Schooled on singular “they”

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[This is a guest post by Bean]

My eight-year-old daughter in conversation with me last night:

Scene: I am giving her a sock, which she had brought home, only to find she already had both of her socks. So it logically must belong to some other girl (it’s obviously a girl’s sock).

Me: So, bring this lost sock back to school, and put it in the lost and found. Do you remember who was wearing it? Well, anyway if the other girl is looking for it she can find it. I’m assuming it was a girl so I’m going with “she”.

Daughter [scornfully]: You mean “they”.

I think this clearly illustrates the way the kids use “they”. We know it’s a girl, but since we’re not sure which girl, it becomes “they”. And it was such a firm rule in her mind she felt the need to sneer at me. :)

The girls (and, I think, us parents) also use this consistently in their all-girls’ hockey league, and in Brownies – both all-female pursuits. For example, I heard something along the lines of: Q. “Is the other goalie any good?” A. “I don’t know, I’ve never seen them play before.” Whereas if we were talking about our goalie, whose name and face we know, it would have been along the lines of “I don’t know, she hasn’t played much lately.”



100 Comments

  1. Alison said,

    April 21, 2017 @ 8:47 am

    Does the “and face” in your final sentence mean that kids will use “they” for a person with a known name and gender but who they haven’t met, or who is somehow otherwise not familiar?

  2. Johan P said,

    April 21, 2017 @ 8:51 am

    Fabulous. Of course, this extends, in a queer context, to a single person as well – if you don’t know who they are, you use “they” as the safe option, no matter how they outwardly present.

  3. languagehat said,

    April 21, 2017 @ 9:05 am

    This is a very pleasing development! WARNING: PRONOMINAL SYSTEM IN FLUX…

  4. Tom Davidson said,

    April 21, 2017 @ 10:27 am

    What I hate is “data is” and the confusion about usage of less/few

  5. Tom Davidson said,

    April 21, 2017 @ 10:41 am

    Also, anyone ever notice what happens when you type a Chinese search word into Google search and the URLs listed under the results show “/big5” ?? I’m seeing an increasing number of “Oops! 404 error” messages. Very frustrating for those of us working with traditional characters. Anybody got an idea why this is happening more and more? It never used to……..

  6. Andy Watkinson said,

    April 21, 2017 @ 10:59 am

    What I find most disturbing about this exchange is the use of “bring”.

    “Bring this lost sock back to school…”

    What happened to the difference between “take” and “bring”?

  7. Guy said,

    April 21, 2017 @ 11:14 am

    Andy Watkinson,

    “Bring” seems fine to me here, we’re looking at it from the perspective of where the school is because that’s where we envision the instructions being performed. “Take” would sound to me like she’s being told to return the sock right now, instead of next time she goes there. “Bring” is also natural because where the sock “belongs” is more the school than the wrong house, at least from the perspective of the people living in that house.

  8. Jonfrum said,

    April 21, 2017 @ 11:30 am

    “What happened to the difference between “take” and “bring”?”

    It can be found in the Pedantry Lost and Found department.

    I’m sure the child will suffer no irreparable harm from the failed distinction. Unless some old grouch barks at her about it and makes her cry.

  9. Andy Watkinson said,

    April 21, 2017 @ 11:40 am

    Jonfrum,

    I suspect you’re American, where this usage seems prevalent. In other English-speaking countries it barely exists, if at all.

    Lamenting the loss of a useful distinction is not pedantry, so I consider your remarks unhelpful and unwarranted, to say the very least.

    Guy, I understand the perspective aspect you mention but it still sounds odd – I find it hard to imagine a UK speaker using “bring” from that angle. They’re at home and the daughter is asked to “take” it with her to school the next time she attends.

    “Scene: I am giving her a sock, which she had brought home”.
    Imagine it read “[…] a sock which she had taken home” – this is the equivalent to my ears and it’s not pleasant ;-)

  10. leoboiko said,

    April 21, 2017 @ 11:46 am

    > What I hate is “data is”

    The ancient Stoics have written about this: it’s completely impossible for you to change the morphosyntactical regularization tendencies of the entire Anglosphere, but it’s entirely within your power to change your feelings and stop hating. It’s quite simple, and you’ll achieve a lot more eudæmonia that way.

  11. Robert Davis said,

    April 21, 2017 @ 11:53 am

    I can accept “data is”, but I hate “very” unique.

  12. languagehat said,

    April 21, 2017 @ 11:56 am

    It always amuses me when a Log thread turns into a parade of peevers.

    Lamenting the loss of a useful distinction is not pedantry

    I hate to rain on your parade, but this is the excuse always given for pedantry (or peevery, take your pick). Every single distinction, no matter how marginal, is lamented as so useful the peever hardly knows how speakers will manage without it. And yet somehow the language marches on, even when a word for ‘prayer’ becomes a word for ‘small round object’ (that’s bead)!

  13. leoboiko said,

    April 21, 2017 @ 12:13 pm

    To lament natural changes in fine semantic distinctions is precisely the definition of pedantry. Further, here’s some British guy or another using the verb “bring” in the sense of “take away from here to them over there”:

    Domitius Enobarus. Our great navy’s rigg’d.

    Eros. For Italy and Caesar. More, Domitius; My lord desires you presently: my news I might have told hereafter.

    Domitius Enobarus. ‘Twill be naught: But let it be. Bring me to Antony.

    (Antony and Cleopatra, Act III, Scene 5.)

    ‘When wilt thou be the humble suppliant’s friend,
    And bring him where his suit may be obtain’d?

    (Rape of Lucrece, Act I, Scene 2.)

    Rush on his host, as doth the melted snow
    Upon the valleys, whose low vassal seat
    The Alps doth spit and void his rheum upon:
    Go down upon him, you have power enough,
    And in a captive chariot into Rouen
    Bring him our prisoner.

    (Henry V, Act III, Scene 5.)

    (Elsinore. A room in the Castle.)
    Claudius: Go seek him out; speak fair, and bring the body
    Into the chapel.

    (Hamlet, Act IV, Scene 1.)

