Linguistic reaction at The New Yorker

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Mary Norris, "Comma Queen: The Singular 'Their'", The New Yorker 3/4/2016:

Last year, at the convention of the American Copy Editors Society (ACES), in Pittsburgh, everyone was talking about “the singular ‘their.’ ” It is the people’s choice for the gender-neutral third-person-singular pronoun that the English language sadly lacks.  

Many ACES stalwarts—copy editors, journalists, grammarians, lexicographers, and linguists—stand ready to embrace the singular “their.” But not us. We avoid it whenever we can.

Singular they wasn't just a theme at last year's copy editors' meeting — it was the American Dialect Society's 2015 Word of the Year, and as John McIntyre put it in the Baltimore Sun back in April of 2015, "discussion of singular they is busting out all over". He linked to a Lingua Franca piece by Anne Curzan, who noted that

I am struck by the wording of critics who ponder whether the pronoun they “can be” singular. Given the evidence of widespread use of singular they for centuries, the question makes no sense.

John described the reaction that Mary Norris exemplifies:

The people who have been schooled to loathe singular they despise it with a visceral reaction. “NO!” they scream in all caps. “NEVER!” they proclaim, vowing to die in the last ditch for this one.

Sit tibi terra levis.

"May the earth rest lightly upon you".

Ms. Norris would never be so crass as to write in all caps, and her style is more bureaucratic than militaristic, but she certainly forces writers to eliminate singular they:

My first example is a sentence from a short story by George Saunders: "Everyone would do exactly what they liked."

I hated to do it, but I had to suggest that it should be "Everyone would do exactly what he or she liked," or "All should do what they liked."

And I was so pleased when it came back reading "Everyone would do exactly what he liked." Once in a while, the conservative use of the masculine to cover both the feminine and the masculine blends in and doesn't do any harm. OK? Ladies?

An example from a piece by Kathryn Schulz read "But while everyone always thinks that they are on the side of the angels." Now I read this  in page proof a few times before I realized that it was a number problem. The copy editor in me finally sat up and said, "Can we do something about this?"

And we finally came up with "But while people nearly always think that they are on the side of the angels," and the sentence goes on. So "people" is plural, and "they" is the pronoun linking back to "people" — both of them are plural, so that sentence is well balanced.

As with many of The New Yorker's crochets, avoidance of singular they is a rationalist innovation masquerading as linguistic conservatism. We can imagine Ms. Norris's discussions with writers over the centuries —

Chaucer, "The Pardoner's Prologue":

And whoso fyndeth hym out of swich blame,
They wol come up.

Shakespeare, Comedy of Errors, act IV scene 3:

There's not a man I meet but doth salute me
As if I were their well-acquainted friend.

Philippians 2:3 (King James Version):

Let nothing bee done through strife, or vaine glory, but in lowlinesse of minde let each esteeme other better then themselues.

Samuel Richardson, Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded:

I beg you will look over my poor matters, and let every one have what belongs to them; for, said I, you know I am resolved to take with me only what I can properly call my own.

Jonathan Edwards, Heaven:

That is, there will be some especially distinguished for one grace, others for another ; some of one manner of the exercise of grace, others of another; some fitted for this work, others for that: everyone will have their distinguishing gift, one after this manner, and another after that,, the perfection of the saints in glory, nothing hindering.

Benjamin Franklin, Autobiography:

I should have mentioned before, that, in the autumn of the preceding year, I had form'd most of my ingenious acquaintance into a club of mutual improvement, which was called the Junto […] But my giving this account of it here is to show something of the interest I had, everyone of these exerting themselves in recommending business to us.

Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe:

Hence it is, that a miser, though he pays every body their own, cannot be an honest man, when he does not discharge the good offices that are incumbent on a friendly, kind, and generous person.

Jonathan Swift, Polite Conversation:

Every fool can do as they're bid.

Jane Austen, Sense and Sensibility:

Each of them was busy in arranging their particular concerns, and endeavouring, by placing around them books and other possessions, to form themselves a home.

Sir Walter Scott, Ivanhoe:

I return in my grave-clothes, a pledge restored from the very sepulchre, and every one I speak to vanishes as soon as they hear my voice!

Charles Dickens, Nicholas Nickleby:

Let us give everybody their due.

Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights:

I thought, though everybody hated and despised each other, they could not avoid loving me.

Charlotte Brontë, Henry Hastings:

I think I should have spoken to her, but something suggested to me, 'Every body has their own burden to bear. Let her drink the chalice fate commends to her lips.'

Louisa May Alcott, Little Women:

Everybody sniffed when they came to that part.

Anthony Trollope, The Way We Live Now:

Everybody doesn't make themselves a part of the family. I have heard of nobody doing it except you.

Thomas Hardy, The Return of the Native:

It is the instinct of everyone to look after their own.

Mark Twain, A Tramp Abroad:

I always ask everybody what ship they came over in.

Robert Lewis Stevenson, Treasure Island:

The admirable fellow literally slaved in my interest, and so, I may say, did everyone in Bristol, as soon as they got wind of the port we sailed for.

Winston Churchill, The Story of the Malakand Field Force:

Every one realised afterwards how obvious this was and wondered they had not thought of it before.

Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland:

'If everybody minded their own business,' the Duchess said in a hoarse growl, 'the world would go round a deal faster than it does.'

Henry James, An International Episode:

He thinks everyone clever, and sometimes they are.

George Eliot, Middlemarch:

The fact is, I never loved any one well enough to put myself into a noose for them.

Wilkie Collins, The Moonstone:

It's the ebb now, sir, as anybody may see for themselves.

William Butler Yeats, Ideas of Good and Evil:

Since I was a boy I have always longed to hear poems spoken to a harp […] Whenever I spoke of my desire to anybody they said I should write for music, but when I heard anything sung I did not hear the words, or if I did their natural pronunciation was altered and their natural music was altered, or it was drowned in another music which I did not understand.

John Dos Passos, Three Soldiers:

Everybody craned their necks in the direction pointed out.

Saki, "The Boar-Pig":

After all, as every one else is enjoying themselves, I don’t see why Tarquin shouldn’t have an afternoon out.

H.P. Lovecraft, The Case of Charles Dexter Ward:

Everyone wished that the weather had spared them this choking and venomous inundation of peculiar fumes.

Dorothy Sayers, Murder Must Advertise:

In the other places, everybody knew me, or at least they knew what I was there for.

Josephine Tey, Miss Pym Disposes:

"A lump without leaven," said Madame, who judged everyone by their capacity to execute rondes de jambes.

C.S. Lewis, Voyage of the Dawn Treader:

Still, she kept her head and kicked her shoes off, as everybody ought to do who falls into deep water in their clothes.

E. Nesbit, The Railway Children:

They did not recognise the sound of the boots, but everyone was certain that they had heard the voice before.

Jack London, Martin Eden:

But I assure you it was no less brutal to me when everybody I knew recommended it to me as they would recommend right conduct to an immoral creature.

e e cummings "V [gee i like to think of dead it means nearer because deeper firmer]"

POF goes the alarm off and the little striker
having the best time tickling away everybody's brain so everybody
just puts out their finger and they stuff the poor thing all full
of fingers

Virginia Woolf, To The Lighthouse:

The sun grew hotter and everybody seemed to come very close together and to feel each other's presence, which they had almost forgotten.

F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby:

You can time any little irregularity of your own so that everybody else is so blind that they don't see or care.

Gertrude Stein, The Making of Americans:

Everybody has their own being in them, every one is a kind of men and women.

James Joyce, Ulysses:

Everybody gets their own ration of luck, they say.

Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast:

Everyone had their private cafés there where they never invited anyone and would go to work, or to read or to receive their mail.

Willa Cather, My Ántonia:

Everybody liked her, didn't they?

Margaret Mitchell, Gone With The Wind:

Everyone knew that her swoons were generally mere ladylike pretenses but they loved her enough to refrain from saying so.

George Orwell, 1984:

Everyone wanted a place where they could be alone occasionally.

Agatha Christie, The Mysterious Affair at Styles:

If anyone has seen either of them touching the medicine, they will have forgotten it by that time.

Anne Sexton, "Yellow":

everyone will be home playing with
their wings and the planet will
shudder with all those smiles

H.G. Wells,  Ann Veronica:

Everybody, he felt, must be listening behind their papers.

D.H. Lawrence "To be superior":

The trouble is, everybody thinks they're just as superior
as we are;

Frank Baum, The Wizard of Oz:

Everyone knew she had been the means of destroying the Wicked Witch and setting them free from bondage.

W.H. Auden, Letters from Iceland:

Everyone has their pet medicines, but from personal experience I would recommend chlorodyne as the best stuff to take in cases of internal disorder.

Lawrence Frelinghetti, "The Love Nut"

He wants to run up to everybody in the waiting room and kiss
them on the spot and say Why aren't we friends and lovers
He's the kind addresses everybody on buses making them laugh

Sylvia Plath,  "The Bee Meeting":

Everybody is nodding a square black head, they are knights in visors,

Andrei Codrescu, "In the Supermarket":

Everyone looked up from the shelves in which in which they had been engrossed reading the labels and  congratulated me at the top of their voices.

Thomas Pynchon, V.:

At this signal, everyone would dive for and if they were lucky enough to reach one be given suck by a beer tap.

Margaret Atwood, Lady Oracle:

Everyone trusted me, no one was afraid of me, though they should have been.

Ursula K. LeGuin, The Dispossessed:

It was just another of the parties where everybody stood about with glasses in their hands smiling and talking loudly.

