"Dan has not filled out their profile yet"

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Another example of extreme singular their, this one from Google+:


Facebook faced this issue a few years ago: "Singular they on Faceboook" (4/28/2007), "Facebook phases out singular 'they'" (6/27/2008), "New pronoun issues on Facebook" (5/26/2009).

The interesting thing about this case is that Google+ believes that it knows Dan's "gender", but chooses not to use this information in choosing a pronoun.

See here, here, here, here, here, here, and here for some other prior art.

[Tip of the hat to Lane Greene]

Update — as Viktor points out in the comments, this is all explained in a YouTube video:

I guess that the glitch exemplified by the screenshot arises because "Dan" had entered his "gender" as "male" when "he" signed up, but had not yet filled out "his" profile, so that "his" gender-privacy flags were in some kind of mixed state.

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47 Comments »

  1. Martin J Ball said,

    July 31, 2011 @ 8:50 am

    Seems fine to me – very useful the singular 'they'…

  2. Eric TF Bat said,

    July 31, 2011 @ 9:02 am

    Google requires that people enter their gender (and unlike FB, they allow "other" as an option, so ten points to Googledor) so the use of "they" is a mystery.

  3. Viktor said,

    July 31, 2011 @ 9:04 am

    There was a debate on gender on google plus, and how gender can be sensitive topic. The resulting announcement is unfortunately a youtube movie: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_wzsHdwmuxE

    They have consciously chosen the singular they/their, but in this case it seems weird since the gender is public.

  4. Dan said,

    July 31, 2011 @ 9:16 am

    The indefinite article, "a" would suffice perfectly. There's no ambiguity because there's no question of filling out someone else's profile. Public access to the gender does not in any way require that the gender be displayed at every opportunity.

  5. languagehat said,

    July 31, 2011 @ 9:47 am

    The indefinite article, "a" would suffice perfectly.

    But it wouldn't advance the cause of singular "they." I welcome this usage heartily, and hope the mighty force of Google will bring wider public acceptance of this natural and useful form.

  6. Adrian said,

    July 31, 2011 @ 10:32 am

    Are Martin and Hat kidding? I'm a fan of singular-they, but "Dan has not filled out their profile yet" makes a mockery of it.

  7. Keith Gaughan said,

    July 31, 2011 @ 10:32 am

    It *ought* to be a perfectly fine usage of the singular 'they', but it reads somewhat awkwardly. The singular 'they' is generally only used where the individual's actual gender is unknown, but in this case there's a masculine antecedent, so it comes across somewhat forced.

  8. Mark Mandel said,

    July 31, 2011 @ 10:33 am

    What do they do in other languages that require much more gender agreement than English (such as Romance languages, Arabic, and Hebrew), but that don't have a convenient, even if puristically ungrammatical, epicene solution like our singular "they"?

  9. bryan said,

    July 31, 2011 @ 11:03 am

    Is he / Are they, posi+ively sure it's in English? In Mandarin Chinese, he / she & it are pronounced the same: "ta". Maybe it's from this that the incorrect Chinese plural suffix -men was added and a reverse translation got it mixed up via GOOGLE TRANSLATE and so the resulting result became "they/them" in English?! I'm joking, but it could be possible.

  10. Ellen K. said,

    July 31, 2011 @ 11:15 am

    It definitely sounds wrong to me. Though I'm okay with it. As far as sounding wrong, it's not an issue of the person's gender being known, but the fact that it's pointing to a specific person. I suppose, though, this is an extension of using singular they for a specific person of unknown gender, which also goes beyond the traditional use of singular they and would sound wrong to me, but can be useful because in that case, there's no good "right" way. Once it's extended to a specific person of unknown gender, I can see further extending it to a specific person one has limited information about even when gender is known.

  11. Sili said,

    July 31, 2011 @ 11:41 am

    Are Martin and Hat kidding? I'm a fan of singular-they, but "Dan has not filled out their profile yet" makes a mockery of it.

    Nope. Just shows the natural evolution of the word. Why keep three words around when one will do?

  12. GeorgeW said,

    July 31, 2011 @ 1:30 pm

    @Mark Mandel: Arabic (and the other Semitic languages) have no neuter option, there are only masculine and feminine.

    I don't recall ever encountering a situation in which the gender is unknown. I tried to pin my wife, an Egyptian Arabic speaker down on this. All I could get was circumlocutions like, 'the student,' 'the patient,' etc. for a pronoun. She says she can't use a pronoun if the sex is not known.

  13. Mark Etherton said,

    July 31, 2011 @ 2:58 pm

    Perhaps the Dan in question is part of the incomparable Dan and Dan (see http://www.dananddan.com/ )*, in which case 'their' would be entirely appropriate.

