Fox redux

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Melvin Jules Bukiet, "What's Your Pronoun?", The Chronicle Review 9/21/2015:

[H]aving learned to adapt to unexpected or previously unknown pronouns, I am confronted by a new wrinkle in the language of identification. As one of the staff members at the college where I teach recently informed the faculty, "Some of the students will prefer to be referred to as 'they.' "  

Really? Or rather, no, because here my problem is practical. Specifically, it's what verb to use in those pesky evaluations. I cannot bring myself to write, "They is a good student." Nor can I write, "They are a good student." And I simply won't write about an individual, "They are good students," because "they" are not Walt Whitman. "They" do not contain multitudes. They are entitled to their own identity, but not to their own grammar. Therefore, in lieu of any pronoun, I will use whatever name a student provides. This will lead to a stilted paragraph, but it won't be wrong.

LLOG readers, along with other denizens of the 21st century, will be saying to themselves, "Wait, what? Of course it's 'They are a good student'". For some background, see "They are a prophet", 10/21/2004.

And for the 17th-century original of Prof. Bukiet's anxiety, see "George Fox, Prescriptivist", 10/24/2010 — where we learn that the founder of Quakerism was equally outraged at the notion that plural ye and you might be used with singular reference despite their obviously plural verb-agreement pattern:

for if they should pay two or three for one, that would displease you, who would have them to speak two or three, when they should speak singular, thee and thou to one […] for there must be, and always was a distinction betwixt one and many.

I suspect that some research into historical metalinguistics would turn up some similarly indignant responses to the development of German Sie (third-person plural agreement), or French vous (second-person plural agreement), or Spanish usted (third-person singular agreement), etc.

Of course, divergent verb agreement for honorific purposes will probably have been less offensive to adult academics than the same thing in service of youthful dissatisfaction with gender roles.

 



42 Comments

  1. Faith said,

    September 26, 2015 @ 12:56 pm

    There is no problem here that needs fixing, even for grammar prescriptivists. Try saying "Sam is a good student."

    [(myl) If I understand what you're recommending, it's what Prof. Bukiet tells us he does:

    Therefore, in lieu of any pronoun, I will use whatever name a student provides. This will lead to a stilted paragraph, but it won't be wrong.

    ]

  2. Ian Osmond said,

    September 26, 2015 @ 1:10 pm

    My attitude toward singular "they":

    Dost thou have a problem with singular "you"? If thou dost not, I have to ask thee: what is thy problem with singular "you"? If thou hast a problem with this, the problem is thine.

    And yes, this also proves perfectly well that singular "they" takes the plural verb, since we don't say "you ist", or "you is".

  3. Rod Johnson said,

    September 26, 2015 @ 1:23 pm

    If you're writing a paragraph about Sam, you'll have to deal with the second, and third, etc. mentions of Sam. Will you keep writing "Sam" in every sentence like a second-grader? Will you combine everything into one long coordinated hairball of a sentence? Pronouns exist for a reason.

  4. Karen said,

    September 26, 2015 @ 1:24 pm

    Yep. He will write "Sam is a good student. Sam always turns Sam's papers in on time, and they are well-written, demonstrating that Sam has mastered the basics of Sam's courses. Sam has only been late once, but Sam had a good excuse. Sam is respectful of Sam's peers and superiors…" etc. because he can't "bring himself" to say "Sam is a good student. They are never late". As MYL points out, he'd have been in vapors about "You are" to one person, though now he doesn't even notice. Nor, I bet, does "aren't I?" as a tag question phase him in the slightest.

  5. Guy said,

    September 26, 2015 @ 1:32 pm

    If they're not entitled to their own grammar, then it would follow that Bukiet isn't either. And since singular-reference they has been grammatical for centuries…

  6. Jerry Friedman said,

    September 26, 2015 @ 1:57 pm

    "Sam has some problems working with their partners. They often make good suggestions, but Sam just keeps doing what they want." I suppose you'd have to say "Sam just keeps doing what Sam wants."