    How is:
    Youˢ bring (the socks)º (to the school)ⁱ

    any different than

    Youˢ bring meº (to Antony)ⁱ
    Thouˢ bring himº (where his suit may be obtain’d)ⁱ
    Youˢ bring (our prisoner)º (into Rouen)ⁱ
    Youˢ bring (the body)º (into the chapel)ⁱ

    ?

  14. IS said,

    April 21, 2017 @ 12:14 pm

    It occurred to me while reading this that people who default to “she” in this situation are actually doing an additional mental calculation before they speak, i.e. going through the logic of “this sock looks like a girl’s sock so the person it belongs to must be a girl”.

    It’s obviously not a terribly complex or time-consuming calculation, but I still find it interesting that people who use “she” in this context are wired to automatically use available data to attempt to determine an unknown person’s gender, whereas people who default to “they” aren’t wired to do this at all, and are just going with “unknown person = they”.

  15. Ernie in Berkeley said,

    April 21, 2017 @ 12:36 pm

    “Bring” vs “take” was one of the regional differences we learned in Linguistics 101 in upstate NY. People from the New York City area were fine with “I have to bring my cousin to the airport”, while upstate people thought it was strange–do they live at the airport?

  16. TR said,

    April 21, 2017 @ 12:37 pm

    this is the excuse always given for pedantry — and it’s not even applicable in this case. Distinctions of perspective can be very useful indeed.

  17. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    April 21, 2017 @ 12:40 pm

    The limits of this way of speaking seem a bit hard to work out (and if people aren’t saying simply that this way of speaking is legitimate, but that the other way is wrong, there do have to be definite limits). There is a strictly indefinite use of ‘they’, where there is no particular person being referred to, e.g. ‘if someone comes to the door tell them to go away’. But that isn’t the case here: the owner of the sock is a definite person. How much do we have to know about a person before ‘she’ becomes appropriate? The dividing line apparently lies between the other goalie and one’s own goalie – both, quite possibly, people one can see and knows to be girls. (Come to think of it, I have never met Bean’s daughter, and don’t know her name. But ‘she’ certainly seems appropriate there.)

    Regarding peeving: it can go both ways. Bean said something that English speakers regularly say – perhaps it would save mental energy and contribute to better gender relations if they didn’t, but they do – and his daughter told him he was wrong. That’s peeving. People often seem to object to peeving about new usages, but to welcome peeving about old usages. But if our attitude to language is genuinely descriptive, surely we should do neither.

  18. Philip Taylor said,

    April 21, 2017 @ 12:42 pm

    I’m with the British pedants here; “bring” just stuck on my throat as soon as I read the abstract to the article. “Can I get a glass of water”, from a diner to a waiter [1], has exactly the same effect. Intrigued by said daughter’s usage of “they” but find the”bring”/”take” distinction far more interesting and stimulating.
    ——–
    [1] I read “wait-person” somewhere on this list; does anyone really use that phrase in real life ?

  19. Bean said,

    April 21, 2017 @ 12:46 pm

    @IS: Well, it was exactly like my daughter’s sock, not just vaguely feminine, and it was a leopard pattern with a kitty face, and I was holding it in my hand. It wasn’t a theoretical case of “what would you use if…”, and I didn’t put a lot of thought into what I said. (As is the case for most people in conversation and is when the more interesting things happen.) The whole conversation was weird to begin with, and got weirder when I settled on “she” even though I knew it was perfectly logical.

    For the record, the sock is still in my daughter’s knapsack. Perhaps she was confused over my use of the word “bring”. :)

  20. Bean said,

    April 21, 2017 @ 12:49 pm

    @Andrew (not the same one): I had to laugh out loud at your use of “he”. Bean is the mom in that scenario! I suppose this is obvious to me but not to you, based on my screen name…

  21. Andy Watkinson said,

    April 21, 2017 @ 1:03 pm

    @Ernie

    I was completely unaware that the bring vs. take usage in the US was not uniform- I thought it was virtually the norm.

    Naturally, my approach to such matters is the only one I believe worthy of any merit which is, of course, descriptive – I was describing the usage of some 65 million British English speakers, which is why I find this charge of being pedantic a little amusing. e.g. when G.K. Pullum battles with “The Economist” over its cowardice when refusing to split its infinitives, I know whose side I’m on.

    In any case, my apologies to Bean for straying away from the “she/her/they” conundrum, but didn’t foresee the strange reactions to my comment.

  22. Philip Taylor said,

    April 21, 2017 @ 1:06 pm

    Rather more on-topic, I am intrigued by the closing line to the dialogue — “I’m assuming it was a girl so I’m going with ‘she'”. Why, in a conversation otherwise concerned with socks, did Bean switch to gender/linguistic-choice issues, I wonder ? Had she not done so, is it not probable that her daughter would tacitly have accepted the usage of “she” without comment ?

  23. Bev Rowe said,

    April 21, 2017 @ 1:19 pm

    I find it hard to believe that anyone clued up enough to read Language Log complains about “data is”. This is such a universal usage among data processors that by any standards it is now well established.

    I have spent a lot of my life with statisticians and data processors. The former mostly say “data are” and the latter “data is”.

    But more generally, would Davidson say “I went to the opera last night and they were very good”? If not why not?

    It is an elementary observation that English verbs often have a semantic agreement: “the crowd were getting restless”

    On bring for fetch: in the UK this seems to be an Irish British usage.

  24. Bean said,

    April 21, 2017 @ 1:35 pm

    @Philip Taylor: It was late, I was tired.

  25. Guy said,

    April 21, 2017 @ 2:53 pm

    Andy Watkinson,

    Would you find “sock she had taken home” odd if it were a teacher talking? I’m not sure what you mean by “this usage”. Could you try to specify exactly what “this usage” is? I would say the general rule is that you favor “take” when you are situating yourself in the perspective of the place the thing is coming from and “bring” from the prospective of where it is going to.

  26. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    April 21, 2017 @ 3:06 pm

    Bean: Sorry, I should have said ‘they’. Though that would be a quite different kind of ‘they’ from the one your daughter is using.