Andrew Vachss, Everybody Pays:

Everybody has their route in. Everybody has their route out. Everybody has their money.

Iain Banks, Look to Windward:

If the process had been just another useful technological step along the way for any ambitious society, like nanotechnology, AI or wormhole creation, then everybody would presumably do it as soon as they could.

Belle Waring "Vallejo takes the Metro"

It's been a long
night, no big deal, everybody misses their dead.

If Ms. Norris's piece were dated exactly four Fridays later, I would suspect a subtle follow-up to Geoff Pullum's "At last, the truth from The New Yorker". But I'm afraid that it's just more of what Ben Zimmer called "Screwball reasons and gloriously simple distinctions".

[h/t Cynthia McLemore]

Update — see also "Part Two", 3/21/2016.


  1. George said,

    March 8, 2016 @ 7:13 am

    Aren't some of the examples (in an otherwise great list of 'authoritative' quotations) not so much cases of singular 'they' as of plural 'everyone'/'everybody'?

    [(myl) Not exactly — none of the authors cited would have used plural verb agreement with everyone/everybody. But more important, the examples cited by Mary Norris are of exactly the same type.]

  2. Tom Freeman said,

    March 8, 2016 @ 7:18 am

    And Norris even uses it herself. In her book 'Between You and Me', she writes: 'A notice from the editor, William Shawn, went up on the bulletin board, saying that anyone whose work was not "essential" could go home. Nobody wanted to think they were not essential.'
    It's not just that her opinion doesn't reflect common usage: it doesn't even reflect her own usage.

    [(myl) Nice one.]

  3. George said,

    March 8, 2016 @ 7:40 am


    OK, but the Codrescu quote in particular refers to "the shelves" not "the shelf". It's hard to see how one could be "engrossed" in more than one shelf at any given moment, so there is something fundamentally 'plural' about whatever it is that is going on.

    I just have this sense that singular 'they' is more about 'anyone'-type situations rather than 'everyone'-type situations, which, whatever about verb agreement, deal with more than one person.

  4. Ralph Hickok said,

    March 8, 2016 @ 7:57 am

    "they" in the Codrescu quote does not refer to the shelves; the antecedent is "everyone."

  5. thecynicalromantic said,

    March 8, 2016 @ 8:03 am

    Once in a while, the conservative use of the masculine to cover both the feminine and the masculine blends in and doesn't do any harm. OK? Ladies?

    As one of those entitled young millennial ladies Ruining Everything, I am going to say: nope. Try again.

    The only upside of people using pseudogeneric "he" is that I figure I don't have to listen to people who clearly aren't talking to me anyway.

  6. George said,

    March 8, 2016 @ 8:20 am

    @ Ralph Hickok.

    I am trying valiantly not to feel offended by the suggestion that I might be sufficiently dense to think that 'they' refers to the shelves. My point was that the plural nature of 'everyone' is reinforced by the use of "shelves", unlike in, say, the ee cummings quote where "everybody just puts out their finger", not "their fingers".

    [(myl) Here are some alternative Codrescu cites:

    everyone says how much they like Baltimore ["The Scholar Story"]

    Everybody has to find out
    what they were designed for ["Casino Pierre"]

    Like the other examples in this category, these involve quantification over a set of individuals who are each individually doing something or exhibiting some property. The pronoun they functions (in formal semantic terms) as the variable bound by the quantifier. In all cases, the activity or property is an individual matter — the members of the set are not doing something or exhibiting some property only collectively (like in "everyone knew what they were cooperating to accomplish").

    In some cases, the set of individuals are doing their individual things in the same place at the same time, like "everyone congratulated me at the top of their voices", and I guess that's the distinction that you're making. But I don't think that any of the examples are genuinely collective in interpretation.]

  7. George said,

    March 8, 2016 @ 8:42 am

    Apologies for the miffed tone there…

    I suppose my fundamental point is that English uses singular they/them/their as a gender-neutral equivalent to he/him/his and she/her/her.

    How we handle everyone/everybody is a different, albeit related, matter. We don't have gender-specific plural pronouns, so the issue of how to deal with gender uncertainty – which is what singular 'they' is all about – doesn't arise.

  8. cr said,

    March 8, 2016 @ 8:43 am

    I have no problem with singular they, but I wonder if it makes sense to argue that this usage is time-honoured. After all, so is common gender he.

    [(myl) As Tom Freeman points out ("Everything you ever wanted to know about singular 'they'", Stroppy Editor 4/21/2015), the use of singular they as a quantificational variable is increasing rapidly:

    This Google Ngrams plot suggests that singular they has been supplanting neutral he in formal writing since 1970 or so — this would help explain why people like the New Yorker politburo would find the trend annoying:

    And of course the domain of usage is increasing beyond the traditional quantificational variable, to include specific but indefinite individuals of unknown sex, specific but indefinite individuals of known sex, and (most recently), specific known individuals of known sex. At the end of her presentation, Ms. Norris promises to let us know "next time" what she thinks of these developments, which she characterizes as a matter of "sexual politics":

    The point of this post is just that Ms. Norris's crotchet about singular-they-as-quantificational-variable is that apparent self-contradiction, a reactionary innovation.

    Someone who object to default "he" is taking a very different stance — "this is something that people used to do, but I don't think we should do it any more". That's presented explicitly as a matter of opinion, with reasons, not as a matter of logic or grammar.]

  9. Levantine said,

    March 8, 2016 @ 9:14 am

    Mary Norris writes "But not us", presumably because "But not we" sounds unidiomatic despite being "correct". If someone insists on being a stickler on one issue, they (!) should at least be consistent.

  10. George said,

    March 8, 2016 @ 9:24 am

    Look, I'm a lay person here, so I'm probably less able than many to express succinctly what I'm trying to get across. It just seems to me that there is a difference between these everyone/everybody situations and a situation like the following:

    30 people (of mixed gender) sit an exam. At the end, the invigilator counts the papers that have been handed in and says "One person didn't hand in their paper".

    Does that make sense?

  11. Levantine said,

    March 8, 2016 @ 9:24 am

    Seems she's very happy to pick and choose the so-called rules, or even invent them as she goes along:

  12. languagehat said,

    March 8, 2016 @ 9:56 am

    Mary Norris is one of those copyeditors who make me embarrassed for my profession. We're not all reactionaries who know nothing about language, I promise!

  13. Levantine said,

    March 8, 2016 @ 10:18 am

    Apologies for the multiple comments, but it seems I was wrong to call her out for using "than me". I assumed the usage was idiomatic without being standard, but a little online research shows that the prepositional use of "than" is widely accepted as standard. And to be clear, I was criticising her hypocrisy rather than the locution itself.

  14. Vicki said,

    March 8, 2016 @ 10:22 am

    There's a "so there, I'm in charge" tone here: she's objecting to "they" to refer to all the members of a group because the author said "everyone" rather than "all of them", but is fine with "he" referring to that same group?! Regardless of the gender of the individuals in it, a group large enough to be referred to with "everyone" is not one man (or boy, or tomcat).

    The giveaway is that she didn't merely accept "he" with a comment like "I decided 'he' instead of 'he or she' was good enough," she "was so pleased" and thinks it "blends in." It's not the author's wording, and it won't blend in for many readers my age or younger—and I was born during the Kennedy administration.

  15. Coby Lubliner said,

    March 8, 2016 @ 10:32 am

    It feels funny to post this comment to a post on peevery, but I couldn't help being bothered by the reference to "e e cummings". To quote an essay by a prominent Cummings scholar, Norman Friedman:

    It may at first seem of little import, but for a poet who paid such exacting attention to typography, it must be said once and for all that his name should be written and printed with the usual capital letters in their usual places: "E. E. Cummings."

    Friedman goes on to say that Cummings himself preferred the canpitalized form. But even if he hadn't, an author's typographic choices for their (!) own material don't obligate others to violate standard orthography.
    I feel the same way about "bell hooks". When I run across the name in this form in a text, it takes me a while to realize that that the reference is to a person, not to devices that hold up bells.

  16. Rodger C said,

    March 8, 2016 @ 10:37 am

    And then there are the sticklers nowadays who insist on citing the titles of Blake's songs with the Capitalization and ITALICS that happen to Occur on the PLATES.

  17. Martha said,

    March 8, 2016 @ 11:20 am

    I'm with George in that I'm a little confused by some of those examples and how they illustrate singular they/their.

    Take "I thought, though everybody hated and despised each other, they could not avoid loving me." Is it possible to have anything besides "they" in that sentence? Yes, it's talking about people individually loving someone, but it's still people, plural.

    That's very different from "I know someone who had their tubes tied after having their last baby." This person is obviously a "she" (assuming she is cisgendered), but the sentence uses "they" instead. This is the type of situation I think of when someone is talking about singular they.

    Regarding e.e. cummings and bell hooks (the latter of which also stops me short when I see it unexpectedly), I've always thought of their uncapitalized names to be kind of the same as unusual spellings. No one else might spell their name Linzeeeee, but if that's how Linzeeeee does it, then I should spell her (their) name that way. I'm reminded of India.Arie and India Arie would be no problem, but if people started writing about William, it would probably get confusing.

  18. Schroduck said,

    March 8, 2016 @ 11:29 am

    (Murder Must Advertise is by Dorothy L Sayers, not Agatha Christie)

    [(myl) Oops, sorry — fixed now…]

  19. Ralph Hickok said,

    March 8, 2016 @ 11:31 am

    A bit off-topic, but … I don't know why people insist on "e.e. cummings," since he never wrote it that way himself. I have every one of his printed works (except CIOPW, which is a collection of his art) and his name is "E.E. Cummings" or "E.E. CUMMINGS" on every jacket and every title page. And bear in mind that Cummings and his personal typographer, S.A. Jacobs, carefully oversaw every typographical aspect of every Cummings publication, so it's not as if his publishers did it while he wasn't paying attention.

