A letter saying they won

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Evidence continues to pile up that singular they is naturally used in standard English whenever the antecedent is indefinite or quantifier-like (not a personal name, for example) and the sex of whoever it might turn out to identify is completely immaterial. My correspondent Daniel Sterman thought, and I thought too, that there was evidence of this being true now even in the writing of journalists. Sterman spotted this in an article by John Bowden, writing in The Hill, concerning Temple University PhD candidate Phillip Garcia, who has won the position of judge of election in Ward 21, Division 10, Philadelphia:

A Philadelphia resident was shocked to receive a letter Friday saying they won an election earlier in the month — apparently because no one else cast a vote.

"I literally yelled 'what the hell' when I opened the letter," Phillip Garcia told The Hill. "I've written my name in a few times during elections when no one else is listed for a position. It's just been a thing I do, with no expectation of, like, actually making an impact on the vote."

But we were wrong here (this post has been corrected in the past hour).

It turns out that Phillip Garcia's profile reveals that he is — sorry, that they are — one of the opponents of gender binarity whose own choice is that they would prefer to be referred to with the pronoun they all the time. Bowden's article respects this choice throughout.

I'm not sure what I'm going to do about this, because for me singular they is ungrammatical with a personal name as antecedent. A sentence like Whoever your visitor was, they have left their coat behind is grammatical for me, but *Chris has left their coat behind is not. Not even if I know your visitor was named Chris but I don't know whether it was a Christopher or a Christine.

I don't want to offend anyone. But it's a bit much to expect me to start saying things that are clearly and decisively ungrammatical according to my own internalized grammar. I'll do my best, but it will be a real struggle.

Suppose someone said they wanted any object pronoun referring to them to be positioned before the verb, as in French, rather than after the verb, as in English. Could you manage that? Could you them accommodate by making the requested change to the positioning of pronouns that them denote?

Political footnote: Anyone who thinks I'm making fun of the move to alleviate the sexist and binarist tendencies built into the morphosyntactic structure of English couldn't be more wrong. Remember, it was The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (pp. 492–493) that introduced the contemptuous term "purportedly sex-neutral he" into the literature, and firmly recommended singular they as a grammatical alternative (pp. 493–495). My political sympathies are all with those opposed to sex stereotyping, heterosexism, and transphobia. In case you thought "reveals that he is — sorry, that they are —" above was mockery, let me tell you that I originally wrote "reveals that he is", and then realized that I had already made my first slip, so instead of silently concealing it, I revealed my shame by making the self-edit overt. I'm whole-heartedly in political sympathy with Phillip Garcia; I'm on the same side as my non-binarist and gender-neutral and transsexual friends. But don't let's kid ourselves: you can't alter your syntactic intuitions overnight. It has taken fifty or sixty years for purportedly sex-neutral he to start looking old-fashioned and silly (and plenty of usage book writers like Simon Heffer still recommend it), and it could be decades before the use of singular they with male-associated or female-associated personal names starts sounding natural and feeling grammatical to the majority of speakers.

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