  27. TR said,

    April 21, 2017 @ 3:53 pm

    Bev Rowe, singular opera actually goes all the way back to Latin, so maybe not the best example (though I agree completely with your point!).

  28. @Bean said,

    April 21, 2017 @ 4:02 pm

    @Andrew (ntso): no, isn’t it the broader singular they? To you, I was a singular unknown person, of unknown gender. You just assumed I was male.

    Also, to clarify why I said that, there was something about the situation, and the way that casual speech unfolds. It was definitely not a boy so “he can find it” is no good. We’re talking about a sock only worn by one person so I hesitated at “they can find it” (I pictured multiple kids wearing a single sock), which is why from sheer exhaustion I settled on “she can find it”.

    To me, “Take it to school” sounds like I meant she would take it right away, which was ridiculous as it was bedtime. Sorry to all you purists, “Bring it to school” sounds perfectly natural to me (and my daughter) in that context, it has some implied future action to it compared to “take”, and if we are talking about achieving clear communication, we got that.

  29. Marja Erwin said,

    April 21, 2017 @ 4:59 pm

    Is this distinction between bring and take as useful as the distinction between thou and you, or mith and with, or guma and were and man, or wih and holy, or the nominative o-declension masculine endings?

  30. Jon W said,

    April 21, 2017 @ 5:51 pm

    Whether the distinction between bring and take should be abandoned isn’t really the issue here, because — Andy Watkinson notwithstanding — Bean did not misuse “bring.” MWDEU’s description of actual usage patterns in its entry for “bring” is squarely in line with Guy’s reasoning in his 4/21 11:14 am comment. The problem, rather, as MWDEU puts it, “exists in the mind of usage commentators, who have formulated incomplete rules for the use of bring.

  31. Geoff said,

    April 21, 2017 @ 6:31 pm

    Andy Watkinson: ‘Lamenting the loss of a useful distinction is not pedantry.’

    It depends what you mean by ‘useful’.

    The information density of language is a compromise between our desire, as speakers, to minimise the cognitive effort of composing and our desire, as listeners, to minimise the cognitive effort of interpreting. Where it has settled is probably a sweet spot evolved over evolutionary time, which would be why all languages take about the same time to say the same thing, within a margin. There are no real languages in which ‘olimakityluchachichichi’ means ‘no’.

    Because speaking takes time and effort, natural selection is against languagizing shades of meaning that are unimportant or that context can supply. When our ancestor on the savannah called out to his mate ‘Run!’ he didn’t need a word that expressed direction (comparable to the bring/take contrast) because in context it was obvious that he meant run away from the lion, not towards it.

    So a ‘useful’ distinction arguably means one that’s useful *enough* for speakers to take the trouble to maintain it. If it dies out, that’s nature’s way of telling us that the benefit of extra clarity wasn’t great enough to be worth the extra cognitive effort of maintaining it.

  32. Sean R said,

    April 21, 2017 @ 7:30 pm

    I am curious whether this shift extends to the reflexive: whether when in context the referent of a usage of they is of this kind, both singular and specific but not known, these children would naturally say them self to refer to that person rather than themselves.

  33. Gregory Kusnick said,

    April 21, 2017 @ 7:45 pm

    Even granting Andy’s claim that bring-v.-take expresses a useful distinction in his idiolect, I’m skeptical of his confident assumption that all 65 million residents of Britain speak (Andy’s variety of) British English.

  34. Andy Watkinson said,

    April 21, 2017 @ 8:28 pm

    I must admit to being baffled.

    I made a simple observation that a particular use of a verb jarred. That simple.
    I apologised to Bean several comments ago for having unintentionally strayed from the point she was making and thought that would be that and normality would be restored.
    Apparently not.

    Hours later G. Gusnick feels the need to inform everyone that he is skeptical of my assumptions. He gives no reason for this. Why bother?

    He also has the strange belief that there exists alongside all the generally well known varieties of English (UK, US, AUS, CAN, Nigerian, Jamaican, Indian, etc…) something called “Andy’s variety”. Again, no reason given; but it’s flattering, nonetheless.

    But never mind. I suggest he lose no time in writing his paper and then hurrying to Stockholm to give his speech.

  35. Andy Watkinson said,

    April 21, 2017 @ 8:32 pm

    I apologise, Mr. Kusnick, for getting your surname wrong.

  36. John Swindle said,

    April 21, 2017 @ 8:33 pm

    I think they are all bonkers.

  37. @Bean said,

    April 21, 2017 @ 9:15 pm

    …and just to further confuse the issue, having been given a summary of the crazy internet people I deal with, my husband said, he always thought, the difference between “bring” vs. “take” was whether it was the whole point of the trip (take) or incidental, because you were going that way anyway (bring). Since I’ve been pondering this all day, and trying to put my finger on why bring was clearly the correct verb [in my idiolect! which may not be the same as yours!] when I said it, I concur with his view. She was going to school anyway. It was “bring”.

    For the record, we were (approximately) raised in Winnipeg, have lived in many provinces, and now reside in Nova Scotia, so “bastardized general Canadian with regional distortions interspersed with favourite idioms” is what we speak. But our daughter has spent her whole speaking life in Nova Scotia, so that’s something different. She has a weird accent, and weird word usage, at least according to us, and we can’t figure out which is regional, and which is generational!

  38. Gregory Kusnick said,

    April 21, 2017 @ 10:46 pm

    I’ll gladly abandon my skepticism given evidence that UK English is somehow free of regional and individual variation in usage.

    As for “hours later”, there’s not much I can do about that short of moving to a different time zone.

  39. Ran Ari-Gur said,

    April 21, 2017 @ 11:34 pm

    @@Bean:

    > […] my husband said, he always thought, the difference between “bring” vs. “take” was whether it was the whole point of the trip (take) or incidental, because you were going that way anyway (bring).

