What a woman can’t do with their body

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Mark Meckes noticed a tweet about an interview with Emma Watson, who was being discussed in this Language Log post, and mentioned it in a comment thereto. It was completely off topic (and thus violated the Language Log comments policy), but I felt it was too interesting to be left languishing down there in a comment on a post about preposition doubling, so I’m repeating it here, where it can have its own post:

If you think @EmmaWatson is a hypocrite, maybe consider you shouldn’t be telling a woman what they can and can’t do with their own body.

Two occurrences of singular they (they and their), with the phrase a woman as antecedent!

The reason I note it here is that I want to be able to find it the next time I want to illustrate the fact that singular they often occurs in contexts where the sex of the referent is completely clear from other considerations.

One favorite of mine was discussed in this post. The referent was an unknown graffiti composer. But it was in a stall in a men’s bathroom, which pretty much tells us all we need to know about whether a male or a female was being referred to.

But as I noted there, inferred sex of the referent is not enough to guarantee that a speaker will want to make the choice between third-person singular he or she. Singular they is now firmly embedded as the default pronoun to choose when (roughly) its logical translation would be as a variable bound by a quantifier (as in “tell some x (x a woman) what x can do with x‘s body and what x cannot do with x‘s body”).



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