  20. zythophile said,

    March 8, 2016 @ 11:32 am

    Never mind the alleged grammaticality, anyone without a tin ear ought to realise that "he or she" instead of singular "they" is appallingly clunky, and should be avoided for that reason alone.

    The same is true of the subject-verb inversion the New Yorker also apparently bans after direct quotes, referred to in Geoff Pullum's piece: "verb first" may break the alleged rules of English grammar, but it reads vastly more smoothly than the alternative.

  21. JS said,

    March 8, 2016 @ 11:51 am

    Just another case of someone who got happy when they heard they were an arbiter. I vote let the earth rest already.

  22. Ferdinand Cesarano said,

    March 8, 2016 @ 12:22 pm

    I am aware that "they" and "their" have been used on occasion by various authors. Nevertheless, those usages just *feel* wrong; they strike discordant notes every time.

    The forms "he/she" or "his/her" (so written, and pronounced "he or she" and "his or her") most often flow just fine. In a sane world, the use of this simple mechanism, in addition to the strategy of re-wording in order to get a plural subject which agrees in number with "they" or "their", would constitute the solution, and the whole thing would be a non-issue. But, alas, a sane world is not the world in which we find ourselves.

    Furthermore, the whole debate ignores the fact that English does indeed have a gender-neutral third-person pronoun. That pronoun is "he", with its possesive form "his". It is true that these forms are identical to the masculine pronouns. It is also irrelevant. In the sentence "Each student should bring his books to class", the pronoun "his", as determined by its function, is gender-neutral.

    Consider that the argument that "they" and "their" can be singular rests on the basis of a handful of cherry-picked quotes in which those pronouns are used in a singular fashion. But please realise that there exists a mountain of quotes that could be found in which "he" and "his" are used in a gender-neutral fashion. In fact, this usage has been standard for many centuries; so gender-neutral "he" and "his" appear in millions of works. Therefore, by the same argument which is employed to support singular "they" and "their" — and with a much greater volume of evidence — the existence of gender-neutral "he" and "his" is established.

    Of course, we cannot ignore the fact that a gender-neutral pronoun having the same form as the masculine pronoun is an ugly legacy of male dominance, specifically of the presumption that "male" is the norm. For anyone who is uncomforable with this shameful aspect of society's history, the reasonable course of action is not to use these gender-neutral pronouns.

    A thinking person should never be averse to that which is sneeringly dismissed as "political correctness" by those who are blinded by privilege; we must accept the validity of consciously changing language practices in deference to historic oppression. For instance, the trend of saying "enslaved people" rather than "slaves" is one which makes good sense. So there is good reason to avoid using the established gender-neutral pronouns "he" and "his".

    Avoid the gender-neutral pronouns "he" and "his" if you like (as I do); just do not deny that these gender-neutral pronouns exist in the English language.

  23. Morten Jonsson said,

    March 8, 2016 @ 12:45 pm

    In the example from Chaucer, I think "hym" may actually be the old third person plural pronoun that survives today as " 'em." Middle English scholars please correct me. If so, this one may not be pertinent.

  24. cr said,

    March 8, 2016 @ 12:54 pm

    I have a question on terminology: When referring to the Swedish noun gender system I often talk about a Neutrum vs. Utrum distinction in German. Is it possible in English to call this a neuter vs. uter distinction?

  25. J. W. Brewer said,

    March 8, 2016 @ 12:56 pm

    Maybe it ought to be its own thread but if we're peeving about the New Yorker's peevery, can I take this occasion to complain about this recent sample The funny thing is that it seems very recency-illusion-driven, with all the "I dislike this usage mostly because I dislike the type of people I associate with it" baggage that is common, but it is honest enough (old-style fact-checkers?) to acknowledge that the deprecated usage ("epic" as a vague and generic positive adjective roughly synonymous with "awesome") dates back to at least the '80's and is not some horrible thing The Kids Today are doing to the language all on their own. I find it particularly odd because the "bro-culture" types who are allegedly irking the author by overusing it are "millenials" (whatever that means) who in my mind are generally no older than 30ish (and I personally find them and their bro subculture a bit baffling) whereas the actual innovators of the deprecated sense of "epic" were afaik the Southern California dudes of my own now-turning-50 cohort – basically the then-teenage brothers of the teenage girls who innovated Valspeak, whose own male language variety was captured back in the day in the Bill and Ted movies and anything starring Pauly Shore.

  26. A. Mandel said,

    March 8, 2016 @ 1:45 pm

    @Ferdinand: Among people who claim to use "he" as a gender-neutral pronoun, have you found any who consider sentences like "Queen Elizabeth may outlive his own son." to be acceptable?

    If not, then they do not actually consider "he" to be gender-neutral in the relevant sense.

  27. James said,

    March 8, 2016 @ 2:00 pm

    And lest A. Mandel's example be quibbled on ground that we don't use unmarked ("gender neutral") pronouns for persons of known gender, just try this one:

    "I saw Prince Andrew and Queen Elizabeth in the parade, and each wore his crown."

    We all know, tacitly, that 'he' is not unmarked at all.

  28. Brett said,

    March 8, 2016 @ 2:12 pm

    @cr: No, "uter" is not a normal English word. It's possible that it's a term of art I've never heard, but I doubt it.

  29. Ferdinand Cesarano said,

    March 8, 2016 @ 2:12 pm

    A. Mandel – The subject of that sentence requires the use of the feminine pronoun "her", not a neutral one. The gender-neutral pronouns "he" and "his" are used only where the referent can be either masculine or feminine, not where it is clearly feminine. So one could have a sentence such as "It is odd when a monarch outlives his heir" which refers equally to a king and a queen.

  30. Levantine said,

    March 8, 2016 @ 3:10 pm

    Ferdinand Cesarano, what about James's example?

  31. J. W. Brewer said,

    March 8, 2016 @ 3:43 pm

    I guess the question is perhaps what exactly is meant by "gender-neutral pronoun." Perhaps there are some versions of such a claim that would be falsified by the Queen Elizabeth counterexample. But a more sensible approach, it seems to me, is to be more careful and data-driven with the primary claim before getting hung up on how to label the phenomenon. "Generic he," for many speakers of many varieties of English, is (this is my attempt at a semi-rigorous empirical specification and I do not claim to be infallible) a pronoun that can be used for a human being a) of unknown or unspecified sex* taken from a mixed-sex group (whether tightly or vaguely defined) which; b) has at least >2 members; and c) is not overwhelmingly female in composition (where between say 55% and 90% the line gets crossed is not intuitively clear and it may be different for different speakers, especially because it's probably driven by more of a qualitative than quantitative sense of the situation). That's an actual usage accessible to the tools of descriptive linguistics that is present in the idiolects of many native speakers, many of whom (like me) also reasonably freely use the "singular they" construction. Is it *truly* gender-neutral in some strict sense? Is it "marked" (or "not unmarked")? I dunno. I'm not sure if those are really empirical questions susceptible of an empirical answer. Now, what is certainly relevant in pushing back against silly criticism of singular-they is that generic-he as actually used does not plausibly cover 100% of the situations that singular-they can be used, so an argument that singular-they should be eschewed in its entirety because generic-he exists is flawed. If one wanted to eschew singular-they altogether (not a goal I would personally encourage) one would need different alternatives in different contexts.

    *Let's just assume that if we don't even know the sex of the individual we usually don't know whether that individual publicly presents a gender identity and/or has subjective pronoun preferences that don't track sex.

  32. cs said,

    March 8, 2016 @ 3:57 pm

    So one could have a sentence such as "It is odd when a monarch outlives his heir"

    But the point is you wouldn't say "It is odd when a king or queen outlives his heir". Because in your example, "monarch" could be taken as male, even if it doesn't always have to be, so that is why it can take a masculine pronoun.

  33. cs said,

    March 8, 2016 @ 3:59 pm

    Sorry, should have read J.W. Brewer's comment before posting mine.

  34. cr said,

    March 8, 2016 @ 4:40 pm

    The reason I asked for the neuter—uter contrast is that in this discussion social gender (classes of people) and grammatical gender (classes of nouns and pronouns) seem to get mixed up. I think linguistically speaking a gender-neutral English noun would be one that can be replaced by he, she AND it, for example a noun like baby. All inanimate English nouns are neuter (replaceable by it), but some don't have to be, e.g. cars, countries, and a few more. Most nouns denoting animals are neuter as well, but pets, mares, stallions, vixen etc. may vary. And so forth.

    As I see it singular they is only used to denote one of several persons, not one of several things, and therefore it isn't gender-neutral in a linguistic sense.

    I would much prefer a discussion that maintains a clear distinction between social and grammatical gender.

  35. David Morris said,

    March 8, 2016 @ 5:08 pm

    "But not us. We avoid it whenever we can."

    Who is/are 'us' and 'we'? Norris themself? Singular 'us/we/our/ours'? Good golly gosh, what next? (sarcasm)

  36. Jerry Friedman said,

    March 8, 2016 @ 6:05 pm

    David Morris: I assume that "us" and "we" refer to the editorial staff at the New Yorker.

  37. Ellen K. said,

    March 8, 2016 @ 6:08 pm

    Quoted in the original post:
    Once in a while, the conservative use of the masculine to cover both the feminine and the masculine blends in and doesn't do any harm. OK? Ladies?