    For me at least, that’s an important factor, but definitely not the only one: for example, I find “Could you bring it to me?” far preferable to “Could you take it to me?” even if the interlocutor would not otherwise be coming to the speaker, and conversely, I find “You can take it with you when you leave” far preferable to “You can bring it with you when you leave.”

  40. cliff arroyo said,

    April 22, 2017 @ 12:17 am

    On “they” since some time in the 1980s I’ve realized I sometimes use ‘they’ when the sex of the person was very obvious and in an office setting might say to a colleague returning to the office:
    “Someone called you but they didn’t want to leave a message.”
    I wouldn’t do this if the person who called had left their name (or I recognized who it was) but someone who didn’t leave their name would get theyed by me.

    On bring / take. Bring in this context does sound a little weird/awkward to me personally but does sound like the type of thing that regional differences get built around. I’d probably say “take the sock back to school with you” which probably would ruffle other regional feathers.

  41. tangent said,

    April 22, 2017 @ 12:35 am

    My gratitude to those elaborating details of their usage of “take” versus “bring”! I hadn’t dissected it before, but I fall in with those for whom “take” indicates purpose and promptness.

    (I must say I find that discussion more interesting than hearing the state of the innards (emotional or intestinal) of someone somewhere on the internet, in almost any case, but especially if they are devoting our attention to “why can’t British/American usage be more like American/British”)

  42. Bob Crossley said,

    April 22, 2017 @ 12:45 am

    I don’t find the “they” surprising, but I’m surprised that I don’t. Being an older, reasonably educated, British person I was taught at school not to use “singular they” but it seems I’ve accommodated completely to the modern idiom.

    The “bring/take” distinction is more puzzling, because, presumably, it’s common enough on American TV, but I’ve never noticed it, but I found it quite puzzling in writing. I think this is because when listening to another dialect I automatically make allowances for small variations; but I always read in my own voice, so the variation is puzzling.

  43. Chris said,

    April 22, 2017 @ 3:16 am

    I’m relaxed about singular they, and bring/take doesn’t bother me. But what made me wince in Bean’s post was the sentence starting “The girls (and, I think, us parents) also use this …”. WE parents, I wanted to shout peevishly.

  44. RP said,

    April 22, 2017 @ 3:38 am

    As a 39-year-old BrE speaker, what I find interesting about this usage of “they” is that it feels in no way alien to me. (I don’t think I would find anything odd if I were overhearing this conversation – Q. “Is the other goalie any good?” A. “I don’t know, I’ve never seen them play before.”)

    I can’t rule out that I might use “they” in similar ways myself (though I of course wouldn’t scorn those who didn’t). I believe this use of “they” has been growing over decades and isn’t restricted to any particular country or region.

    On “bring”/”take”, Andy Watkinson shouldn’t be surprised at the reaction to his original comment. To use the word “disturbing” about a feature of someone else’s dialect or idiolect is not generally a good idea, and doesn’t contribute much to the discussion.

    @leoboiko,
    Very minor correction. Where you have “Thouˢ bring himº (where his suit may be obtain’d)ⁱ”, it’s actually “Thou wilt bring him”. (“When wilt thou… bring him…?”).

    The OED definition of “bring” is very interesting (but this is just as an observation; I am not saying that the OED definition is true of all dialects or that we should all follow it, and the entry hasn’t been fully updated since 1888). It defines the “bring”/”take” definition similarly to Andy W. What I find interesting is the 19th-century lexicographers’ decision to bring the French translations into it (“bring” is explicitly equated with “amener” and “apporter”; “take” with “emmener” and “emporter”).

  45. John Walden said,

    April 22, 2017 @ 5:13 am

    Unless I’m missing something, which I probably am, it isn’t all that simple. If you are in a different room from another speaker you say ‘Can you bring me a coffee?’ and the other person says ‘I’ll bring you one in a moment’ (not “take”). The same thing happens talking to someone on an entry-phone from floors above ‘Can you come up and bring the package with you?’ ‘No, you’ll have to come down, I can’t bring it up’ That last one mixes up where the conversation is imaginarily taking place, if that’s what is supposed to decide the issue.

    As far as ‘she’ and ‘they’ are concerned I’m with cliff arroyo about ‘someone phoned and they didn’t leave their name’ being unremarkable, perhaps because the person’s gender is not especially relevant. Which may be where Bean and her daughter part company.

    For the record, 60 yr old BrE with that no-particular-region ‘Queen’s English’ socialect.

  46. Chas Belov said,

    April 22, 2017 @ 5:18 am

    @Philip Taylor: I use waiter for both male and female wait-persons. Same with actors. And even though I use “he” as my gender pronoun, I find myself using “they” when referring to myself in the third person by my work title, because my gender is not relevant to my work.

    @Geoff: Although in Cantonese, “no” is “not” + some verb or adjective (which, in Cantonese, are a subset of verbs).

    @Sean R: I’m apparently avant garde, but no means alone, but I consider “themself” a word and use it when I want a singular non-gendered reflexive pronoun. (And singular “themselves” makes me shudder.)

  47. Nick Barnes said,

    April 22, 2017 @ 7:06 am

    I’m intrigued by “obviously a girl’s sock”.

  48. Bean said,

    April 22, 2017 @ 9:19 am

    @Nick Barnes: I feel like I should post a picture of it at this point. I don’t know how to do that without connecting you guys to my “real self” though.

    @Chris: “we parents” – I have never heard anyone say such a thing out loud, “correct” or not.

    It cracks me up that in a 222-word post there were so many interesting things to discuss. I had no idea that mundane parent-child conversation could be so interesting!

    I was just trying to capture what we said, so it was written the way I thought we spoke it. It wasn’t a script, in spite of the way I wrote it, and there were probably lots of filled pauses. There was certainly a lot of hopping around the room on my daughter’s part since she seems unable to be still…

  49. Bean said,

    April 22, 2017 @ 9:38 am

    Ha, I remembered that I bought the socks at The Bay. Here they are, it’s the middle pair, though we own the whole set:

    http://www.thebay.com/webapp/wcs/stores/servlet/en/thebay/brands/girls/girls-2-6-fashion-crew-socks-three-pack-0077-sk14513–24

    All three pairs are current favourites, she wears them again as soon as they are out of the dryer. Also, the socks in question have been lost and found once before, mushed into the dirt at the playground at school.

