Annals of singular their

« previous post | next post »

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

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

OK, maybe its third-person-singular — "a tech entrepreneur who works her brains out" is possible. But there are a fair number of relevant hits for "who works my * off|out". And I like the idea of first-person-singular their.

[Hat tip to Jonathan Mayhew.]



30 Comments

  1. Bob said,

    September 21, 2010 @ 2:19 pm

    The New York Times doesn't seem as comfortable with third-person-singular:

    The sample: The National Capital Planning Commission reviews all plans concerning the National Mall in Washington, where everyone wants their memorial to be.

    And editor's note: A common problem stemming from the lack of a gender-neutral singular pronoun in English. Usually it’s best to rephrase, e.g. “where every group wants its memorial to be.

    http://topics.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/09/21/number-trouble/

    [(myl) Yes, we've surveyed the singular they issue from every angle and at tedious length.
    (amz) My file on singular they/them/their in Language Log currently has 36 postings in it, from 6 different LLoggers. Tedious length indeed.]

  2. George said,

    September 21, 2010 @ 2:35 pm

    Maybe third-person singular, but then Sally switches to first person ("for myself and my investors"). It looks like a mangled sentence to me with too many referents getting mixed in and mixed up (some "I" and some "tech entrepreneur")

  3. Adam said,

    September 21, 2010 @ 4:58 pm

    I agree with George. I suspect this usage may be the aftermath of a clumsy edit from something like "I'm one of those tech entrepreneurs who works their brains out."

  4. Rubrick said,

    September 21, 2010 @ 5:10 pm

    It would have been much more vivid rephrased: "I'm a tech entrepreneur who has had some success for myself and my investors and works their brains out."

  5. Greg said,

    September 21, 2010 @ 6:46 pm

    The really disturbing thing about this is that presumably a first-person
    speaker knows their own gender. :-)

  6. Ellen K. said,

    September 21, 2010 @ 6:53 pm

    I don't think it's a clumsy edit. I think it's a lack of editing. Which is to be expected in a comment to a blog post. Not a situation where we carefully edit our writing. Rather, we write like we speak, and post unedited.

    I read it as the impersonal singular 3rd person, and I imagine the writer used it that way, but then when she got to the next pronouns did something different. And then either didn't proofread her post, or didn't catch the discrepency.

  7. language hat said,

    September 21, 2010 @ 7:54 pm

    Yeah, I think there's pretty much zero chance this is first person, and I say that as someone extremely fond of singular they and would love to see it extended. Try it without the ambiguous construction (e.g., *I always like cooking their own food) and I think you'll find "not even wrong" about covers it.

  8. language hat said,

    September 21, 2010 @ 7:56 pm

    (See my first sentence above for an example of the aftermath of a clumsy edit.)

  9. George said,

    September 21, 2010 @ 8:16 pm

    I think "clumsy edit" is the best explanation. The misspelling of *foreever" also suggests haste.

    I just don't see a intentional first-person, singular "their" there.

  10. ignoramus said,

    September 21, 2010 @ 8:37 pm

    Surely brains is plural and thus "their" but as she be very smart, has more than one brain between the lugholes, could use this turn of phrase but for the rest of us , it be one brain if we are that lucky.
    Use of brains in the singular is an old fashion slang, slang now an acceptable form of communication, ain't that so?

  11. Ellen K. said,

    September 21, 2010 @ 9:20 pm

    Come to think of it, I do read it as a plural they as a "one of those people who…" kinda thing.

    But, "brains" doesn't support that. It's a non-count noun derived from the plural. It would be "work my brains out", not "work my brain out". That latter sounds wrong, to me. And "My brains" does get a good number of google hits.

  12. J. Goard said,

    September 21, 2010 @ 10:18 pm

    @Greg:

    Doctors presumably know their own genders as well, but in English they don't typically introduce themselves as "Lady Doctor Jones", "Mister Doctor Brown", or any such thing. Knowing a distinction and expressing it obligatorily are very different things.

    I'm guessing that, to the extent I would use third person for the sentence in question, I would use their rather than his. Though I'm very strongly inclined toward the first person, the choice of the third (probably for that very reason) feels like a distancing from my individual position, to include other people in the conceptualization. His seems to particularize myself in the third person, which is weird.