    No, not okay. There's no reason in English for that bit of grammatical genderism. No reason not to show with our language that males and females are equal.

  38. John Roth said,

    March 8, 2016 @ 6:18 pm

    As I've said before, and will probably say again, it's what's in the reader's head when they're reading something that governs pronoun correspondence, not what's written on the page. The use of they with a textually singular anticedent is well attested when the sense is plural, as has been said many times here and elsewhere. Reading the historical record as having something to do with an escape hatch for gender neutrality is stretching the evidence to fit modern ideology.

    Quite frankly, I'd prefer having an actual epicine pronoun rather than twist the grammar out of shape to avoid grasping that nettle firmly and pulling.

    [(myl) But the everyone/everybody/anyone/each … they/their pattern doesn't twist anything out of shape, except for a small number of peevers who decided at some point to try to enforce their rationalization on everyone else. And in many such cases, it's simply not true that "the sense is plural" — "Anyone who thinks this has lost their way".

    How far to take such usages in the direction of a non-gendered singular pronoun is a reasonable subject for discussion — but if you're so strongly against mixing singular and plural, have you made your peace with you/your, or do you feel that really, we should go back to thee/thou/thy?

    In any case, the point of this post was not to promote the recent spread of "they" as a gender-neutral singular pronoun (though I'm fine with it), but to document an extraordinary example of the the triumph of authoritarian rationalism over recognition of long-established norms of usage.]

  39. Ellen K. said,

    March 8, 2016 @ 7:01 pm

    @George. If we are going to pick apart the Andrei Codrescu quote, I suggest that "their voices" suggests a plural understanding of "they" and "their". Each person, after all, only has one voice.

    That doesn't take away from the parallelism with the examples Mary Norris gives, though, in my view. And "everyone" would surely still have taken a singular verb were it in the present tense. (And other quotes from the author have also been posted.)

    Also, I think our opinion of whether these sort of examples are really singular they is beside the point. Ms. Norris in her article gives them as an example of "singular their".

  40. cr said,

    March 8, 2016 @ 7:03 pm

    @John Roth:
    Yes, an epicene pronoun would also be helpful to refer to people who identify as neither male nor female (called “indeterminate” in the Australian Government Guidelines on the Recognition of Sex and Gender) or “intersex” (said to “have a diversity of bodies and identities” in the same guidelines).

  41. J. W. Brewer said,

    March 8, 2016 @ 7:13 pm

    Singular-they coexisted reasonably well historically with the alas-now-moribund thou/ye distinction. Myl should not wish to alienate those of us who are largely allied with his perspective on singular-they but think a thee/thou revival would be pretty awesome if it were to happen. Of course, we could also note that English lacks lots of cool and helpful distinctions other languages have in their pronoun systems (like an explicit distinction between inclusive/exclusive in first-person plural) without feeling that the language is obligated to change to suit our preferences and without suspecting that the language is controlled by a secret cabal intentionally trying to thwart our preferences. It's just a natural language. No one consciously designed it. No one consciously changed it. No one can consciously decide it ought to change in such-and-such way going forward and have any great confidence in being able to impose the desired change and have it stick. The ways in which it does change are the result of complex and emergent social and historical processes that do have as part of their input the highly self-conscious choices of the sort of people who view taking sides on a particular question of disputed usage (with or without political overtones) as an important form of social signalling or status competition. But there's lots and lots of other input, and it's very hard to predictably control the ultimate output of the processes by trying to manipulate the subset of input you have any influence over.

  42. cbk said,

    March 8, 2016 @ 7:53 pm

    @Tom Freeman; @David Morris: In her chapter on gender and pronouns, Mary Norris says: “I have to admit that as a copy editor I agree with the conservatives—my job is to do no harm. But as a person—and as a writer and reader—I am all over the place" (p. 70 of Between You and Me). It seems that "we" in the Comma Queen column refers to the New Yorker rather than Norris the writer.

  43. Rebecca said,

    March 8, 2016 @ 8:53 pm

    In all of these discussions, I'm always surprised that some see singular they as something new and somehow related to a desire to avoid he/she or gender-neutral he.

    I'm surprised because singular they is so thoroughly part of my native speech. I distinctly remember as a middle-schooler (late 60s, Kansas) having to pay careful attention to put in a he/his/him into a place where they/their/them were normal to my speech. And it never, ever sounded gender neutral.

    So I, naively, thought most everyone used "they" natively and only used "he" to conform to made-up formal style rules. I can see, theoretically, that people might be thrown by the "wrong" number like I was thrown by the wrong gender. Are there little Miss Norrisses who don't have a singular they in their grammar? I've got access to piles of writing by kids, but I've never paid attention. I think I'll do a little digging.

  44. Mark S said,

    March 8, 2016 @ 10:16 pm

    @cs said "…you would say "It is odd when a king or queen outlives his heir".

    There's a rule, perhaps of style rather than grammar, that if A and B are noun phrases of different number, then "A or B" is treated as having the number of B, at least when it's the subject of a following verb. If gender is treated like number, we should say, "It is odd when a king or queen outlives her heir" and "It is odd when a queen or king outlives his heir".

  45. Martha said,

    March 9, 2016 @ 12:06 am

    @Rebecca, for what it's worth, I felt the same way growing up in the PNW in the 90s. (Or at least, I don't think I had a conscious thought about "they" but always thought of "he" as a rule specific to formal writing.)

  46. Julie A. Maahs said,

    March 9, 2016 @ 1:18 am

    I grew up in Northern California in the 1960s and 70s, and, yes, like Martha and Rebecca, thought of generic "he" as a rule of formal writing. No one in my immediate acquaintance spoke "book," as I would have described it, and I would have thought that usage just as odd as I would have found a "to whom" phrase. Not part of my dialect. Note that I'm old enough, and grew up in a remote enough area, that feminism had no part in my native accent development.

  47. Joyce Melton said,

    March 9, 2016 @ 2:11 am

    I'm a fiction editor. If an author uses singular they, or gender-neutral he, or some other semi-standard grammatical quirk, I would never touch it– though personally I freely use the one and avoid the other.

  48. Sybil said,

    March 9, 2016 @ 3:21 am

    It's the New Yorker. Their cartoons don't even make any sense, so what could we expect of their peevery?

    As to whether my usage of "their" above is singular or plural: I couldn't possibly comment.

  49. Chris said,

    March 9, 2016 @ 4:17 am

    Has anyone discussed the way that in some respects "they" stays stubbornly plural, as in the Henry James quote "He thinks everyone clever, and sometimes they are"? If it's really singular, shouldn't that be "… sometimes they is"?

    One of Mary Morris's examples is ""But while everyone always thinks that they are on the side of the angels." In that example, I find that the grammatically plural "they are" coming so soon after the singular "thinks" is disconcerting. It leads me to think that the antecedent of "they" must be something different from "everyone". In a case like that, I sympathise with Ms Morris's view that some redrafting is called for.

  50. languagehat said,

    March 9, 2016 @ 6:42 am

    Has anyone discussed the way that in some respects "they" stays stubbornly plural, as in the Henry James quote "He thinks everyone clever, and sometimes they are"? If it's really singular, shouldn't that be "… sometimes they is"?

    By your rule, "you" stays stubbornly plural, since it's followed by "are" (you are perhaps forgetting that "you are" was originally only plural). The point is that "they are" is becoming more accepted as both gender-neutral and number-neutral, just like "you are."

    One of Mary Morris's examples is ""But while everyone always thinks that they are on the side of the angels." In that example, I find that the grammatically plural "they are" coming so soon after the singular "thinks" is disconcerting.

    That's a fact about your psychology, not about English. It is not even a tiny bit disconcerting to me, or to the people in this thread who use number-neutral "they are" naturally.

  51. Stephen Goranson said,

    March 9, 2016 @ 6:49 am

    Minor typo: Saunders' ms came back reading "Every would do exactly what he liked."–> "Everyone would do exactly what he liked."

  52. Logo said,

    March 9, 2016 @ 6:49 am

    I don't really mind "they" as a singular neutral, but as a non-native speaker, I sometimes said to people in favor of that use : "it's a bit difficult for foreigners to understand how 'they are' or 'their thing' can mean 'he or she is" and 'his or her thing' "

    The answer I get the most is : "too bad for foreigners, then".

    So I tend to think that neutral "they" systematic promoters are mainly being pedant about that. Just use it when the sense is clear, like it has always been the case, and like it's the case in every language with the same problem (including some romance languages), but when it would need to create a new grammatical word, just say "he or she", or "people"…

    Doing as if neutral "they" was something else than a way to address a problem of ambiguity still seems a bit stupid to me, especially if it creates more ambiguity.
    In some languages, there is only one gender-neutral third person pronoun, and believe me, it doesn't make the things easier…

    Also, I see too much confusion between gender and sex in this article. Grammaticaly, they are not the same thing, and in many languages, including latin, you can find grammaticaly feminine words for men and vice-versa. "They" may be neutral in some cases, but "he" is too. For some reason feminists seem to prefer showing the equality of sex through an indistinct collective pronoun, but it's exactly as arbitrary as prefering to use a gender-neutral pronoun or saying that "chair" is a feminine word. You don't get rid of the arbitrary (and not sexist !) nature of language by being even more arbitrary.

    I think "she or he" or "He or she" are the only clear ways to show that you care about gender equality. Otherwise, there is no problem to use "they" or "he" as long as there is no unnecessary ambiguity… because that's how language works.