  50. Jerry Friedman said,

    April 22, 2017 @ 9:40 am

    Nick Barnes: I’d call it dreadfully cisnormative, or cisvestnormative, or something. My spell checker wouldn’t, though.

    (I’d better say that I’m being facetious.)

  51. Philip Taylor said,

    April 22, 2017 @ 10:24 am

    Bean wrote ‘“we parents” – I have never heard anyone say such a thing out loud, “correct” or not”‘. But I suspect that Bean may have heard, once or twice, “We the people …” — thank goodness the drafters of that revered document did not write “Us the people” is all I can say !

  52. languagehat said,

    April 22, 2017 @ 10:34 am

    So is it your position that we should all talk in the language of 18th-century framers of formal documents?

  53. Rodger C said,

    April 22, 2017 @ 10:43 am

    @Bev Rowe: You tend to confirm a suspicion of mine. One of my previous academic deans here in Kentucky was very insistent on the distinction between “take” and “bring.” She was from Boston. I always wondered if it was one of those rules whose real purport is, “Don’t sound Irish.”

  54. John Shutt said,

    April 22, 2017 @ 10:59 am

    (Don’t see this point raised above, hopefully I didn’t miss it somewhere…)

    My initial reaction to the correction was that I didn’t think “it” was referring to the person. Then I wasn’t sure quite what the antecedent would be if not the person, but it seemed to me to be the same “it” as in the question “Who is it?” I don’t think anyone would say “Who is they?”, nor even “Who is them?”. (The correct answer to this question is, of course, “It’s the plumber; I’ve come to fix the sink!”, but that’s beside the point.)

  55. Delaney said,

    April 22, 2017 @ 11:42 am

    Is this a socially-aware choice (not assuming someone’s gender) or a grammatical choice?

  56. Ellen K. said,

    April 22, 2017 @ 12:04 pm

    @Philip Taylor

    “We the people” and “we people” are different. And “us the people” and “us people” are also different from each other. No reason to assume the patterns of usage are going to be the same with or without the “the”.

  57. Bean said,

    April 22, 2017 @ 12:11 pm

    @Philip Taylor: I think you inadvertently proved my point, which is that we write so much differently than we speak. It’s not that I don’t know the rule, it’s that no one actually SAYS it according to the rule, which is the more interesting observation.

  58. Philip Taylor said,

    April 22, 2017 @ 12:30 pm

    Languagehat asked “is it your [=my] position that we should all talk in the language of 18th-century framers of formal documents?” No, it is not, and I do not think it is reasonable to generalise from one specific instance (“we the people” v. “us the people”) to the entire sociolect of those framers at that time. But those words were used not only in the preamble to the U.S. Constitution in 1787, they were also used (this time with more modern punctuation) in the preamble to the Constitution of India as recently as 1949/59 (I was watching the film “Gandhi” last night, which is what reminded me of this) . Just as with the language of the King James bible, there is an inherent beauty in the language of those preambles which more recent versions (here I am referring specifically to the KJV) totally fail to capture. But may I ask a question in return ? Would you (languagehat) be happy if a future US Constitution were to commence “Us the people”.

    Ellen K: Agreed.

    Bean: Well, some of us speak, whilst not as they write (something I learned not to do many decades ago, when I first started delivering papers at conferences), but attempting nonetheless to avoid solecisms such as “It is me” in all but the most casual speech. And yes, I’m sorry to say, I do regard “us parents […] also use this …” as a solecism.

  59. Guy said,

    April 22, 2017 @ 12:51 pm

    @Chas Balov,

    Not that avante garde, lots of people use “themself” without being consciously aware of it and for what it’s worth the form “themself” is actually older than “themselves” by a substantial margin. (Before “self” was reanalyzed as a noun, there was no “selves” and it was always “themself”).

  60. languagehat said,

    April 22, 2017 @ 1:15 pm

    Languagehat asked “is it your [=my] position that we should all talk in the language of 18th-century framers of formal documents?” No, it is not, and I do not think it is reasonable to generalise from one specific instance (“we the people” v. “us the people”) to the entire sociolect of those framers at that time. […] But may I ask a question in return ? Would you (languagehat) be happy if a future US Constitution were to commence “Us the people”.

    You seem to have missed my point, so I will have to spell it out: the language of the U.S. Constitution is entirely irrelevant to today’s colloquial spoken language. You brought it up for your own mysterious reasons, but since it is entirely irrelevant I have neither need nor inclination to answer your bizarre question about “a future US Constitution.” In any case, since you regard anything but formal written usage as “a solecism” there is probably no chance of a meeting of minds.

  61. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    April 22, 2017 @ 1:49 pm

    Bean: I think the use of ‘they’ for named people is different. The indefinite use, after ‘someone’, ‘anyone’, everyone’, ‘the person who…’ etc., is well established; if anything is new, it’s the sense that this use is required. The use of ‘they’ for named people, on the other hand, is genuinely new, or at least newly widespread. And while the indefinite use is possible – and even required, according to some – even if the person’s gender is known, the use of ‘they’ for named people would still be normal only if the gender is not known.

  62. mg said,

    April 22, 2017 @ 2:18 pm

    @Bean – “we parents” is something I would say, as would people I know, and “us parents” sounds wrong to me (NE US speaker). It sometimes amazes how many things are regional.

    25 years ago, I noted trick-or-treaters collecting coins for UNICEF using “they” to mean any unknown person even if they were obviously female (“Why is it that when a woman answers the door, they always ask their husband if they have change?” – answer having to do with the lack of pockets in women’s wear.)

    And much longer ago than that, I learned that many phrases in British English sounded completely wrong to me (and vice versa, I’m sure). I would never criticize someone from a different English-speaking country for saying something in a way that sounds wrong to me.