    The parallels to "you are" and "aren't I" seem a bit strained. "You" for a single person was well established in Fox's time, and "aren't I" is in ours, but I don't recall encountering "they" for a named person except from Facebook's software, still less anyone's request to use it about them. (Note: no name.) Buklet is saying he'll use something that occurs in normal usage but sounds strange rather than something that doesn't occur in normal usage—or not yet and not around here or where he is.

  7. Peter Taylor said,

    September 26, 2015 @ 2:10 pm

    There's no reason for anyone to object to usted having 3rd person singular agreement: it's generally agreed to have derived from vuestra merced, which appears to be 3rd person singular and has been used with the 3rd person singular since it appeared.

    What you might possibly find (I'm not sure) are objections to using the same verb forms for singular vos and plural vosotros.

  8. Aaron said,

    September 26, 2015 @ 2:31 pm

    Being transgender (though I identify well within the standard gender binary and do not use special pronouns), I have experienced what it is like to have an uncooperative person stubbornly insist on forming sentences about me without using any third person pronouns at all, because he couldn't bring himself to say "he". (But "Aaron", somehow, was okay; maybe he was mentally spelling it "Erin"?)

    Beyond the obvious disrespect of refusing to acknowledge someone's gender, the sheer repetitiveness (Aaron forgot Aaron's coat, will you give it to Aaron?) makes the speaker sound utterly mental after a few sentences. As such, it is not any kind of a solution to feeling weird about somebody's gender identity, which Bukiet will soon learn if he actually tries it out. If he sees speaking without pronouns as "not wrong", he needs to take a course on pragmatics (at least).

  9. JS said,

    September 26, 2015 @ 2:41 pm

    Peter, no, the reason someone could in theory object to Usted having 3rd person singular agreement (but in practice doesn't because language change) is that Usted is a second person singular pronoun.

  10. Karen said,

    September 26, 2015 @ 3:04 pm

    "Sam has some problems working with his partner. He often makes good suggestions, but Sam just keeps doing what he wants."

    You can always find an example that makes something ambiguous. In this case, "but" removes that ambiguity, doesn't it?

  11. JS said,

    September 26, 2015 @ 3:22 pm

    Agree that the issue in Jerry Friedman's example is not ambiguity, it's just the relative novelty of anaphoric "they". However, after reading through it a couple times, I'm good — bring on the next usage revolution.

  12. Jerry Friedman said,

    September 26, 2015 @ 4:19 pm

    Karen and JS: Yes, I was thinking more about the strangeness of "Sam just keeps doing what they want" than about ambiguity. And if anyone wants to know, I'm perfectly fine with "Somebody just keeps doing whatever they want," not to mention "Volkswagen is in trouble, but they've said they'll clean house." (Maybe even "Volkswagen has said they'll clean house.") I was trying to say that there's a big difference between complaining about something most people say and complaining about a usage that you've never heard and will sound strange, but that someone has said you might be asked to use.

    If enough people feel the same way as JS, though, the strange may become familiar.

  13. Ken Miner said,

    September 26, 2015 @ 5:46 pm

    @ Ian Osmond I am impressed. You may be the only person in the 21st century other than myself who can use King James English correctly. (I know it because in the religious sect of my youth, that was the language one prayed in.)

  14. Michael Watts said,

    September 26, 2015 @ 5:48 pm

    But it makes no sense to object that "they are a good student" violates a grammar constraint. Consider these fully standard sentences:

    1. They are a very religious family.

    2. The Japanese are a polite people.

    Here we see syntactically singular nouns as the complement of "are", even when the subject of "are" is syntactically and semantically plural. It's allowed because "family" and "people" are semantically plural.

    But if we use "are" for a subject that is semantically plural and syntactically plural, with a complement that is semantically plural and syntactically singular, I fail to see the theoretical objection to using it for a subject that is semantically singular and syntactically plural, with a subject that is semantically singular and syntactically singular.

  15. Michael Watts said,

    September 26, 2015 @ 7:11 pm

    Also, I'm not sure how well established "aren't I" is. I learned it when small and knew it was the standard, but I stopped using it anyway because it felt so awkward. My brother, currently 12, uses "amn't".