  53. languagehat said,

    March 9, 2016 @ 8:19 am

    I don't really mind "they" as a singular neutral, but as a non-native speaker, I sometimes said to people in favor of that use : "it's a bit difficult for foreigners to understand how 'they are' or 'their thing' can mean 'he or she is" and 'his or her thing' "

    The answer I get the most is : "too bad for foreigners, then".

    And quite right, too. I would never dream of complaining to, say, German speakers that all those case endings in -r, -n, -m, -e are confusing to me and they should make them consistent or get rid of them. Also, why do you find it confusing that "they" is used for both singular and plural but not that "you" is similarly used?

  54. Jason Merchant said,

    March 9, 2016 @ 9:54 am

    @George: "Somebody called, but they didn't leave a message, let alone their name and number." Assuming the speaker is ignorant of any information about the caller (imagine they only heard the phone ring), it's hard to think of another, equally natural way to convey this proposition. Replacing "they/their" by "he/she/his/her" may be mechanically possible, just as deliberating speaking with a lisp is (or replacing all "b"s with "m"s or some other language game that piggy-backs on grammatical knowledge), but it's hardly what I would say, nor what I would consider good usage.

  55. J. W. Brewer said,

    March 9, 2016 @ 10:27 am

    It strikes me (perhaps belatedly) that if the word "reaction" in the headline of the original post was intended to characterize Ms. Norris's stance as "reactionary," it may be a bit off as a matter of metaphorical political taxonomy. For the reasons set forth in the body of the post, the stance is much more akin to that of a neo-conservative, attempting to defend a Golden Age that was not the true ancien regime in all of its sprawling feudal irrationality and superstition (= English before the first Enlightenment-era attempts at prescriptivist standardization) but rather the mid-20th century command-and-control rationalist bureaucratic regime of a few generations back. Fowler, Strunk/White, New Yorker house style etc are the equivalent of Wilsonian progressives and FDR New Dealers who thought that messy social phenomena resulting from people either doing their own unsupervised spontaneous thing or adhering to primitive and regionally-varying inherited customs should be forcibly brought up to date via rational bureaucratic management implemented from the top down by appropriately-trained technocrats. And everything was going great, until those goddam permissive hippies and feminists came along and blah blah blah.

    [(myl) Agreed — I've made this analogy more than once See e.g. "Authoritarian rationalism is not conservatism", 12/11/2007, or "Innovation, rules, and regulation", 11/28/2012, where I note that

    Today, most people who know what the words mean would align "descriptivism" and "prescriptivism" as left and right respectively, I suppose because they associate the elitist and authoritarian aspects of prescriptivism with the political right. But the right has no monopoly on class-consciousness or on coercion. And in this case, I feel that the natural projection falls in the opposite direction.

    But "reactionary" politics is often authoritarian, and often justifies its proposals on rationalist grounds, and often references the values of a mythical earlier era. And the whole "default he" business gives Ms. Norris's presentation that sort of flavor.]

  56. Ralph Hickok said,

    March 9, 2016 @ 11:56 am

    @Jason Merchant:
    How about this: "Somebody called, but didn't leave a message, let alone a name and number."

    That's probably the way I'd say it, so it seems perfectly natural to me.

  57. Jonathon Owen said,

    March 9, 2016 @ 11:58 am

    I don't really mind "they" as a singular neutral, but as a non-native speaker, I sometimes said to people in favor of that use : "it's a bit difficult for foreigners to understand how 'they are' or 'their thing' can mean 'he or she is" and 'his or her thing' "

    The answer I get the most is : "too bad for foreigners, then".

    It's no more difficult than understanding that "on" can mean "we" in French, even though it takes third-person singular agreement rather than first-person plural agreement, or that "Sie" can mean singular "you" in German, even though it takes third-person plural agreement rather than second-person singular agreement. Lots of languages have such idiosyncrasies.

  58. cs said,

    March 9, 2016 @ 12:51 pm

    @ Ralph Hickok – you are kind of cheating by taking advantage of "Somebody" being the subject of the sentence. Try rewriting this one:

    You: Somebody called while you were out.
    Me: Did they give you their number?
    You: No, they didn't leave a message, let alone their name and number.

    I suppose you could say "No, there was no message", but there should be a natural way to have the person who called as the subject of the sentence, yes?

  59. Pflaumbaum said,

    March 9, 2016 @ 2:25 pm

    @ Ferdinand Cesarano –

    You seem to be under the impression that MYL or others are claiming that 'gender-neutral' he does not exist in English. But no one is claiming that. It is perfectly possible for two syntactically equivalent forms to exist in the same language, and even for the same speaker.

  60. Joe said,

    March 9, 2016 @ 3:11 pm

    @JW Brewer: Perhaps it's time to make a bunch of "Make Gender-Neutral He Great Again" hats. Or not.

  61. Ralph Hickok said,

    March 9, 2016 @ 7:57 pm


    Nope, no message, no number, nothing at all.

  62. Bloix said,

    March 9, 2016 @ 10:54 pm

    Well, we've been here before, haven't we.
    Look, for decades the New Yorker has published the best, cleanest, most natural, most pleasing American English of any periodical. It is the best English-language middlebrow magazine that has ever existed in the history of the world.

    So, we know for a fact that the people who edit the New Yorker have a profound understanding of good English prose.

    [(myl) Let's say "of some aspects of good English prose". For example, The New Yorker's ban on quotative inversion regularly produces prose that's "grossly and unnecessarily clumsy, and hard to process", as Geoff Pullum put it ("Still no subject postposing at The New Yorker", 6/9/2010).]

    But what we also know is that often they are not able to articulate what they know. This is no surprise. People often are bad at explaining what they do well.

    [(myl) Their efforts to "articulate what they know" are not inarticulate, they're quite precise, but just profoundly wrong. In cases like the ban on singular they, they result is usually not the mess produced by the quotatative inversion ban — but these prejudices help support and even add to the long list of pseudo-rules that some authorities attempt to enforce on writers everywhere.]

    Once we recognize that a New Yorker editor's own expression of the rules s/he follows is incorrect, the next step should not be, "Haw! Haw! Haw! what an idiot!" It should be, how interesting. What is going on here? Is the editor poorly expressing some principle that truly exists? Or is the editor entirely mistaken? Does the editor do his or her job entirely below the level of conscious thought, or is there some glimmering of arule that dimly shines through the murk?

    George, above, is making an effort to find out. Most others are going "Haw, haw, haw."

  63. Scott said,

    March 9, 2016 @ 11:15 pm

    I too use singular "they" because it's natural and it's how everyone speaks, as far as I can tell. Certainly not out of a conscious effort to be gender-neutral. I don't think generic "he" is inherently sexist, in the specific sense that if we lived in an alternate universe with no singular "they", where "he" was indeed used consistently in all those situations where we use singular "they", then English-speakers would not be guilty of sexism, any more than speakers of the many other languages that default to masculine gender in such cases. I think singular "he" comes across as sexist largely because it sounds less natural, as though the speaker for some reason has made a deliberate choice to use a less accurate pronoun.

  64. JS said,

    March 10, 2016 @ 1:23 am

    Given that the editor provides the sentences in question first as submitted, then as edited to eliminate the so-called "number problem" (edits made exactly as described; see here and here), I'm not sure what to make of Bloix's suggestion that the "editor's own expression of the rules s/he follows is incorrect" (i.e., we have a case of clumsy explanation of a sound, or at least artful, intuition.)

    It's true that this "rule" doesn't seem to be part of a larger New Yorker editorial policy: Everyone thinks they have strict limits; Everyone thinks they’re different; Put a bunch of only children together in a room, and everyone thinks they’re the most important; Later in the trial, the lead prosecutor […] reminded everyone that they were at a murder trial. But this just means the editor's entirely accurate descriptions in this case are of entirely personal, arbitrary and perverse choices. Haw, I guess…

  65. boynamedsue said,

    March 10, 2016 @ 3:00 am

    I have to agree with Scott, singular they is right because people use it. It's also useful because it reduces ambiguity and allows speakers to express a nuance which is not available in styles and idiolects (and that's what we are talking about here) which do not employ a he/singular they distinction.

  66. boynamedsue said,

    March 10, 2016 @ 3:12 am

    Interesting comment Bloix, but perhaps you are overlinguisting? *

    The fallacy that there is a platonically ideal form of any given language, and that certain people have privileged access to this by right of birth, education or position, is not very widely questioned. Those whose salary depends on the ability to demonstrate and assert their authority and expertise on this platonic variety are the last people likely to question the diktats that define it.

    It's right because it's right, and that's that.

    *to overlinguist (overlinguist > overlinguoost > overlinguasten)

  67. Matt McIrvin said,

    March 10, 2016 @ 8:11 am

    In the specific case of The New Yorker, bizarre and fusty usage rules are part of the magazine's brand. As far as I know, literally nobody other than a writer in The New Yorker puts the diaeresis in "reëlected", and they know this perfectly well and it's probably the reason why it persists. As gender-neutral "he" falls out of general usage, they may well start insisting on it more and more strongly.

    [(myl) Indeed — it's the Thelwell-Hart style.]

  68. John said,

    March 10, 2016 @ 10:02 am

    I think some of these examples are not singular 'they', because they are bound outside the scope of the quantifier, not inside. For instance,

    I thought, though everybody hated and despised each other, they could not avoid loving me.

    does not require 'they' to be bound inside the scope of 'everybody' for the sentence to make sense. Similarly,

    Everybody liked her, didn't they?

    just has 'they' referring to 'everybody', but not bound within the quantifier.