  63. Guy said,

    April 22, 2017 @ 2:22 pm

    @Philip Taylor

    Why is “it’s me” a solecism? It’s true that in some languages predicative complements must agree in case with the target of the predication, but that’s not how it usually works in English. You wouldn’t say, “that’s I in the picture here,” would you?

  64. Philip Taylor said,

    April 22, 2017 @ 2:52 pm

    Guy asked “why is ‘it’s me’ a solecism”, and I think that my answer must be consist of several parts. First of all, I did not say that it is a solecism, merely that I would regard it as one; secondly, my judgement of what is and what is not a solecism was formed over fifty years ago, when prescriptive and even /pro/scriptive linguistics were still the norm (one did not debate points of grammar with one’s masters at school in those days; they stated, we learned). And thirdly, I was taught that the verb “to be” is a copula, and therefore “It is <pronoun>” requires the pronoun, being a complement, to be in the nominative, not the accusative, case. Now it may well be that what I was taught at school was wrong, which is why I would never dare to say that “it is me” is a solecisim, merely that I would regard it as one.
    Regarding mg’s contribution above, I completely agree that one should never criticise someone for using “it is me”; it is the construction that is wrong, not the speaker. That said, I would correct my wife, for whom English is probably her L3, if she wrote “It is me” in a formal document. Finally, if “it is” is actually spoken as “it’s”, then the speaker has already lapsed into colloquial speech and “it’s I” would therefore be both incongruous and unnecessary.

  65. Ellen K. said,

    April 22, 2017 @ 3:37 pm

    Finally, if “it is” is actually spoken as “it’s”, then the speaker has already lapsed into colloquial speech and “it’s I” would therefore be both incongruous and unnecessary.

    Lapsed into? Speaking normally is not lapsing into anything. It is speaking in a formal register that’s a departure from normal. At least for the vast majority of it.

    I do agree that “it’s I” or “it is me” are both wrong. And “It is I” and “it’s me” sound fine, out of context. Though I would expect that in many contexts “it is I” would sound out of place.

  66. Bean said,

    April 22, 2017 @ 4:02 pm

    @Philip Taylor: Remind me never to leave you a voice mail. If it’s informal and if I’m sure the caller knows it’s me, I always start with “Hey, it’s me…” We were going back through phone messages once on an answering machine and it was eerie how consistent I was in pitch, and that was when I noticed that I always say the same thing. Of course, I would never do that for a work-related voice mail. Separate persona.

    @Bob Crossley said, waaaaay up there, about hearing the posts in your head in your own voice. Totally true, no wonder odd phrasings leap out as we read them. Some years ago I had a chance to meet my internet word-nerd friends in real life and the first thing I thought was, “Oh, wow, they all sound like Americans!” (Of course they did. They were! But in my head they had a Canadian accent.)

  67. languagehat said,

    April 22, 2017 @ 4:03 pm

    my judgement of what is and what is not a solecism was formed over fifty years ago

    As was mine. Somehow I have managed to learn things in the interim and change my views on what is and what is not a solecism.

  68. Jeremy Fagan said,

    April 22, 2017 @ 4:55 pm

    I had to look up solecism. Learn something new every day. Not sure how to pronounce it.

    Bring/take for me (British) would involve
    bring it to me
    bring it with you (to me)
    I’ll bring it with me (to you)
    Take it to them
    I’ll take it to them.
    They will bring it to me
    They will take it to you.

    Some vernaculars confuse the two.. Just like to confusion between borrow and lend. Can you borrow me a fiver?

  69. Phil Ramsden said,

    April 22, 2017 @ 5:08 pm

    It could all have been so different. The facts about how speakers draw the line of demarcation between “take” and “bring” are *interesting*, and hadn’t occurred to me before, and if your man there had simply drawn attention to that, without all this business about how someone else’s usage “disturbed” him, we could all have had a nice chat about it.

    (For what it’s worth, I’d also use “take” in this context, which I guess is a confirming instance for the claim that it’s a Limey thing.)

  70. RP said,

    April 22, 2017 @ 5:16 pm

    @Jeremy Fagan,
    True, the term “solecism” has gone out of fashion somewhat (I seem to recall first coming across it when reading Fowler’s MEU). The very term itself seems to reflect or at least suggest an outdated way of looking at language. Its etymology is also interesting, and rather fitting: apparently Athenians believed that the inhabitants of Soli (an Athenian colony in Asia Minor, now in Turkey) spoke a corrupted version of Greek.

    Oxforddictionaries.com gives the pronunciation /ˈsɒlɪsɪz(ə)m/, i.e. stress on the first syllable, short “o”, and soft “c”.

  71. peterv said,

    April 22, 2017 @ 5:17 pm

    I did not see the following aspect mentioned (apologies if someone has):

    For me, the distinction between bring and take is the direction of travel relative to the position of the speaker: Bring it to me (here). Take it to her (there).

    “Bring this lost sock back to school” (spoken by the mother) is only correct to my ears if school is where the mother will be when the sock-carrying journey happens.

  72. RP said,

    April 22, 2017 @ 5:24 pm

    John Walden observed (of BrE standard usage): “If you are in a different room from another speaker you say ‘Can you bring me a coffee?’ and the other person says ‘I’ll bring you one in a moment’ (not “take”).”

    However, one way of describing the bring/take distinction is to compare it to the come/go distinction. I don’t know if this analogy works in all cases, but if someone said “Can you come here?”, I’d reply “I’ll come in a moment” (not “I’ll go in a moment”).

    On this basis, his second example is more interesting to me: “‘Can you come up and bring the package with you?’ ‘No, you’ll have to come down, I can’t bring it up'”.

    Here, if someone said to me “Can you come up?”, I’d be at least as likely to say “No, I can’t go up” as “No, I can’t come up” – although I think both would work. Then again, I also believe that (for me, at least) “take” works OK in “You’ll have to come down, I can’t take it up” – even if “bring” is more likely.