    *The Daily Mail song is a classic.

  14. TB said,

    July 31, 2011 @ 3:11 pm

    That's funny, Sili, I feel the exact opposite way: why use only two pronouns when three are available? I have a genderqueer friend who prefers to be referred to by "they" rather than "he" or "she". I knew them before they decided this, and I admit it took awhile to get used to it. As a purely linguistical matter, it must be easier to be genderqueer in a language like Japanese where gender is rarely indicated.

    Anyway, I think gender in an online profile ought to be a free field where you can write anything you want, but Google+'s solution here seems like a reasonable compromise.

  15. Mark Mandel said,

    July 31, 2011 @ 4:35 pm

    @George W: Would your wife be willing to consider the equivalent in Egyptian Arabic of something like this? I'm using Pat as a given name that can belong to either gender in English:

    "I saw Pat the other day. __ was upset. __[poss] apartment had been robbed. __ had lost __[poss] money and __[poss] passport. Even worse, the robbers had taken __[poss] manuscript. __ has been working on a novel for over a year, and all __[poss] papers were in the same box. __ said the theft had destroyed __."

  16. Rubrick said,

    July 31, 2011 @ 5:29 pm

    It sounds wrong to me, and I hope I live long enough that it no longer sounds wrong to me.

  17. Eric P Smith said,

    July 31, 2011 @ 6:08 pm

    It sounds wrong to me, and I hope it will always sound wrong to me however long I live.

  18. GeorgeW said,

    July 31, 2011 @ 6:57 pm

    @Mark Mandell: I tried to her to use pronouns & she couldn't except for a 'who.'

    She said, "I can't do it unless I know if Pat Is male or female."

  19. Mark P said,

    July 31, 2011 @ 8:11 pm

    What do they do in other languages that require much more gender agreement than English

    In French the gender agreement is with the object being named, not the subject of the sentence. The problem faced in English never arises.

    In this case both males and females will have "son profil", as "profil" is masculine.

  20. Agustin said,

    July 31, 2011 @ 9:59 pm

    I've often wondered why we don't use the gender-neutral "it" instead of "they".

  21. Ellen K. said,

    July 31, 2011 @ 10:13 pm

    And in Spanish, their, his, her, and its are all the same, su or sus, agreeing in number with the noun, but no gender agreement for possessive pronouns appearing before nouns.

  22. Ellen K. said,

    July 31, 2011 @ 10:14 pm

    @Agustin: Do you mean historically?

  23. chh said,

    July 31, 2011 @ 10:43 pm

    I've never seen an example of singular 'they' (with a gender-known referent) produced by a human where it refers back to a name or something definite like 'the woman'.

    Google (and presumably nice corpora) turn up lots of neat examples of the type 'every man who knows their SSN' , 'how a woman should treat their man' etc.

    I wonder if some of the examples involve the speaker intending to preserve the anonymity of the referent despite its gender being known, and in some way the 'they' signifies anonymity or uncertainty.

    If anyone can link to work on the semantics of singular 'they' or a nice set of data I'd appreciate it!

  24. Ellen K. said,

    July 31, 2011 @ 11:28 pm

    Chh, I think what you are saying relates to something I just read, an example of singular they. The person, writing on a message board, was writing about a specific incident with a specific person. But the person was unknown by the readers, and kept anonymous, and pretty much the person wrote as if speaking generically. "They" was used at the pronoun, and this seemed natural to me. I doubt I would have taken note of it if not for this post and discussion today. "They" as the pronoun related to the person spoken of being anonymous to the reader, and in some sense generic for the reader.

  25. mike said,

    July 31, 2011 @ 11:53 pm

    As a point of interest, Facebook has been doing this all along — if the user has not explicitly specified a gender, FB happily uses "they/their" e.g., "XXXX wrote on NNNN's Wall for their birthday." It can be a little jarring when a notification references both a person who has specified a gender and an unspecified person.

  26. James Callan said,

    August 1, 2011 @ 12:27 am

    Bagcheck sidesteps the issue by asking not what your gender is, but what pronoun you'd like used.

    See: http://bagcheck.com/blog/01-the-gender-question

  27. Greg Bowen said,

    August 1, 2011 @ 1:32 am

    @chh

    I've also seen singular they used in chat in an online game, with another player's in-game name as the antecedent. I don't know if the speaker knew the other player's gender, or whether in-game or real-life gender would be the relevant factor in such a case.

  28. K. said,

    August 1, 2011 @ 4:42 am

    "We valued helping people control their privacy as being much more important than being grammatically perfectly."

