What he used to be and who they are now

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Edward Wyatt ("Creators of ‘Lost’ Say the GPS Unit Is Plugged In", NYT 1/28/2010) quotes Damon Lindelof, an executive producer of Lost, exploring the use of they as an indefinite singular pronoun in free variation with he:

“There’s an inherent process when you’re ending something to sort of be thinking about the beginning,” Mr. Lindelof said. “One of the things that I think we are trying to do — all of us, the actors and the writers as well, in the sixth season — is to show the audience the before,” as well as the after.

Therefore episodes in the final season will continue to provide plenty of back story. That way viewers “have some sense of, ‘Oh, this is what he used to be and who they are now,’ ” Mr. Lindelof added. “So you really get a sense of how far that person’s come.”

The show's other executive producer, Carlton Cuse, offers a nice Hollywood expression for explanatory detail:

“Obviously not every question’s going to be answered,” Mr. Cuse said. “We felt if we tried to just answer questions, it would be very pedantic. Apart from that, we also really embrace this notion that there’s a fundamental sort of sense of mystery that we all have in our lives, and certainly that is a huge part of the lives of these characters.”

“To sort of demystify that by trying to literally explain everything down to the last little sort of midi-chlorian of it all would be a mistake in our view,” he added.

For those of you who insist on literally explaining singular they down to the last little sort of midi-chlorian of it all — and you know who you are —  previous LL posts on the subject can sort of be found here and here.

[Update — Ben Sprung sent in this related observation:

I was reminded of something I jotted down over the weekend. During the women's final of the Australian Open, the chair umpire said:

"Ladies and gentlemen, the line judge called it out, and then corrected themselves. We will replay the point."

I thought it was interesting because rather than an attempt at gender neutrality (the line judge is clearly either male or female), it was an attempt to create a certain distance, or, perhaps, a *generalized* neutrality. As in, let's not consider the line judge on a personal level because we wish to hold the view that line judges are completely impartial beings, for the moment.

Using themselves with a singular and definite antecedent is certainly striking, whatever the explanation.]


  1. Picky said,

    February 2, 2010 @ 6:34 am

    I know who I am, and I've no general objection to singular they, but a bloke who springs from he to they in the same sentence does create a rather bumpy ride.

  2. Sili said,

    February 2, 2010 @ 6:53 am

    I, too, thought this was gonna be related to WTF-coördination. Of course, I've just noticed a case elsewhere that I wanted to report, so I'm primed for that interpretation.

  3. Julia P. said,

    February 2, 2010 @ 8:03 am

    I had to read that three times to work out where the example was, so clearly it seemed totally normal/unremarkable to me.

  4. Sid Smith said,

    February 2, 2010 @ 8:05 am

    "from he to they in the same sentence"

    Or from he to one. (Or, more usually, from one to he.)

  5. Jorge said,

    February 2, 2010 @ 8:41 am

    There's also the variation from what to who, which maybe helps in making it less noticeable.

  6. Brett R said,

    February 2, 2010 @ 8:56 am

    I simply read 'he' and 'they' as having two different referents, sort of like: Who Johan use to be and who Alice and Bertha are now.

  7. Ken Grabach said,

    February 2, 2010 @ 9:50 am

    Please note in the quotations from Mr. Cuse the philosophical mix of 'sort of' and 'literally'. That is perhaps normal in Hollywood locution, but it made my Midwestern imagination boggle. Nothing unremarkable about either quotation, to me. As Picky says, "a bumpy ride," which indeed it was.

  8. mollymooly said,

    February 2, 2010 @ 10:11 am

    "Or from he to one. (Or, more usually, from one to he.)"

    That was the original pattern ("one should help his friends before himself") before "one" became more pronouny ("one should help one's friends before oneself"); both patterns are common in the US.

  9. Melanoman said,

    February 2, 2010 @ 10:13 am

    I agree with Brett, and will add that if forming a group identity was important to the plot, the dual referents could be comparing the unaffiliated individual at the start of the series with the group identity that the person that individual grew into contributes to. This doesn't seem an example of singular they.

