Their mouth … its mouths

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I don't think we've had one of these before.

In many earlier posts (e.g. "Candidates must be a student", 4/16/2009; "Xtreme singular they", 4/18/2008; "'Singular they', God said it, I believe it, that settles it", 9/13/2006; "They are a prophet", 10/21/2004), we've noted that they/them/their is often used with non-specific singular human antecedents, not only as an alternative to "he or she", "him or her", "his or hers", but even in cases where the sex of the antecedent is known.

But here's a case where the antecedent is a snake, and a generically definite one at that ("How spitting cobras shoot for the eyes", Discover Magazine 5/14/2010):

It may seem a bit daft to provoke a snake that can poison you from afar, but Young's antics were all part of an attempt to show just how spitting cobras make their shots. Their venom is a potent defensive weapon, but it's also completely useless if it lands on the skin or even in the mouth. To work, the cobra must aim for the eyes. Just think about how hard that is. The cobra must hit a moving target that's up to 1.5 metres away, using a squirt gun attached to their mouth.

With a specific snake, the article uses it/its:

The cobra doesn't like it and erects its hood in warning. Young persists, and the snake retaliates by launching twin streams of venom at him from forward-facing holes in its fangs.

And some other cases of singular, definite but generic snakes also get it/its, including the confused and confusing use of "its heads" instead of "their heads" in the example below:

By taunting cobras from behind his visor, Young discovered their secret. The snake waits for a particularly jerky movement to trigger its attack and synchronise the movements of its heads in the same way. It shakes its head rapidly from side to side to achieve a wide spray of venom. And it even predicts the position of its target 200 milliseconds later and shoots its venom at where its eyes are going to be.

All this suggests that the use of non-specific singular they/them/their is in variable competition with other pronouns, including in this case it/its, and that this competition even bleeds over into cases where the antecedent is in fact plural.

One of the first LL posts was about a hypercorrection of this same sort: "All lockers must be emptied of its contents", 8/9/2003.

[Hat tip to Tim Leonard]



18 Comments

  1. D.O. said,

    May 15, 2010 @ 9:28 am

    Maybe heads in its heads is just a mistake. And not necessarily triggered by the existence of their heads as a possible alternative.

  2. Rick said,

    May 15, 2010 @ 9:48 am

    Within the context of "its heads", I would assume that what was intended was "its head". The first half of the sentence it "its attack" (not "attacks"), and the next sentence is "its head" (not "heads"). So the plural "heads" seems more out of place than the "its".

  3. michael said,

    May 15, 2010 @ 9:52 am

    it could also be a rewriting error: abandoning a description of how "cobras" do something, and going with how "a cobra" does something. or if not a rewriting error, a change in mid sentence of the recalled antecedent. notice how the title of the piece refers to cobras in the plural.

  4. Jerry Friedman said,

    May 15, 2010 @ 9:53 am

    I've just been involved in a discussion about "singular they" and was thinking about how it doesn't substitute for "it". I probably should have expected this. Still to come: "singular they" with an inanimate antecedent?

    On the subject, another person in the discussion said that "the vast bulk" of examples have obviously singular antecedents, such as "a person" or "the reader", and only a few have "notionally plural" antecedents such as "everyone" and "anyone". Has anyone studied this? Is there an easy way to check it? I was surprised, since I learned this prescription in regard to the "every-" words and thought of them as the canonical example.

  5. ambrosen said,

    May 15, 2010 @ 5:10 pm

    My impression is that the author is, at the time of making the analogy, thinking of a human mouth, and thus uses the pronoun for unspecificied humans.

  6. Nathan Myers said,

    May 15, 2010 @ 11:01 pm

    Poor Ed is always criticized for bad grammar and spelling. He's just a lowly cancer researcher, writing late into the night, winning science journalism award after award, as embarrassed by his slips as we are for him.

    [(myl) Speak for yourself. I don't see anything to criticize Ed Yong about, any more than I intended here to criticize the authors of the King James version of the bible. My interest in the quotations from Ed's post is in what they tell us about the nature and development of "singular they" in contemporary English.]

