confusion with having names like those, so I would say they would usually refer to themselves as Ms or Miss or Mrs or Mr for the reader, especially in a formal letter.

    Not in a hiring context, particularly if they were female Kims, Alexes, and Kellys tring to get hired in a male-dominated field.

    I think for a person involved in candidate evaluation, the less referral to gender, the better, as it is usually an inappropriate basis of evaluation.

    I have a somewhat gender-ambiguous name, and I don't like it when anonymous forms and processes ask for my title (and therefore gender). If you're not familiar enough with me to know my gender, it's none of your business.

  189. Pflaumbaum said,

    September 11, 2010 @ 2:48 pm

    I dunno Ellen, even if we use the same bureaucratic language as in the original example, but bring the pronoun nearer, it seems at least to me impossible:

    *Dr Gerald Black has submitted their application for a position of Lecturer in the Department of Criminology at the University of Penzance.

    Though it seems less unacceptable with an indefinite article:

    ? A Dr. Gerald Black has submitted their application…

    What do you (and others) feel about these examples? There seems to be quite a range of intuitions in this thread. To me Prof. Pullum's original example seemed fine on first reading and almost fine after that, but my first example above sounds very peculiar. I wonder if anyone here considers my earlier example –

    *John got up, went to the kettle and made their usual cup of tea

    - to be natural.

  190. Pflaumbaum said,

    September 11, 2010 @ 4:55 pm

    Looking back, it seems that some people in the thread have addressed the question of using 'neuter' they/them/their/themself/themselves close to the antecedent.

    *Gerald loves themselves. – to me this is completely impossible, whether or not we substitute 'themself'.

    *Gerald, their application submitted, is under consideration. – ditto.

    ?"Gerald," they think to themselves, "why don't you apply?" – I think this could work if it continued a previous chain of more standard 'neuter' pronouns, eg:

    'At this point a newcomer enters the job centre. They wander vaguely about for a while, glancing briefly at each vacancy before their attention is diverted. Then they stop dead before the description of the Penzance criminology lectureship. They peer at it for what seems an age. They scratch their head. "Gerald," they think to themselves, "why don't you apply?" '

    "Themself" also works for me here. But I've had to create a fairly eccentric scenario to make it feel acceptable, if still not wholly natural, to my ear.

  191. D. Sky Onosson said,

    September 11, 2010 @ 5:34 pm

    @ Pflaumbaum

    I'll give you my own take on your examples, one at a time. I'm not going to get into "why", but here's my reaction to each one:

    1. Dr Gerald Black has submitted their application for a position of Lecturer in the Department of Criminology at the University of Penzance.

    Perfectly acceptable for me.

    2. A Dr. Gerald Black has submitted their application…

    Also totally fine.

    3. John got up, went to the kettle and made their usual cup of tea

    I'd put a question mark beside this one. Odd, but not outright wrong.

    4. Gerald loves themselves.

    I'd star this one.

    5. Gerald, their application submitted, is under consideration.

    Doesn't seem too bad – perhaps deserves a question mark.

    6. "Gerald," they think to themselves, "why don't you apply?"

    Fine to me. Given the narrative quality, I'd have to assume something along the lines that you describe.

    ==========

    Obviously, my intuitions are different than yours. I'll add one more comment – the first two sentences to me sound *more* acceptable precisely because of the bureaucratic context. I won't analyze it any further than that.

  192. Mandy said,

    September 11, 2010 @ 6:06 pm

    Bread and roses – no wonder you're on the dole, then. And how can people begin to be familiar with you when you hide your gender? Like, er, calling yourself, on here, the name of a tribute rock band.

  193. Pflaumbaum said,

    September 11, 2010 @ 6:15 pm

    Thanks D.SO, very interesting. Well that supports what Ellen is saying about the context and register.

    But I still suspect antecedent-pronoun distance is the key thing here. If so, a non-bureaucratic example like my kettle one should sound even less acceptable when the distance is smaller:

    1. */? John got up, went to the kettle and made their usual cup of tea
    2. *John sat down and sipped their tea.
    3. *John sipped their tea.
    4. *As for Jane, they would soon be back.
    5. *It occurred to Jane they ought to get out more.

    And it should feel better when the distance is greater:

    6. */? John got up, went to the kettle, made a cup of tea, sat down and sipped it slowly. A finger of sunlight inched its way across the tabletop. The sun felt the same. The tea tasted the same. But something was nagging at the back of their mind.

    Hmm… 2-5 certainly feel (increasingly?) bad, but I'm not sure 6 is better than 1. It's even possible that the more we know about John, the wronger the 'neuter' pronoun feels. Conclusions:

    a) Ellen's theory is probably better than mine.
    b) I shouldn't write a thriller anytime soon.