    In contrast, in

    He thinks everyone clever, and sometimes they are.

    'they' is more clearly bound inside the scope of the quantifier, which is reinforced by 'sometimes'.

    And aside from the issue of the scope of quantifiers, for 'their' to be singular in

    Everybody craned their necks in the direction pointed out.

    'neck' would probably need to be singular: no single person is craning multiple necks.

  69. John said,

    March 10, 2016 @ 10:10 am

    And to follow up on the scope issue: one test might be whether 'he' (or 'she') can be substituted, preserving grammaticality and meaning (gender implications notwithstanding):

    * I thought, though everybody hated and despised each other, he could not avoid loving me.

    * Everybody liked her, didn't he?

    ? He thinks everyone clever, and sometimes she is.
    * He thinks everyone clever, and sometimes everyone is. (Doesn't mean the same thing)
    He thinks everyone clever, and sometimes someone is. (Seems closer in meaning)

    * Everybody craned his necks in the direction pointed out.
    Everybody craned his neck in the direction pointed out.

  70. Brett said,

    March 10, 2016 @ 11:18 am

    @JS: The example,"Later in the trial, the lead prosecutor […] reminded everyone that they were at a murder trial," is particularly interesting, since, "Later in the trial, the lead prosecutor […] reminded everyone that he was at a murder trial," is well formed but means something quite different.

  71. Quote of the Morning | Scratchings said,

    March 10, 2016 @ 12:49 pm

    […] a post from Language Log (actually from the day before yesterday, but I didn't see it till this […]

  72. Jimbino said,

    March 10, 2016 @ 4:00 pm

    When the parents bring the kid in, perform their circumcision right away.

  73. Joyce Melton said,

    March 10, 2016 @ 5:49 pm

    Perhaps the problem is not that they is sometimes singular but still takes a plural verb but that sometimes everyone/everybody/etc. is plural but still takes a singular verb. A curious, inverted way of thinking about it that might produce an insight?

  74. Scott said,

    March 10, 2016 @ 6:30 pm

    There's nothing unusual about singular nouns that trigger singular agreement in verbs but are referred to with "they": "My family is coming over soon–they always visit for Easter." The people who complain about singular "they" might complain about this too, although I don't know what the alternative would be. (I'm referring to American usage, which generally doesn't use plural verbs with collective nouns.)

    It's unclear to me whether "they" with "everyone" is actually "singular they," or if it's plural because "everyone" is semantically plural. It's seems like you can treat it as either; for example one of the sentences

    1. Everybody craned their necks in the direction pointed out.

    could equally well have been

    2. Everybody craned their neck in the direction pointed out.

    without a significant difference.

  75. Joyce Melton said,

    March 10, 2016 @ 7:05 pm

    @Scott Yes, but put it in present tense: Everybody cranes their neck… is the only way it works. Everybody crane his neck is an imperative; and does look and sound better to me with generic he than with they.

  76. Scott said,

    March 10, 2016 @ 11:41 pm

    @Joyce Melton:
    What do you mean by saying "Everybody crane his neck" is an "imperative"? It just sounds malformed to me, either with "he" or "they," sufficiently so that I can't confidently assign a meaning to it. Maybe a British speaker would accept "everybody" with plural verb agreement, but I think plural agreement followed by a singular pronoun is impossible for everyone. Personally, I found generic "he" is least acceptable with "everybody." It's really very jarring.

    I don't think "Everybody cranes their neck" is the only way it works. "Everybody cranes their necks" is grammatically acceptable, although it sounds sloppy to me.

  77. Ferdinand Cesarano said,

    March 11, 2016 @ 10:19 am

    @Pflaumbaum – Well, clearly someone is making the claim that gender-neutral "he" does not exist in English. The opening quote from The New Yorker refers to "…the gender-neutral third-person-singular pronoun that the English language sadly lacks".

    @James – The the sentence "I saw Prince Andrew and Queen Elizabeth in the parade, and each wore his crown" is perfectly fine on the basis of its grammar. However, as I mentioned earlier, I avoid the gender-neutral "he" for purely ideological reasons; so I would not use that sentence. A sentence may be grammatical without being acceptable on other grounds (ideological; aesthetic), or, indeed, without even being sensible (colourless green ideas, and all that).

    @Scott – "Everybody crane his neck" is indeed an imperative; I don't know why you see a problem with this. If a teacher were to say "Everybody open his book to page 75", surely you'd accept that. The subject in an imperative sentence is often the understood "you" (be it singular or plural). Often, but not always. An imperative sentence can have an expressed third-person subject. One such sentence is "Long live the king!"

    The third-person imperative forms are the same as the subjunctive forms in Italian and in Spanish (though not in French); and we have that conflation in English as well. So we can interpret "Long live the king!" as an imperative, or else we can interpret it as a subjunctive, along the lines of "(One desires that) the king live long".

  78. J. W. Brewer said,

    March 11, 2016 @ 10:21 am

    "Everybody crane his neck" apparently does not occur in the google books corpus. I'm not sure if that means it's syntactically ill-formed as much as it's an odd imperative demand to make in any formulation, not quite "my hovercraft is full of eels" odd, but the sort of example sentence unlikely to correspond with significant real-world data from native speakers. There are likewise no hits for "everybody crane their neck," one hit (well, one underlying text republished in multiple places) for imperative "everybody crane their necks," and no hits in the google books corpus (but one on twitter fwiw) for "everybody crane your neck," which is probably how I would phrase it as an imperative if I were for some improbable reason giving orders to a group whose necks I wanted craned.

  79. Levantine said,

    March 11, 2016 @ 10:50 am

    Isn't "Long live the king!" an optative rather than an imperative? And wouldn't "Everybody crane their neck" be the same? Surely this structure is no longer productive in modern English.

  80. J. W. Brewer said,

    March 11, 2016 @ 10:51 am

    To follow up on my point upthread about trying to accurately describe empirical phenomena rather than arguing about labels and defined terms, one of the reasons I have taken to describing the construction as "generic he" is that it seems like a less contentious label than "gender-neutral he" and thus avoids picking an imho unnecessary and inconclusive fight. It is generic in the sense that it clearly (for many speakers) can be and is in practice used to refer to a referent who may be either male or female; criticism often seems less focused on directly disputing that empirical claim about the facts of usage (outside of certain edge cases used for rhetorical gotcha purposes) than contending that it does not accomplish this function "neutrally," but in a way that treats male referents as the default/unmarked case. I'm not sure that criticism is empirically valid (it imho typically comes with pop-Whorfian baggage whose validity is implicitly assumed rather than explicitly demonstrated) and indeed I'm not sure whether "neutrality" is actually a syntactic category whose presence or absence can be empirically established via the traditional tools of syntactic analysis. But because I'm not sure how I would or could definitively convince an open-minded skeptic that the usage is not only generic but "neutral", I try to avoid defending the usage in those terms.

  81. un malpaso said,

    March 11, 2016 @ 12:10 pm

    @Ferdinand: "a handful of cherry-picked quotes"? Seriously? Look at the data. It's something more than a handful. More like a dump truck full of cherries.

  82. Rodger C said,

    March 11, 2016 @ 12:52 pm

    Just to say: It's been thirty years since a book editor of mine had me eliminate all instances of "generic he" from my MS, and I've assumed ever since then that it had been considered obsolete for some time already.

  83. Scott said,

    March 11, 2016 @ 1:10 pm

    @Ferdinand Cesarano: Generic "he" is this context is sufficiently foreign to me in this context that "Everybody open his book to page 75" does not make sense to me; I can only interpret it as an order for everyone to open one specific person's book to page 75, which of course is nonsensical. In the case of "Everybody crane his neck" it was so nonsensical that I didn't recognize the imperative meaning until you pointed it out. (I don't have any problem with the construction otherwise; "Everybody open their book to page 75" is perfectly normal, and I wager that that is what any teacher would actually say, even a strict English teacher.)

    When I say the sentence sounds malformed to me, I'm not trying to say that it's objectively wrong, or that users of generic "he" are speaking bad English, only that such usage is entirely foreign to me. And I'm not the kind of person to make linguistic choices based on ideology; my preference for singular "they" over "he" when "everybody" is the antecedent is of the same kind as my preference for "I" over "me" when it stands alone as the subject of a verb.

  84. Scott said,

    March 11, 2016 @ 1:12 pm

    As an addendum: as Levantine points out, "Everybody open your book to page 75" would be even more normal, although I think the "they" version is fine. "Everybody open your books" sounds yet more normal, to me.

  85. Ferdinand Cesarano said,

    March 11, 2016 @ 1:14 pm

    @un malpaso I don't see why the characterisation which I chose is wrong. A set of couple of dozen quotes taken from a span of seven centuries seems to fit the definition of "cherry picking" pretty well.

    My point in making that comment was to highlight the comparative weight of the data supporting the use of singular "they" versus that which would support the gender-neutral "he". One could probably find more citations of gender-neutral "he" in any given year than one could find of singular "they" in the entire breadth of English-language literature. Singular "they" occurred once in a while here and there; gender-neutral "he" occurred as a matter of course in every work.