  13. Josh said,

    September 21, 2010 @ 10:59 pm

    I see it as third-person. I read it as him saying he belongs to a category defined by the description "tech person who works their brains out". Where it gets messy is that the verb "has" agrees with the plural "their", not the singular "I" that it should be agreeing with. But as others have mentioned, forums like blog comments tend to be written more conversationally, so things like subject-verb agreement, or verb tense, are less likely to be consistent.

  14. Josh said,

    September 21, 2010 @ 11:03 pm

    Sorry. Meant to say third person vs. first person, not plural vs singular. Hopefully this further supports my point about blog comments being grammatically inconsistent.

  15. MJ said,

    September 21, 2010 @ 11:23 pm

    My first thought too was that this could be a (new?) variation on "one those X who/that." Singular verb plus plural pronoun = one of those X who/that plus singular verb.

  16. Ellen K. said,

    September 21, 2010 @ 11:57 pm

    Er, Josh, I don't know about where you live, but around here "they has" doesn't work.

    "has" agrees with "tech entrepreneur", as it should.

    Well, it could agree with "I", which would make the sentence parse differently.

  17. Matt said,

    September 22, 2010 @ 2:58 am

    It's clearly third person. The direct antecedent for "their" is the relative pronoun "who". Note that the verb ("works") appears with third person singular agreement. I think this is an example of singular "their" taking an indefinite or quantificational antecedent (which seems to cover most of the cases where "their" is clearly not being used as a way to avoid specifying gender).

  18. iching said,

    September 22, 2010 @ 4:57 am

    I read it without difficulty as someone talking about themselves (sic) in the 3rd person. Celebrities do it all the time.

  19. Iulus said,

    September 22, 2010 @ 6:40 am

    This sentence seems perfectly natural to me.
    Since it's a relative clause the first person would be awkward and ungrammatical. *I'm a tech investor who work my brains out and (who) have had some success for… Notice that the verbs are third singular throughout the first sentence and that "myself" is reflexive and "my" is a determiner (their investors, not someone else's), so we can safely rule out a lack of editing on the part of the third singular usage at least. I'm not actually aware of any English dialect that allows relative clauses to be first or second person, except in the phrase "who I am/who you are," which could be idiomatic.

    Like Matt said "their" can be used to increase the indefiniteness of the clause. That is, s/he is a tech entrepreneur who (like any tech entrepreneur) works their brains out and (who personally) has had some success for him/herself and his/her investors. That's my guess of the use of "their" over "his/her" here, but we'd really have to ask the commenter.

  20. Iulus said,

    September 22, 2010 @ 7:04 am

    I should have said "I'm not aware of any English dialect that allows relative clauses to be in the first or second person when subject of the relative clause is the subject of the primary sentence." I.e. *You are the person who give me all you can, but "That is just who you are."

  21. Bill Walderman said,

    September 22, 2010 @ 8:15 am

    The antecedent of the relative clause is "tech entrepreneur," not "I," so in English (maybe not in Latin) the relative clause is cast in the third person and "their" is admissible as the possessive pronoun where the gender of the antecedent isn't specified (even though the subject of the main clause is highly specified). It may not be "logical," but that seems to be the way English handles this sort of situation. "I'm a person who likes their coffee in the morning" seems to me a perfectly good English sentence, at least in a colloquial register.

    CGEL (p. 507, sec. 18.3(g), discusses 3rd person overrides in cleft relatives citing as an example: "It's me who is at fault." However, there doesn't seem to be a discussion of 3rd person overrides in situations like this where the antecedent of the relative is the complement of a copular clause, the subject of which is the first-person singular pronoun.

  22. Craig Russell said,

    September 22, 2010 @ 12:20 pm

    @Iulus

    So you would say

    "I, who has never taken a bribe in his/her/their life, am being accused of corruption"

    rather than

    "I, who have never taken a bribe in my life, am being accused of corruption"
    ?