  194. Mandy said,

    September 11, 2010 @ 6:16 pm

    Sky – What's wrong with these five answers to your list?

    1. His
    2. His
    3. His
    4. Himself
    5. His

    For number six, I hope you mean a number of people are wanting him to apply.

  195. Pflaumbaum said,

    September 11, 2010 @ 8:33 pm

    Nothing's wrong with them Mandy, but the whole discussion's about where the 'neuter' pronoun 'they' is acceptable. No-one's denying that 'his'/'her' is the most common form with a proper name as antecedent.

    Prof. Pullum's original point was that for him, 'they'/'them'/'their' was unacceptable in this position – it marked a boundary as to where the 'neuter' pronoun had penetrated in standard English – and he was interested in other people's intuition on this.

  196. D. Sky Onosson said,

    September 11, 2010 @ 8:50 pm

    @ Mandy:

    As Pflaumbaum said, there's nothing wrong with any of those. I'm not saying which choice is preferable, I'm just commenting on the acceptability *for me* of the sentences, as they were presented above.

    For number six, it works for me with either single or plural "real-world" reference. I wonder why you "hope" otherwise?

  197. Ellen K. said,

    September 12, 2010 @ 12:51 am

    Pflaumbaum,

    This example of yours:
    *Dr Gerald Black has submitted their application for a position of Lecturer in the Department of Criminology at the University of Penzance.

    Not jarring, doesn't suck canal water. Odd, a little outside the grammar norms, but not totally wrong.

    Whereas this example of yours:
    *John got up, went to the kettle and made their usual cup of tea

    That one seems definitively wrong.

  198. Picky said,

    September 12, 2010 @ 8:51 am

    I happened to be in a pub last week (not far from the Penzance campus, I dare say) where a sign in the bar read: "Let's drink to every Cornishman wherever they may be." I suppose it could be that

    (1) "Every Cornishman" is gender-neutral and "they" equates to generic "he".

    (2) "Every Cornishman" is masculine and "they" equates to masculine "he".

    (3) "Every Cornishman" is plural.

    I rather hope it's (1), but I suspect it's a mix. When a sentence is buffeted from all quarters like this, it is quite capable of putting the wheel hard over halfway through. At any rate this sign gave me the same mild seasickness as the Gerald Black letter.

  199. Mandy said,

    September 12, 2010 @ 2:47 pm

    Because, Sky: Gerald, they think to themselves, why don't you apply
    looks 100% in the plural corner to me. If not, it certainly looks late Nietzschean.

  200. Rocky said,

    November 24, 2012 @ 7:55 am

    There is no satisfactory neuter pronoun in English that refers to a singular person, as "it" would generally be considered insulting and "one" would generally be considered stuffy or unduly formal. There is no real equivalent to the French "on". Certainly not "they", "their", or "them", which are all plurals. People using these plurals for single subjects are either lazy or unduly concerned with politically correct gender neutrality, or both. Such usage is very inelegant, verging on clumsy and ill-educated. It smacks more of Panglish than English. The word "man" historically includes both male and female, deriving from an ancient Indo-European term for "thinking, sensate, conscious person" as opposed to an animal, and "he" includes both, or all, genders when gender is unknown. "Mankind" does not imply male humans only, though "womankind" does imply specifically females, an understandable feminist reaction to sexism.

    Good writers formulate their sentences correctly so that ridiculous solecisms such as "Carol washed their hair" (suggesting that she washed other people's hair) instead of "Carol washed her (or his) hair". "They" is a flexible beast, but should only be used with great care instead of "he" or "she". For example, "The sheep ran themselves ragged" is clearly different from "The sheep ran themself (himself, herself, itself) ragged". It's obvious and just as obvious obvious when "Carol ran themself ragged". It's absurd. "John came to the door; they put their bags down before knocking". John came to the door; he put his bags down before knocking. John and Carol came to the door; they put their bags down before knocking. Rules of grammar have been devised in order to prevent confusion in our communication.

    The concern of intersex persons with not being described as either male or female is silly. Unless they can invent a suitable alternative, they are stuck with "it", as "they" suggests more than one of them. Which may be true if they, like the double-sexed gods of antiquity (and these days too if you include pagan societies and religions), contain both sexes in one body.

  201. Treesong said,

    November 12, 2013 @ 2:22 pm

    Since '"they", "their", or "them" … are all plurals' ignores the fact that they're all singulars too, as well as using 'or' where 'and' is proper, the rest of this post is nonsense. Just sayin'.

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