  16. Ellen K. said,

    September 26, 2015 @ 8:55 pm

    "They are a good student" used (as here) for an abstract unspecified student it totally unproblematic for me. Not sure what I'd think of it if I actually saw it used for a specific student (as the teacher has in mind) but subject-verb agreement definitely isn't an issue. The issue is semantic. And I'm okay with extending "they" to be able to refer to a specified individual, even if it feels grammatically odd.

  17. DW said,

    September 26, 2015 @ 9:39 pm

    It's not particularly difficult to recast this:

    "Sam is a good student. Sam always turns Sam's papers in on time, and they are well-written, demonstrating that Sam has mastered the basics of Sam's courses. Sam has only been late once, but Sam had a good excuse. Sam is respectful of Sam's peers and superiors…"

    Sam is a good student. Sam always turns papers in on time, and they are well-written, demonstrating mastery of the basics of the courses. Sam has only been late once, but with a good excuse. Sam is respectful of both peers and superiors…

    Really how hard was that? I agree that "they" is probably a better solution, but this person is inventing difficulties that don't really exist. Anyway the bulk of the critique should be about the student's WORK not his/her/their personal characteristics or how often they're late to class. A lot of handwringing over pronouns suggests the teacher is a little too keen to make known his/her/their personal feelings about the student.

  18. Xmun said,

    September 26, 2015 @ 10:39 pm

    @Ian Osmond

    Your conjugation of the verb "be" in the singular is wrong. We say "thou art", not "thou ist" (are you perhaps thinking of the German "du bist"?). So your final sentence should have ended: ". . . we don't say "you art", or "you is"."

  19. Aristotle Pagaltzis said,

    September 27, 2015 @ 7:23 am

    I use singular "they" rather freely, and damn the naysayers. But on the issue at hand, I had actually come to the same conclusion as Prof. Bukiet: if someone wants to be referred to as "they", I will simply fall back on always using their name. I have no problems with other non-traditional pronouns either, but "they" is out.

    The problem is two-fold.

    First, the plural/singular overlap of "they" causes confusion. Old-fashioned uses of singular "they" typically pose no comprehension problems because of the typically limited scope of any one particular "they" instance in such use. But prose talking at length about a single person as "they" tends to get confusing sooner or later (and rather sooner than later). When they go to their party, who went where? Under simultaneous use of singular and plural "they", that sentence is perfectly ambiguous.

    Second, long before I encountered "they" as a choice of personal pronoun, I would sometimes refer to a specific and identified person using singular "they" as a passive-aggressive gesture. Because it refuses to provide any information whatsoever (not even their gender (which, ironically, is of course why it gets chosen as a personal pronoun now)) and also essentially speaks of a person as a group of one, rather than referring to them directly, it objectifies and implicitly otherises the person being referred to. It is a perfect signal for distancing oneself from whoever and whatever they are. Therefore when asked to refer to someone I harbour no such feelings toward as "they", it feels very awkward. Of course, the fallback of always using their name has an infantilising effect, so it's only marginally less awkward.

    The first reason is by far the weightier one, though I have to admit the second one was the ultimate cause of my decision. What happened is that I was asked to refer to someone as "they", which at first I gladly agreed to do. But unlike other requests to use non-traditional personal pronouns, which merely felt a little odd until I got used to them, here I discovered that I could not do this without discomfort. Still, I tried to honour their request – until the confusion of ambiguity on top of the discomfort of acting as though passive-aggressive became an intolerable mix.

    And so it is that I came to the same conclusion as Prof. Bukiet, even as I sneer at the grammatical opponents of singular "they".

  20. J.W. Brewer said,

    September 27, 2015 @ 8:08 am

    One way to test whether the objector's underlying discomfort is about verb agreement versus the perceived oddity of someone who wishes to opt out of the conventional m/f dichotomy would be to see if the objector would be willing to use "it" rather than "they." Of course the person in question may prefer not to be referred to with that pronoun, but so what? The objection to using for non-infant humans a pronoun that's perfectly cromulent for reference to either human infants or non-human animals of unknown, unspecified, or irrelevant-in-context sex is obviously rooted in either ageism or speciesism, right?