    To me the second is far more natural than the first (although in your situations, where the antecedent of the relative pronoun is a fresh noun/pronoun that happens to refer to the same person as the 1st/2nd person subject, I agree that it would be unusual to use 1st/2nd person pronouns. But not in older varieties of English! "Our father, who(/which) art in heaven…")

  23. Craig Russell said,

    September 22, 2010 @ 12:21 pm

    And I can't imagine using 1st/2nd person agreement if the antecedent is not already nominative: *Can you give a ride to me, who am at a party?

  24. Chandra said,

    September 22, 2010 @ 3:33 pm

    I find it interesting that the commenter in question is female (or at least, we can assume "Sally" is likely female). I wonder if her choice of phrasing has anything to do with the possibility that she may be wishing to downplay her gender in a male-dominated field.

  25. Chandra said,

    September 22, 2010 @ 3:36 pm

    (Although I suppose "my" would have worked just as well, so this still doesn't clear up first-person vs. third-person. Never mind.)

  26. Iulus said,

    September 22, 2010 @ 5:04 pm

    @Craig
    You're correct. This is what I get for posting at four in the morning. Although, I have to say your construction sounds stilted to me, correct, but only used by characters in legal dramas. In the second person it sounds more natural.

  27. Rod Johnson said,

    September 22, 2010 @ 6:56 pm

    Saying it "clearly is" or "isn't" third person seems to me to be underestimating the complexity of the speech act people perform when they make references like these. There's a referential/predicative thing going on, as some of the commenters above have noted. "A tech entrepreneur who works their brains out" (call it a TEWWTBO) can be viewed predicatively, and this person is asserting that predicate is true of herself, and in that sense it might feel kind of opaque to the coreference constraints people usually apply to relative clauses, sort of a frozen expression.

    Then there's, I think, some kind of distinction to be made between person as a category of reference and person as a syntactic "feature" (I'm trying to find a non-theory-laden way of saying that and failing) that drives agreement and reflexivization and stuff like that. Consider, for example, first-person uses of common nouns, as in sentences like "Americans have a tendency to contradict ourselves frequently in our daily lives." (http://www.megaessays.com/viewpaper/13832.html) I guess you can view this as an elliptical "we Americans" but on the face of it it's just a noun–syntactically third person but referentially first person. The two systems have all kinds of places where they don't match up that neatly, and we should expect that speakers will exhibit lots of variation and makeshift solutions.

    Relatedly (I think), I've seen a few examples of "themselve" as a singular reflexive pronoun–a pretty clear back-formation but one that always takes me by surprise. I see this and the more common "themself" as ways of trying to make the pronoun system be more "true" to the referential facts.

  28. ShadowFox said,

    September 22, 2010 @ 11:30 pm

    Ok, my first instinct (similar to what someone else already noted) was that it was a clumsy version of "I'm [one of those] {a} tech entrepreneur[s] who work{s} their brains out" ([]==add, {}==subtract). The problem is the rest of the sentence makes it pretty much impossible: "…and has had some success for myself and my investors."

    There's a perfect storm here of singular (or not) "their", 3rd person singular verbs and "my" and "myself" in the same place in the second clause where "their" is in the first. It's not a typo, it's a thinko. Maybe it's all those steroids and working the brains out… Sure, we would like to see all these things regularized and expect people to have a reason for putting all of the words where they are found. But sometimes there is just no explanation other than the writer simply butchering a sentence. If you want a parallel, look into "naive theories" as pseudo-scientific explanations in education research–most of the time, when subjects are asked to explain their answers is the first time they think of one. Much of the time, the explanation is quite coherent and consistent with other instances, but some answers are just inexplicable and drive researchers into a tizzy.

    The simple rule is "Don't overanalyze."

  29. Twitter Trackbacks for Language Log » Annals of singular their [upenn.edu] on Topsy.com said,

    September 23, 2010 @ 3:06 pm

    [...] Language Log » Annals of singular their languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=2646 – view page – cached September 21, 2010 @ 2:04 pm · Filed by Mark Liberman under singular "they" Tweets about this link [...]

  30. John Cowan said,

    September 23, 2010 @ 6:26 pm

    A related issue was discussed (with some comments by me) three years ago on a Chocolate Interrobang posting.

RSS feed for comments on this post