    They (Frances Haugen) obviously take this stance to heart.

  29. GeorgeW said,

    August 1, 2011 @ 6:34 am

    Agustin: the problem with 'it' is it dehumanizes the person. To refer to a person as 'it' would be tremendous insult

  30. Jason said,

    August 1, 2011 @ 8:34 am

    I think the problem isn't so much singular/plural but rather known/unknown. It isn't really about gender even.

    "Someone locked their keys in their car."

    Is vastly superior to "someone locked her keys in her car."

    Not so much out of sensitivity to the unknown person's gender, but just that the person involved is unknown. Their is simply a place-holder. I wouldn't even go so far as to call it a pronoun.

    Compare where something is known but gender is not known and it starts to sound a little airy. (I personally still use it for the gender reason).

    A: "Is Dr. Butler a good teacher?"
    B: "I don't think I know them."

    Her them is good to avoid gender assumptions, but it doesn't quite sound right.

    When you have a known and gendered subject, as in the Google example.

    Then there are examples like "Everyone in the neighborhood mows their lawn on Friday." Where I doubt anyone would be so nefarious as to use a singular pronoun.

    [(myl) I'm afraid you're a bit late to the party. The point of the several links in the body of the post, going back to 2003, is that "singular they/their" has advanced from being used with morphologically singular quantifiers ("Everyone loves their mother") to being used with singular indefinites of unknown sex ("To criticize a person for their race is irrational"), to being used with singular indefinites of known sex ("the seven essential items any woman must have in their wardrobe"), to definite descriptions of known or unknown sex ("the line judge called it out, and then corrected themselves"), to personal names, as in the screenshot.]

  31. Rod Johnson said,

    August 1, 2011 @ 9:46 am

    Back in the eighties, I ran into several instances of students wrestling with what reflexive pronoun to use with singular "their." While "their" seemed fine in a singular use, the -s in "themselves" just would not work for them, so they used "themself," "theirself" and even "themselve." to solve the problem.

  32. J.W. Brewer said,

    August 1, 2011 @ 10:18 am

    Aren't "singular indefinites of known sex" still easily read as notionally plural? That's what MWDEU, at least, would suggest. In the example myl just gave, "all women" could be swapped in for "any woman" without any obvious change of the sentence's truth conditions. Discussions of "singular they" need IMHO to avoid blurring the distinction between situations in which the "singular" part is what's primarily being contested/denied/ignored (because there's a tension between morphology and semantics, or "formal" and "notional" agreement, or whatever you want to call it) and the separate genre of situations where the antecedent is notionally as well as morphologically singular but there's some discourse-context-specific reason (including but not limited to the speaker's lack of relevant knowledge) to avoid the specification potentially implicit in he/she/it. (To be fair, these factors can overlap, as when the real-life plural group behind the "singular indefinite" is known or assumed to contain both men and women.)

    I haven't come across much evidence yet, in this thread or otherwise, that live human beings with native-speaker English fluency are using the "Facebook construction" with any frequency, fwiw. I still find it jarring (not *primarily* in a peevological way, in a inconsistent-with-my-native-speaker-expectations way, although of course when the deviation from my expectations also seems self-conscious/affected, perhaps peevology is not far behind) not just here where the "Gender" has been specified onscreen, but in situations where a human being would (based on first name and/or a picture) have a very high confidence level of knowing the specific individual's sex.

    [(myl) My impression is that things like "Dan hasn't filled out their profile yet" are pretty rare, and are generally limited to cases where the anaphor and antecedent are separated by quite a few words, as in the example that Geoff Pullum cited here. But I see a lot of things like "Someone left their cell phone in the men's room", or "the line judge called it out and then changed their mind".]

  33. Svafa said,

    August 1, 2011 @ 10:21 am

    The use of 'their' irks me slightly, but I don't take issue with it. The antecedent "Dan" does not presume a gender, and I would be remiss to assume either way were it not for the (syntactically unrelated) line below it; I knew a girl named Danielle who went by Dan/Danny/Dani.

    What seems to bother me most about the usage in this case is that it is in reference to a personal name. Were it either "They have not filled out their profile yet" or "Dan has not filled out a profile yet" I would not find it awkward. Then again, were it not brought to my attention I might not have found it awkward either, so my judgment is likely suspect.

  34. A. said,

    August 1, 2011 @ 10:32 am

    In Italian too the possessives don't agree in gender with the possessor, and subject personal pronouns are commonly omitted, so the issue only applies to objects and complements. I have never noticed how Facebook handles that. (BTW, the weak-form dative third personal pronoun gli “him” is commonly used in colloquial speech for females and probably has been for centuries, though it is considered non-standard.)
    The Irish language Facebook interface (which they admit is a beta version) uses double forms (Rinne sé/sí, ina c(h)ónaí, etc.) whether the user has set their gender or not.