    [(myl) I'm prepared to wager a substantial sum that you're wrong about this. It's certainly false that "gender-neutral 'he' occurred as a matter of course in every work" — would you like to make a bet on this point? And with respect to which year do you want to put some money behind your belief that "one could find more citations of gender-neutral 'he' in any given year than one could find of singular 'they' in the entire breadth of English-language literature"? I look forward to the outcome of such a bet. ]

    I will note again that I do not use either of these constructions. Singular "they" feels wrong to me as a native speaker. I could intellectualise about it and give reasons; but I don't need to, as this usage doesn't pass the initial stink test. And gender-neutral "he" has political overtones which I wish to avoid, on account of its having the same form as the masculine pronoun. So I am in the odd position of defending the existence of gender-neutral "he" as a matter of fact to those who claim that English has no gender-neutral singular pronoun, while advocating the avoidance of this pronoun as a matter of style.

    In the end, the solution is: a) use "he/she", or b) rewrite. There is no case which cannot be solved by one or both of these methods. It is unfortunate that so much attention is given to this non-issue, as opposed to any number of other usage questions in English which are far more interesting.

  86. languagehat said,

    March 11, 2016 @ 1:16 pm

    In the end, the solution is: a) use "he/she", or b) rewrite. There is no case which cannot be solved by one or both of these methods. It is unfortunate that so much attention is given to this non-issue, as opposed to any number of other usage questions in English which are far more interesting.

    It's good that you've clarified for us what is important and interesting and what is not. Since you are the generally acknowledged judge of such things, I guess we can all go home now.

  87. J. W. Brewer said,

    March 11, 2016 @ 1:20 pm

    Rodger C.: Surely the inference to draw from your experience is not that the usage was obsolete as of 30 years ago but that editors and publishing houses are often aggravatingly prescriptivist, even though they do not all agree on the details of which prescriptivist rules to enforce? Obviously if you know in advance what the particular peeves of the place to which you intend to submit your MS are, you can conform to them while drafting (or least while editing your own draft before submission) to avoid fighting about them later. I have myself seen books published by academic presses with forwards where the author basically said "such-and-such approach to such-and-such usage controversy with hot-button political overtones is taken consistently in this book because the publisher insisted on it, so please don't assume it was my own subjective preference."

  88. Levantine said,

    March 11, 2016 @ 1:44 pm

    Scott, you're giving me credit for J. W. Brewer's suggestion (which I fully agree with). My own point was that "Everybody crane his/their neck" is, as I analyse it, an archaising optative. I wouldn't expect to see any modern locution formed this way, and it certainly doesn't sound like an imperative to me.

  89. J. W. Brewer said,

    March 11, 2016 @ 1:59 pm

    I'm not quite sure I follow the optative analysis. Assuming "everybody" to be the actual addressee of the words, it doesn't seem like a "long live the King" sort of structure (where all the audience can do to comply is try to refrain from assassination attempts) or even something like "thanks be to God", which feels different and broader than a demand that the specific addressee(s) thank God. I am for some reason reminded of the notion from high-school Latin that the "hortatory subjective" (and Latin of course lacks an optative as such) was inflected differently from an imperative but conveyed more or less the same thing, only more politely. But in English the way to make it more polite would be to add a modal and structure it as a nominal question: "Could everybody please crane his/their/your neck(s)?" The structure "EVERYBODY VERB DIRECT-OBJECT-NP" seems the most direct and least polite way to issue the request, and I don't see why you wouldn't call it imperative. If a singer on stage told the audience "Come on, y'all. Get up on your feet. Everybody shake their body now," would it seem like an archaizing optative?

  90. J. W. Brewer said,

    March 11, 2016 @ 2:00 pm

    ["hortatory subjective" should of course read "subjunctive." #damnyouautocorrect]

  91. Ferdinand Cesarano said,

    March 11, 2016 @ 2:11 pm

    @languagehat Would that I enjoyed such general acknowledgement! Absent that, it's just one person's opinon.

    At any rate, one cannot help but wonder about the treatment of this question as though it were some type of complex problem, when the workarounds are so obvious and so simple.

  92. J. W. Brewer said,

    March 11, 2016 @ 2:16 pm

    To take another example, if the cops kick in the door and say either a) "everybody get your hands up" or b) "everybody get their hands up; or c) "everybody get his hands up" (let's assume that everyone subject to the cops' demand is male, so no one could possibly take offense?), I'm not sure that the most helpful analysis is that a) is imperative but b & c aren't because of the shift of pronoun out of second person. The Latinate "Let everyone get his hands up" (which is maybe fairly called optative even if it's a polite functional substitute for an imperative) feels so contextually odd that I'm not convinced b/c are best analyzed as clipped versions of that.

  93. Levantine said,

    March 11, 2016 @ 2:23 pm

    J. W. Brewer, I thought Ferdinand Cesarano was saying that "everybody" is not the addressee, but a third-person subject. My point was that, by traditional grammatical rules (i.e., using Ferdinand Cesarano's own purported framework), "Everybody crane his neck" resembles an optative on the model of "God save the Queen"; such constructions are not standardly defined as imperatives. That said, your example "Everybody shake their body now" is entirely convincing and demonstrates that the construction can work colloquially as an imperative without any hint of archaism. I still maintain, however, that the "normal" way of expressing the imperative when "everybody" is the addressee would be along the lines you earlier suggested: "Everybody, crane your neck(s)".

  94. Ferdinand Cesarano said,

    March 11, 2016 @ 2:23 pm

    @J.W. Brewer In the sentence "Everybody open his book to page 75", "everybody" is not the addressee. "Everybody" is not being addressed directly — it is being spoken about, not spoken to. It is a third-person subject, not a second-person subject. (Note that, in a sentence with an incative verb, such as "Everybody has come to class today", we'd have no problem seeing that the subject is in the third person, notwithstanding "everybody's" presence right in front of the speaker.)

    So this sentence is analogous in structure to "Long live the king!", in which "the king" is the subject of the imperative/subjunctive verb "live".

  95. Ferdinand Cesarano said,

    March 11, 2016 @ 2:24 pm

    incative –> indicative

  96. Levantine said,

    March 11, 2016 @ 2:26 pm

    Ferdinand Cesarano, if "everybody" is not the addressee, then your examples are not imperatives as standardly defined (see my previous comments); they are optative constructions of a type that is no longer productive in English.

  97. Ferdinand Cesarano said,

    March 11, 2016 @ 2:45 pm

    @Levantine Hasn't this non-productive mood essentially been collapsed into the imperative in English? Maybe it's just my Esperanto taking over, but I am comfortable with saying that the subject of an English imperative verb can be in the second person or in the third person. (Side note: in Esperanto, the subject of an imperative verb can be in the first person, as well.)

  98. J. W. Brewer said,

    March 11, 2016 @ 2:47 pm

    If "everybody" is physically present when the "open his book" statement is uttered and the speaker expects books to be opened by the "everybody" as a predictable result of the utterance, I don't know what it means to claim that "everybody" is not the addressee. If you refer to the person you are addressing in the third person out of politeness, as in "would Madam like cream or sugar with her coffee?" (and of course similar structures are ubiquitous in languages like German/Spanish that use third-person plural pronouns as their V-form) is that person not the addressee? It is of course possible that one of us is thinking in more formalistic terms and the other in more functional terms, with both analyses being useful even if they sometimes do not match up.

  99. Ferdinand Cesarano said,

    March 11, 2016 @ 2:56 pm

    @J.W. Brewer – I would not call "Madame" the addressee in the sentence you mention.

    Someone could use a third-person construction in order to show deference (as in the "Madame" example), in order to show superiority (as in the "Everyone open his book…" example), or in order to show tenderness (one could ask one's partner "How is my love feeling today?").

    In none of those cases is the sentence's subject the addressee in a grammatical sense, even though they are all being addressed in terms of interpersonal behaviour. But I thought that we were talking about grammar here.

  100. Levantine said,

    March 11, 2016 @ 2:57 pm

    Ferdinand Cesarano, you may well be right on the functional level, but given that your earlier comments seemed to advocate traditional grammatical norms, you should at least be prepared to admit that ""Everybody open his book to page 75" would generally be considered non-standard as an imperative, whether "everybody" is the addressee or not.

  101. Scott said,

    March 11, 2016 @ 5:33 pm

    @Ferdinand Cesarano: You're the first person I've heard say that they find singular "they" instinctively ungrammatical. I've had several English teachers speak against it, but all of them acknowledged that it was normal in speech. I'm currently in a technical communications class at my college where the professor forbids singular "they" on the basis of a few flimsy examples of it being ambiguous, but doesn't claim that it's actually ungrammatical. Unfortunately for me, he is quite vigilant about it too. (I might add that I could have referred to my professor as "they" in the preceding sentence and seen nothing wrong with it, which I think puts me on the most liberal end of the singular "they" usage spectrum.)

    On the subject of imperatives (or imperative-like things) with "everybody" as the subject: how would you guys analyze the sentence "Let's everybody open our books to page 75."?

  102. Ellen K. said,

    March 11, 2016 @ 5:35 pm

    I like the term "generic he" that J.W. Brewer uses. Much better than "gender neutral he". Because for some readers, it fails to be gender neutral. But why use a term that makes that an issue when you can use a label that doesn't take a stand on whether or not it's truly gender neutral.

  103. Guy said,

    March 11, 2016 @ 7:01 pm


    The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language recognizes a dialectical difference with respect to clauses like "let's everybody open our books to page 75." On one side of the dialect divide (which I'm on), those sentences wouldn't ordinarily be uttered, and "let's" can be analyzed as "let us", with "us" the direct object of "let" and the rest of the clause a catenative complement. On the other side, sentences like that are possible, "let's" is essentially unanalyzable, and "everybody" is the subject of "open". That analysis seems pretty much right to me.

    I will say, however, that when it comes to imperatives, the differences between subjects and vocatives are usually neutralized syntactically as well as semantically (unless there's an unneutralized difference I'm missing) so I'm not sure there even is a meaningfully "correct" answer as to which is which.