  21. Zeppelin said,

    September 27, 2015 @ 11:22 am

    I figure German "Sie" will have met fewer objections since it's not used to refer to individual people in the "actual" pragmatic third person, and its agreement is consistently plural. I.e. it doesn't matter if I am duzing or siezing someone, they (hah) will still be "he/she" when I refer to them. So it doesn't violate agreement in-sentence the way "they are a good student" does.

    German is generally pretty fussy about number! There are almost no pluralia tantum for example, and when talking about groups referred to by singular nouns, grammatical agreement tends to be favoured over pragmatic agreement.

    There really isn't a good gender-neutral way of referring to people in German at all, which frequently annoys me. I don't think invented pronouns are going to catch on, and singular "they" is also unidiomatic. So I'm very grateful for English singular "they" in these situations!

  22. Michael Watts said,

    September 27, 2015 @ 2:40 pm

    J.W. Brewer:

    Where are you from? I reread E. Nesbit's 5 Children and It a few years ago and was shocked to notice that the narrator, and the characters within the story, made free use of "it" to refer to a (known, particular) human infant.

  23. Travis said,

    September 27, 2015 @ 4:18 pm

    I'm curious to know what Prof. Bukiet will resort to if he finds himself needing to use a reflexive. What would his non-pronoun option be? If we continue thinking of this student as "Sam", "Samself" doesn't really seem like an option, but I can't come up with any other reasonable reflexives off the top of my head.

  24. M Briggs said,

    September 27, 2015 @ 4:49 pm

    Sitting as the judge in a tribunal, I once had to decide whether a woman parolee was justified in hitting another woman who persisted in using "it" when talking about the parolee's baby.

  25. M Briggs said,

    September 27, 2015 @ 4:53 pm

    "They," referring to an individual, doesn't bother me at all. What really freaks me out are phrases such as "England are . . ." or "Wales have been . . ." that occur in British sports prose.

  26. RJP said,

    September 28, 2015 @ 10:42 am

    @Travis,
    There's also the question of which reflexive Sam would use. I'd prefer to be able to use "themself" in such cases, but according to oxforddictionaries.com, it's still widely considered non-standard.

  27. Eric P Smith said,

    September 28, 2015 @ 11:30 am

    @M Briggs: In British English, a noun denoting a collection normally takes a plural verb. "England is winning" probably sounds as odd to me as "England are winning" does to you.

  28. J. W. Brewer said,

    September 28, 2015 @ 12:09 pm

    I don't necessarily disagree that it's odd to use "it" for a specific human infant of known sex, just as it's odd (except for those who find facebook's usage affecting their grammaticality judgments, which has not at least thus far happened to me) to use singular "they" for a specific human non-infant of known sex. But if the use of "they" can be extended beyond its prior limits, the use of "it" could be as well, unless it turns out that the limitations on the usage of "it" are kept in place by stronger political/cultural forces not currently subject to reexamination in even the most avant-garde subsections of the Anglophone world.

  29. Alex said,

    September 28, 2015 @ 2:01 pm

    @J.W. Brewer The domain for use of "it" on animate subjects shrank considerably over the past 100 years. You would be well advised to avoid it for both infants and pets, regardless of whether sex is known. People often take real offense. "It" is simply going in the wrong direction to take over from "they" as the non-gendered pronoun of choice.

  30. Alex said,

    September 28, 2015 @ 2:05 pm

    Oh, and this didn't help the case for "it" as a pronoun for young kids– Dave Pelzer wrote a book in 1995 A Child Called "It," all about his abusive childhood. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dave_Pelzer

  31. J. W. Brewer said,

    September 28, 2015 @ 2:27 pm

    Alex: I'm not sure if I've noticed the same trend as strongly – it's certainly still easy to google up current uses of baby-related stock phrases like "holding its bottle" or "sucking its thumb" or "changing its diaper" where the referent of "it" is a specific individual human baby. But what's the result of the trend you cite in terms of how people refer to infants and pets where they genuinely don't know the sex (or, even more awkwardly, have probably previously been told but can't remember)? Do they extend singular they to infants/pets (not something I have consciously noticed as common, but that doesn't mean it isn't out there) or do they instead come up with some semi-awkward workaround that avoids explicit pronouns altogether?