  73. Xtifr said,

    April 22, 2017 @ 6:29 pm

    The problem with assuming that “bring” and “take” are designed as some sort of complements is that it assumes A. that they were designed, and B. that they are related. This seems similar to the confusion people have over “fewer” vs. “less”. If they’d been designed as complements, then it would make perfect sense for “less” to be restricted to non-countables—but they weren’t, so it isn’t.

    Retroactively inventing “logical” rules why certain words “should” work a certain way may be a fun game to play, but it has little to do with the way words actually work

    Anyway, if “take” is the opposite of “bring”, then where does “give” fit in?

  74. Guy said,

    April 22, 2017 @ 6:51 pm

    John Walden,

    “the other person says ‘I’ll bring you one in a moment’ (not ‘take’).”

    Incidentally, a ditransitive construction with “take” seems extremely marginal to me, except with the very different meaning in uses like “It took me three tries to do it” or “The bridge took them several years to build”. In the case of “bring”, a ditransitive construction is perfectly fine.

  75. Phil Ramsden said,

    April 22, 2017 @ 7:31 pm

    Sounds all right to me, Guy. And these people seem to agree: https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/take

  76. Guy said,

    April 22, 2017 @ 8:00 pm

    Phil Ramsden,

    It may be that what struck me as syntactically questionable is merely a matter of semantic improbability, since the focus when you specify a recipient tends to naturally be on the receipt. I checked the online OED and found only one relevant attestation:

    “1821 Investig. Ilchester Gaol into Conduct W. Bridle 222/1 On what occasion did you take her those bed-clothes?”

    Which sounds okay to me. The sole example given in the living dictionary (“I took him a letter”) seems off to me. I’m not certain why, but probably it’s more naturally for me to focus on bringing linens as a routine task where a person is taking the things from where they are kept, whereas delivering a letter more naturally to me focuses attention on the receipt of the letter rather than its removal from where it is at the moment, since the particular letter is destined for the particular recipient.

  77. Andy Watkinson said,

    April 22, 2017 @ 9:30 pm

    “and if your man there had simply drawn attention to that, without all this business about how someone else’s usage “disturbed” him, we could all have had a nice chat about it.”

    You really didn’t think this through while writing it, did you?
    Read it again.

    You’re stating that had I said it “surprised” me, “caught my attention”, “puzzled” me, etc… you could “all have had a nice chat about it.”

    But I used the verb “disturb” and several of you poor souls are so traumatised by this you’ve been unable to have a “nice chat” and instead are arguing amongst yourselves and generally getting rather upset by a little hyperbole. Poor things.

    I’ve already apologised twice to Bean and asked people to get back on topic, but to no avail.

    I’m not doing it again.

    PD. And apart from the fact you have no manners, Mr. Ramsden, I’ve yet to understand exactly what is meant by “your man there”. (¿?)
    I wasn’t aware I “belonged” to anyone here.

  78. John Swindle said,

    April 22, 2017 @ 10:20 pm

    Just so’s we’re clear, none of the posturing that’s going on here has anything to do with the fact that Bean revealed her gender, right?

  79. Anthony said,

    April 22, 2017 @ 10:37 pm

    In the room the women come and go.

  80. Greg Malivuk said,

    April 22, 2017 @ 10:44 pm

    Andy Watkinson: I don’t think anyone objected to your peeving on the grounds that it harmed Bean in some way, nor did anyone feel the off-topic nature of said peeving was a problem, so I don’t think your apologizing to her about that struck anyone as particularly relevant.

    You were complaining about a usage that wasn’t actually incorrect, and justifying your complaint with an appeal to some imagined universal form of British English. I think people would have reacted to your being Wrong On The Internet regardless of whether you were on topic or not.

  81. Quinn C said,

    April 22, 2017 @ 11:40 pm

    I am one of the people who reacted the strongest to “obviously a girl’s sock”, because I think we should get rid of such ideas completely. Since there was talk of goalies later in the post, I decided to accept it assuming that it was the sock of the girls’ team uniform. Turns out it wasn’t. So it was indeed heteronormative, and non-obvious to me (they look like obvious children’s socks to me, but I expect some people would object to that.)

    Cisnormative doesn’t fit. That means forgetting there are trans people, but a person could just assume there are trans boys and girls, and trans girls would wear “obvious girl’s socks”. Heteronormative isn’t ideal because it’s so broad, but it includes the idea that there are boys and girls and that they are different.

  82. ryan said,

    April 23, 2017 @ 1:42 am

    Of course, “I’ve never seen them play before” would have been my answer 20 years ago. Nothing to do with pronominal systems. The reference is to the other team. How could I know how their goalie is if I’ve never seen them play.

  83. boynamedsue said,

    April 23, 2017 @ 1:59 am

    @Andy Watkinson:

    Indefinite “they” happens in the UK too, if you look out for it. I’ve seen it most often in written contexts strangely enough.

    “bring back” is used in the same way by UK speakers, especially when we have already referenced a place and are thinking about activities that took place there, a sort of bring/take switch is common.

    “I’m taking my stapler back to work tomorrow.”

    BUT

    “I got really confused at work because there was loads going on and I got a call at ten to. Then Sue came over and was banging on about something or other, so I just shoved everything on the desk into my bag and left and wound up taking my stapler home. I’ll bring it back tomorrow.”

    @Tom Davidson: less/few shouldn’t have a distinction, there should be an overlap where less covers all of few, but few only covers part of less. Some bloke made the iron distinction up about 250 years ago and it caught on as a shibboleth, there’s a great article on here about it somewhere.

    Of course, when I’m writing formally I tend to follow the distinction for the sake of the pedants, but I feel a little bit dirty every time I do.

  84. V said,

    April 23, 2017 @ 6:35 am

    I don’t think I even knew what “solecism” means before I looked it up now. I think I’ve encountered it before, but my first thought was that it was a misspelling of solipsism, but that did not make sense in context.