  10. Ken Grabach said,

    February 2, 2010 @ 10:54 am

    In my reading of the he and they quotation by Mr. Lindelof, the topic is a progression of character development from a past phase transforming into a newer, current phase. If the reference is to different antecedents for he and they, the statement becomes, paradoxically, grammatical but meaningless.

  11. Ken Brown said,

    February 2, 2010 @ 11:36 am

    mollymooly said: ""Or from he to one. (Or, more usually, from one to he.)" That was the original pattern ("one should help his friends before himself") before "one" became more pronouny ("one should help one's friends before oneself"); both patterns are common in the US."

    But over here both sound stilted and over-formal.

    On the other hand I probably wouldn't have noticed the switch from "he" to "they" if it hadn't been pointed out. Though if I was saying it in my own words, I think I would have been more likely to use "they" throughout. . And it is quite usual to use singular "they" when you know the sex of the person you are talking about.

  12. Ben said,

    February 2, 2010 @ 12:33 pm

    Like Julia P and Ken Brown, the switch was completely unremarkable to me and I really doubt I would have even noticed it had I read this outside the context of this blog post.

    The discourse context makes it clear that the referent is of indefinite sex and also makes it clear the two pronouns have the same referent. So by the time you get to each pronoun, the particular shape it takes don't really matter, as long as each can reasonably match up with the referent (and he and they both can reasonable match up to a one individual of indefinite sex).

  13. Sid Smith said,

    February 2, 2010 @ 12:40 pm

    "That was the original pattern ("one should help his friends before himself") before "one" became more pronouny ("one should help one's friends before oneself"); both patterns are common in the US."

    Thanks, mollymooly. And the Merriam-Webster page you routed to says that one…one is the British pattern: very true, so that one…he…him…his seems wrong to these ears.

  14. michael farris said,

    February 2, 2010 @ 4:34 pm

    I also would have read the original and not found the least little thing odd about it and understood 'he' and 'they' has having the same referent.

    In related news, 'one should help his …. himself' sounds completely wrong and ungrammatical to me. For me, by far the best reference for pronominal 'one' is 'one' …. although while 'one should help your friends before yourself' doesn't work for me, 'one sould help one's friends before yourself' is almost borderline acceptable (better than the 'he … himself' version at any rate).

    But this is all academic since pronominal 'one' sounds affected to me and I don't think I actively use it beyond a few set expressions.

  15. Nathan Myers said,

    February 2, 2010 @ 7:09 pm

    I'm very surprised to find that "one should help one's friends before oneself" is "common in the U.S." To me use of naked "one" marks it as either British or extremely (perhaps mockingly) formal.

    I find I just used it a few minutes ago in a posting: http://lwn.net/Articles/372379/

  16. Ben said,

    February 3, 2010 @ 4:21 am

    I'm from the U.S. and I use "one" myself occasionally, but it is a little formal. I definately (sic) wouldn't call it extremely or mockingly formal though. I see it not uncommonly in published material (by U.S. authors), and occasionally in informal messages. It's very rare in actual speech though.

  17. Ben said,

    February 3, 2010 @ 4:24 am

    I would like to add, however, that–because "one" is the most formal of pronouns–when composing a mockingly formal piece, one must use it over any other when a choice presents itself.

  18. dwmacg said,

    February 3, 2010 @ 10:19 am

    I'm speculating here, but I wonder if this is the effect of one's inner perscriptivist trying to control their linguistic output. Prescriptivist "rules" for the most part don't follow the natural patterns of the language, so if one speaks a dialect in which the prescriptivist "rules" don't apply they have to make a conscious effort to apply them. Sometimes that works, sometimes it don't (and when you're speaking, probably it doesn't work more often than it does).

  19. Dan S said,

    February 5, 2010 @ 8:30 am

    "One never knows. Do one?"
    — Fats Waller, and, I believe, others

  20. Robert said,

    February 12, 2010 @ 8:55 am

    Am I the only person who thinks midi-chlorians explain nothing? It reminds me of why Richard Feynman objected to the "Energy makes it move" textbook, in that it explained nothing, it just assigned a name to it.

  21. uberVU - social comments said,

    February 19, 2010 @ 2:55 pm

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