    One possible societal change that I guess could have linguistic spillover effects is the comparatively recent ability to accurately determine fetal sex reasonably early in pregnancy and the increasing percentage (in the US, at least) of parents who take advantage of that. So the prior pattern in which expectant parents and their friends/relations might spend a lot of time talking about the impending new arrival without knowing whether masc or fem pronouns would end up being apt (until the dramatic moment in the delivery room where the doctor/midwife/whoever announces "it's a boy/girl") but need *some* pronouns to use may have had linguistic consequences that are no longer as salient.

  32. Jason Eisner said,

    September 28, 2015 @ 4:11 pm

    I noticed when my daughter was 4 that she regularly used "it" when she needed a gender-neutral pronoun.

    (I didn't remark on this until she was 5, when in a single comment, she referred to a hypothetical student as "it" and a hypothetical teacher as "she." Why the difference, I asked? She said she didn't know whether the student was a boy or a girl. I said, "But the teacher could be a man or a woman, too." She said, "Right, but there's a good chance it'll be a woman.")

  33. Jason Eisner said,

    September 28, 2015 @ 4:34 pm

    @Travis – Even when using singular "they" rather than "Sam," the reflexive form isn't completely obvious. We're still sorting out "themself" vs. "themselves" (or "theirself" vs. "theirselves," in some dialects). My bet is that "themself" will win.

  34. Michael Watts said,

    September 29, 2015 @ 1:46 am

    To me, the distinction between "it" and other 3sg pronouns isn't a 3-way gender difference, it's the same distinction that exists between interrogative "who" and interrogative "what". That's why people are so offended by misplaced "it"s. On this analysis, pets are granted courtesy personhood.(Because they're special, not because they're animate. "It" for animals of no emotional significance is fine.)

  35. Jacob said,

    September 29, 2015 @ 7:53 am

    Don't forget Groucho's immortal words in Horsefeathers: "For months before my son was born, / I used to yell from night to morn, / 'Whatever it is, I'm against it!'"

  36. DWalker said,

    September 29, 2015 @ 1:38 pm

    I wonder why "Aaron forgot Aaron's coat, will you give it to Aaron?" sounds so much worse that "Aaron forgot his coat, will you give it to him?") It's the same number of words. It would be the same number of syllables if Aaron's name had one syllable.

    "Sam forgot Sam's coat, will you give it to Sam" perhaps should sound as good as "Sam forgot his coat, will you give it to him?" but it doesn't…. "Sam's" is (supposedly) one syllable, but in practice, it's one and a half…..

  37. M Briggs said,

    September 29, 2015 @ 4:34 pm

    From the PBS Newshour website today, 9/28/15:

    The coming speaker election will be just the fifth time since 1913 (the earliest year in the Congressional Research Service report) that a new speaker has been elected mid-term. And it is only the second time in those 102 years that the speaker resigned before their term is finished. Speaker Jim Wright, a Democrat, resigned in June 1989.

  38. M Briggs said,

    September 29, 2015 @ 4:36 pm

    I think I would have said "before his term finished." There has never been a woman Speaker.

  39. Joshua said,

    September 29, 2015 @ 9:58 pm

    M Briggs: Yes, there has been. Nancy Pelosi was Speaker of the House from 2007 to 2011. But all the Speakers who resigned before their term finished were men.

  40. M Briggs said,

    September 30, 2015 @ 12:45 am

    @Joshua – thank you.

  41. M Briggs said,

    September 30, 2015 @ 12:51 am

    "Speaking for the Conservatives, Michael Gove, the justice secretary, said: "Labour have confirmed that it is a threat to our national security, our economic security and to the security of every family in Britain."

    From today's Guardian. Apparently the writer avoided choosing whether Labour is collective or singular by choosing both.

  42. BZ said,

    October 1, 2015 @ 4:18 pm

    @M Briggs,
    Or maybe because they (the writer) can freely use either singular or plural in such a situation?

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