  85. Guy said,

    April 23, 2017 @ 9:46 am

    @boynamedsue

    less/fewer is kind of like that/which. One appears in a subset of contexts where the other does, and someone thinks it seems more “tidy” if it’s symmetric, so that the broader one shouldn’t be used whenever the narrower one is available. Honestly, I don’t think the people who make these things up always even notice that they’re doing it, I think often they’re just the sort of people who have trouble with recognizing that it’s possible for there to be different alternatives that aren’t always mutually exclusive. (Though my recollection on that/which is that Fowler explicitly acknowledged that he was advocating for an imposition of symmetry on what wasn’t a symmetrical reality).

  86. RP said,

    April 23, 2017 @ 12:23 pm

    @Quinn C,
    I’m no expert on this area of terminology, but I think “gender-normative” would be the most objective and most accurate term.

  87. Ennubess said,

    April 23, 2017 @ 3:00 pm

    We are taught not to use that as non-native speakers, however this phenomenon of the English language has been there for a looong time

    http://www.pemberley.com/janeinfo/austheir.html

  88. boynamedsue said,

    April 23, 2017 @ 4:23 pm

    @guy

    Spot on. Though it’s my impression that things were getting better with that/which until microsoft word came along.

  89. Phil Ramsden said,

    April 23, 2017 @ 7:31 pm

    ‘And apart from the fact you have no manners, Mr. Ramsden, I’ve yet to understand exactly what is meant by “your man there”.’

    It’s a Hiberno-English expression, which has to some extent found its way into certain other forms of English. I’ve always liked it. It doesn’t imply you belong to anyone, so don’t get the hump. Or at least, don’t get the hump about that.

    Get the hump, if you like, about my shocking manners, but maybe don’t do the “poor traumatised souls” line at the same time; those disagreeing with you are honestly not the ones being thin-skinned here. This is generally a hostile environment for ill-informed peeving. It’s a mistake to think that’s because people are *offended* by ill-informed peeving; that’s really not it. (It’s also a mistake to imagine you’re being singled out, incidentally.)

  90. Phil Ramsden said,

    April 23, 2017 @ 7:34 pm

    “Just so’s we’re clear, none of the posturing that’s going on here has anything to do with the fact that Bean revealed her gender, right?”

    Can’t speak for any of the other posturers, but for my part, no: couldn’t give a bugger about that in this context.

  91. Adam said,

    April 23, 2017 @ 9:28 pm

    after reading all 90+ comments, all i can do is wonder how many people cringed at darth vader’s iconic line: “you are part of the rebel alliance and a traitor. Take her away!”

  92. Philip Taylor said,

    April 24, 2017 @ 12:51 am

    Adam quoted “You are part of the rebel alliance and a traitor. Take her away!”. Confused — should Vader have said “traitress” ? Is there such a word ?

  93. Peter Shea said,

    April 24, 2017 @ 3:05 am

    Re: difference between “bring” and “take”. I had no idea the subject was so nuanced! I thought that I had it all worked out long age. English is is my 2nd language, although it has been my primary language for nearly my whole life. In Japanese, “bring” is rendered as “motte kimasu”, which means approximately “bearing (it) (I) come”; “take” is rendered as “motte i-kimasu, which means approximately “bearing (it) (I) go”. For people and other animate entities, “motte” is replaced by “tsurete”, which has the connotation of “accompanying”. Such a nice, simple model! Yet, according to the protracted discussion above, but more complicated!

    Oh well, I’ll just stick to my simple model, but try to remember that other people’s mileage may vary.

  94. Kayla said,

    April 24, 2017 @ 4:22 am

    Childhood rebellion. They are doing this on purpose to annoy adults. Time for the prescriptivists to rise up and start to discipline children for using incorrect language, before it is too late.

  95. boynamedsue said,

    April 24, 2017 @ 4:55 am

    “Oh well, I’ll just stick to my simple model, but try to remember that other people’s mileage may vary.”

    -swoon-

    Bring me to the altar.

  96. languagehat said,

    April 24, 2017 @ 7:28 am

    Childhood rebellion. They are doing this on purpose to annoy adults. Time for the prescriptivists to rise up and start to discipline children for using incorrect language, before it is too late.

    Poe’s law strikes again! I have absolutely no idea whether this is an expression of smug ignorance or a parody of same. If the latter, it’s excellent!

  97. Guy said,

    April 25, 2017 @ 11:18 am

    @languagehat

    You should say “whether that is an expression”, because it’s something somebody else said, “this” is for something you said. So much for the distinction between “this” and “that”, apparently it’s now lost as “obsolete” thanks to the “evolving standards of language”. I guess I should just remember that they are completely interchangeable now.

  98. MikeyC said,

    April 29, 2017 @ 6:05 pm

    If the above use upsets you peevers, how are you going to react when ( nonbinary) uses such as this begin to appear?

    “”This is my colleague Sarah, they work with me at the academy.”

  99. Philip Taylor said,

    April 30, 2017 @ 1:00 am

    As we have always done — blame the decline of our beautiful language on the demise of proscriptive and prescriptive linguistics and the advent of descriptive …

  100. Sandra said,

    May 4, 2017 @ 6:50 am

    In the passge above, the phenomenon which use “they ” for a person when you don’t know who she or he really are is quite interesting. Some of us might think we should just use “she” when we know the person might definitely be a female. The usage of “they” in that situation is not frequently heard. However, I think the choice of “they” is more respectful to some extent. I prefer “they” because everyone has the possibility to be the owner of those socks since we haven’t known who is the owner of those socks.
    Actually, the usage of personal pronoun has been in quite a revolutional stage recently especially for the usage of “she” and “he”. Some people don’t want others to use “she” or “he” directly before knowing which one they really want others to use to represent them. The gender recognition is changing. Some people do not want others to judge what gender they are merely by ther appearance. I agree with that idea because it is people’s freedom to choose their gender and no one should judege someone only according to their appearance. But it is hard to be adapted to these new phenomenons. I wonder whether it will be better to make anew word for a singer person which can be used when we don’t know exactly who they are. Some new world have already been made by some people but it is not yet popular and might not be perfect enough. I think the “TA” refer to “she” or “he” in Chinese is a good example. But it is specific for Chinese because the pronunciation of both “she” and “he” in Chinese is “TA”. So for English this is still a challenging thing to do.

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