  35. Chris Waters said,

    August 1, 2011 @ 8:02 pm

    I'm going to disagree with a lot of people here and say that it does not sound wrong to me. I wish I could say that this is because I'm young, but I suspect it has to do more with living in an area (near San Francisco) where gender politics can be a hot-button issue.

  36. kaelsleeps said,

    August 1, 2011 @ 10:49 pm

    I'm transgendered, and pronouns are a constant problem. I'd rather someone flip a coin and call me "he" or "she" than resort to "they" or "ze," but that's a personal preference. I think in a lot of such cases, singular "they" is probably the best we can do for now.

  37. slobone said,

    August 1, 2011 @ 11:07 pm

    Just sounds like computerese to me, like "you have 1 items in your shopping cart."

  38. Matt McIrvin said,

    August 2, 2011 @ 7:34 am

    Google requires that people enter their gender (and unlike FB, they allow "other" as an option, so ten points to Googledor) so the use of "they" is a mystery.

    I think this phrase can show up in a situation in which G+ doesn't know the gender yet (not to mention situations in which it's private or "other").

    I've gotten into one online argument over this already.

  39. Brad said,

    August 2, 2011 @ 1:47 pm

    It still feels odd to me to watch the accepted use of the language shift over time on topics like this.

    Personally, I think I've been slowly giving into the use of singular they because it's just too much work to rewrite sentences to avoid using either 'he' or 'she'–ad hoc pronounal replacements like 'the person' still end up feeling awkward to me.

  40. Ken Brown said,

    August 2, 2011 @ 5:26 pm

    I've certainly heard native speakers use singular "they" for individuals of known gender. Not universal, but common enough.

  41. Matt McIrvin said,

    August 3, 2011 @ 7:53 am

    This ties into the raging language-related controversy of the moment concerning Google+, which is their insistence on "real names" and the somewhat mysterious things that means in practice. At one point Google was yanking accounts for TOS violation if the user's name mixed characters from different writing systems, on the theory that such names were probably pseudonyms; this didn't go over well in Hong Kong. I don't know if that rule is still in effect.

  42. Matt McIrvin said,

    August 3, 2011 @ 7:56 am

    …and, yes, it's already been pointed out that expecting something like "firstname lastname" doesn't generalize well to world cultures, that requiring real names often makes it effectively impossible to keep gender private, etc.

  43. Svafa said,

    August 3, 2011 @ 11:33 am

    @Matt
    Oh how I know the joys of expecting "firstname lastname". My name is a little… unique in some regards (I have no last name) and the "firstname lastname" issue causes problems from time to time. I understand that most computer databases require a last name, and many will also require a first name, that's fine. But I'm not going to jump through the hoops to get my name done correctly, so an approximation is going to be the best they get unless they want to bend over backwards on my behalf. And I'm hardly world cultures, being a born and raised American WASP.

    Sorry if I come across as upset over the whole issue, I'm not that bothered but it can be frustrating at times. Although, I did write an haiku about it when I set up my facebook account and it refused to accept my name (and several variations of it). Technically, I suppose it would be a senryu.

  44. This Week’s Language Blog Roundup | Wordnik ~ all the words said,

    August 5, 2011 @ 12:16 pm

    [...] Zimmer also wrote about the +1 paradigm while Mark Liberman at Language Log pointed out Google +’s singular their issue and Stan Carey discussed the problems with pronouns in general.  Meanwhile, a different PloS One [...]

  45. Agustin said,

    August 8, 2011 @ 10:30 am

    Sorry, I posted a comment and went away on vacation!

    @ EllenK: yes, I mean historically. Why haven't we made "it" a bit more useful so that it can also refer to a person whose gender is unknown?

    @GeorgeW: I know it dehumanizes people, and I don't use "it" myself to refer to people but I wish I could without dehumanizing people. It would be quite useful.

  46. Genderally speaking « Sentence first said,

    August 31, 2011 @ 1:33 pm

    [...] hackles of sticklers, though, who protest that it contravenes grammatical concord. The influence of Google+ should give singular they a boost, but Facebook ran into difficulty here. Themself – which [...]

  47. Linguistrix said,

    October 29, 2011 @ 9:15 pm

    [...] a moment'. Google is not averse to relatively weird constructions as was discussed in this post on LanguageLog, so I presumed this was the case here too. The biggest mistake prescriptivists make [...]

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