  7. Dave said,

    May 15, 2010 @ 11:41 pm

    I agree with others here that "its heads" is probably nothing but a mistake.

    I also agree with ambrosen about the use of "their mouth" possibly being the result of the writer thinking of the snake as being like a human. The writer wants to get the point across that what the snake is doing is difficult, and wants us to imagine ourselves in the snake's "shoes". Using "its" would remind us that the snake is not human and make the comparison more difficult.

  8. Improbable Research » Blog Archive » Physical therapy: When the cobra spits said,

    May 16, 2010 @ 12:04 am

    […] BONUS: Language Log dissects some of the study's language. […]

  9. Nathan Myers said,

    May 16, 2010 @ 4:46 am

    My point is that I don't think it tells us anything about "singular they", because it's almost certainly just an cut'n'paste editing mistake. To draw any sort of conclusion about the development of singular they, you need a transcript of connected speech, or lots of written samples. Me, I often find I have left out a word when altering sentence. It doesn't mean I thought it made any sense that way, or that I would be caught dead saying it aloud.

  10. Army1987 said,

    May 16, 2010 @ 11:18 am

    @ambrosen & Dave:
    In Italy there are many mathematicians using chi ("who") rather than che cosa ("what") for mathematical objects. It sounded very weird the first time I heard it (when I was in the second year of high school, IIRC), but now I'm completely used to that, and might even do that myself once or twice a year.

  11. Nathan Myers said,

    May 16, 2010 @ 9:19 pm

    By the way, that expression "[[wouldn't be]caught dead saying it aloud" must exemplify something pathological.

  12. dporpentine said,

    May 17, 2010 @ 10:34 pm

    Off topic, but I'm going to use "its" as my excuse to shoehorn this in here: a friend who's a very well-regarded literary agent and freelance thriller editor (name a household name fiction writer and she's worked with that person) thinks that "its" can only be used with animals. So you can talk about a cat and "its tail" but not a house and "its walls." Or you can, but it's kind of like using "ain't" or something.

    Just recording this peeve for posterity and wondering whether anyone out there has heard of this before.

  13. Dave said,

    May 18, 2010 @ 9:09 am

    Army1987,

    You can hear things like "a guy between zero and one" in English. (And that doesn't mean an infant!) Mathematicians think it makes them sound cool.

  14. Jerry Friedman said,

    May 18, 2010 @ 6:31 pm

    @dporpentine: That's part of a common prescription that you can't use possessives except for nouns that can possess something. I've also heard a version that allows buildings and probably governments and other institutions, so "the house's walls" would be okay", but not "the coin landed on its edge and bounced". Some people say this comes from a misunderstanding of "possessive", and some go on to prefer "genitive" because it doesn't lead to this misunderstanding. (No doubt there are other reasons to prefer "possessive" or "genitive".)

  15. David Cantor said,

    May 19, 2010 @ 3:06 am

    A usage of singular they that I find particularly wrenching occurs often in the many games available through Facebook. That is, use of singular they with a proper noun as the antecedent. E.g.

    "Rebecca needs your help in feeding their calf in Farmville."

    This usage is ubiquitous on Facebook.

  16. Largo said,

    May 19, 2010 @ 7:18 am

    When dealing with propositions that have several variables of various scope, 'he', she', and whimsical phrases like 'this guy' are actually quite useful in keeping track of what's being said. (Think epsilon-delta proofs.)

  17. Jerry Friedman said,

    May 19, 2010 @ 1:39 pm

    I wrote: "nouns that can possess something".

    Maybe that should have been "nouns whose referents can possess something".

    Wait a second…

  18. Aaron Davies said,

    May 21, 2010 @ 10:34 pm

    another good reason to say genitive is to stop worrying about constructions like "a friend of mine" (or genitive-before-gerund, if you lean towards the conservative), in which the "possessive" makes no "logical" sense, but is merely conventional.

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