  104. Guy said,

    March 11, 2016 @ 7:04 pm

    To clarify, I meant that on one side of the divide, "let's you and me/I do whatever" isn't a part of that dialect's grammar, but clauses like "let's do this" have "'s"="us" as object and "do this" is a catenative complement of "let".

  105. Scott said,

    March 11, 2016 @ 7:18 pm

    @Guy: Your analysis sounds right to me. My dialect is one that allows "let's everybody," but I recognize it as colloquial and "dialect-y." In sentences like these "let's" is a contraction in etymology only.

    Your point about subject and vocative (or "addressee") being indistinguishable is relevent to the conversation above. The more I think about it, the less happy I am with "Everybody open their book to page 75." To the extent that it's possible, I think it's just an imperative, where the expected "your" has been replaced with "their" out of familiarity with the more common indicative "Everybody opened their book." That seems more plausible to me than it being some kind of subjunctive/optative construction. I'm far from an expert though.

  106. GH said,

    March 11, 2016 @ 7:33 pm

    @Ferdinand Cesarano:

    One could probably find more citations of gender-neutral "he" in any given year than one could find of singular "they" in the entire breadth of English-language literature.

    That seems distinctly difficult to prove, particularly inasmuch as it would be impossible in most cases to establish that a male pronoun is truly gender neutral, and not simply a matter of the writer conceiving of his readers, and people of significance in general, as male by default. (Just as I here imagined these authors as dead white men, although they included women as well.)

    One idea that occurred to me was to search Google Books for the phrase "any man or woman", to see what pronoun was used. Most of the hits are from legal texts, and you find both "he", "he or she" and "they" – without any apparent distinction – (no "she" that I can find, contra Mark S's suggestion that gender might follow the item listed last), as well assentences seemingly written to avoid the problem. So, for example, from the Capital Laws of Connecticut (1642), a quoted here:

    If any man or woman shall have or worship any God, but the true God, he shall be put to death.

    If any man or woman be a witch, that is, hath or consulteth with a familiar spirit, they shall be put to death.

    If any man or woman shall lie with any beast or brute creature, by carnal copulation, they shall surely be put to death, and the beast shall be slain and buried.

    If any person rise up by false witness, wittingly, and of purpose, to take away man's life, he or she shall be put to death.

    Another Connecticut law (Title CV. § 9) avoids the issue by using "all and every such person" instead.

  107. Singular They – Maus Report said,

    March 11, 2016 @ 8:52 pm

    […] Mark Liberman at Language Log calls this Victorian custom into question: […]

  108. Rebecca said,

    March 11, 2016 @ 11:01 pm

    @Levantine (and whoever else cares to comment) – I'm not familiar with "optative" as a grammatical term, so I may not be picking up on the relevant distinctions between that and imperative, but your discussion with J. W. Brewer got me wondering about similar sentences with "somebody". As a teacher, I frequently say things like:

    Somebody try the measurement again and see if they get the same result.
    Somebody tell me if the link works for them.
    Somebody see if they can get a picture of that.

    I (with my ignorance of optative) would have described them as having "imperative intent", so to speak. But would they be better described as optative? (or something else altogether)

  109. Levantine said,

    March 12, 2016 @ 8:27 am

    Rebecca, to be clear, I didn't mean to suggest that locutions like "Everybody crane his neck" and "Everybody open his book to page 75" are intended as optative by those who who use them. Clearly, they are functioning as imperatives, even if they are not grammatically standard. This goes also for your examples beginning "Somebody".

    The only reason I brought up the optative is that Ferdinand Cesarano analysed "Everybody crane his neck" as being an imperative on the model of "Long live the king", and if it is indeed the case that the phrases are grammatically equivalent (which they are not), then we're dealing with an archaic kind of optative that would mean the same as today's "May everybody crane his neck". My point was merely to show that commenters can't have it both ways: if you're going to be prescriptive in your approach to grammar (as Ferdinand Cesarano is when it comes to singular "they"), you should be prepared to accept that a locution such as "Everybody open his book to page 75" is not grammatically standard, even if its meaning is clear enough.

    I'm repudiating my earlier remark that "I wouldn't expect to see any modern locution formed this way, and it certainly doesn't sound like an imperative to me". As your examples (and those of J. W. Brewer) demonstrate, the construction can sound perfectly idiomatic as an imperative. I suppose the particular example we were discussing (the craning of necks) was so weird in content that it just sounded untenable to me.

    One point on which I still disagree with J. W. Brewer: the optative as I've been discussing it is not a clipped version of a Latinate construction; it's a feature also of Germanic languages.

  110. Ferdinand Cesarano said,

    March 12, 2016 @ 1:40 pm

    @ Levantine No matter whether you choose to analyse the sentences as imperative, as subjunctive, or as optative, it seems bizarre to deny that they are analogous.

    "Everyone open his book…" = "I want/desire that everyone open his book…"
    "Long live the king." = "I want/desire that the king live long."

    We can safely call this imperative because it mirrors the pattern of every other imperative sentence, including the most common ones in which the subject is an understood "you".

    "Come here." = "I want/desire that you come here."
    "Be quiet." = "I want /desire that you be quiet."

    From this we can see that all imperative sentences, no matter whether their subjects are in the second or the third person, are really subordinate clauses introduced by "that", under a main clause of the sort "I want…", "I desire…", "We wish…", "One hopes…", etc.

    Thus, just as the optative mood has been subsumed into the imperative (as have other non-productive moods), the imperative mood is merely one particulsr use of the subjunctive.

    This can be difficult to see in English due to the lack of flexions. But a glance at Spanish and Italian reminds us that the imperative's being subsumed into the subjunctive is a cross-lingual phenomenon.. And Esperanto was constructed to incorporate this merger which Italian, Spanish, and English have in common, as the verb ending -u functions as the marker for both the imperative and the subjunctive.

    In all of these languages, it makes no difference whether the subject of the imperative (subjunctive) verb is second person or third person; the analysis is the same either way.

  111. Levantine said,

    March 12, 2016 @ 2:05 pm

    Ferdinand Cesarano, you're missing my point, which I will make one last time: by your own prescriptive framework, you would have to disallow "Everybody open his book to page 75" on the grounds that it is not a standardly formed imperative. By likening it to phrases like "Long live the king", you are essentially claiming that this archaic obtative construction is still productive, which it is not. You are conflating two different things here:

    1. "Long live the king": an obtative of a type that survives only in set phrases.
    2. "Everybody open his book to page 75": a non-standardly formed imperative.

    These two locutions may have functional and syntactic overlaps, but they are grammatically quite different. Prescriptivists would accept the first but disallow the second. If you're OK with the second on the grounds that its meaning is clear even if it breaks certain perceived rules, then you have no basis for rejecting singular "they".

  112. Scott said,

    March 12, 2016 @ 2:07 pm

    @Ferdinand Cesarano: I think you are incorrect to conflate imperatives with archaic optatives like "Long live the king." An imperative is an order (/instruction/direction/etc.); the optative is a wish. Many imperatives are close enough to wishes that you can paraphrase them as such, but not necessarily. Instruction manuals, for example, are regularly written in the imperative: "Open a terminal window and navigate to the directory where you wish to install the program." I don't think you would seriously say that this is actually a "subordinate clause introduced by "that", under a main clause of the sort "I want…", "I desire…", "We wish…", "One hopes…", etc."

    I admit I'm a little confused by your use of mood terminology. By my understanding (which may well be incorrect), when speaking of English, "subjunctive" refers to constructions like "I requested that he open the book" (not *"I requested that he opens the book"). In popular usage it also includes the construction "If I were king" (as opposed to "If I was king"). Optative is the rare "Long live the king" construction. Imperative is the standard "Open your books to page 75"; I've also heard the 3rd person "Let them open their books" and 1st person plural "Let's open our books" referred to as imperative. Given my understanding of these terms, your statement that "the imperative mood is merely one particular use of the subjunctive" doesn't make much sense. I suspect that a comparison to Spanish and Itallian (or Esperanto!) will muddle rather than clarify the issue.

  113. Levantine said,

    March 12, 2016 @ 2:28 pm

    Ditto everything that Scott said!

  114. GH said,

    March 12, 2016 @ 2:58 pm

    I don't understand why we're even arguing over this. Ferdinand Cesarano has said that the so-called "singular they" feels wrong to him. He is of course free not to use it. But many others don't share his reaction, and I can't see that he has offered any argument at all to contend that the examples found throughout the history of the language are not sufficient proof that it is a perfectly natural, respectable, long-standing part of English.

    All this talk of imperatives, subjunctives and Esperanto only cloud the central point: there's no basis for the objection apart from subjective, irrational dislike.

  115. Ferdinand Cesarano said,

    March 12, 2016 @ 5:35 pm

    @GH I suppose that you are correct when you say that the argument is rather pointless. Still, I will ring in once more to note that Levantine is making a faulty presumption and then attributing it to me.

    I do not say that that "Everybody open his book" is acceptable "on the grounds that its meaning is clear even if it breaks certain perceived rules". I say that that sentence is acceptable because it is formed in a perfectly regular manner, in keeping with usage patterns that are still current and highly productive.

    If a professor were to bang on his/her desk and scream "I demand that everyone open his book!", then surely Levantine would have no trouble recognising that as a well-formed sentence that could have an infinite number of analogues. So there is no basis to claim that the version of that same sentence (or any like it) with the first bit understood is any less well-formed or regular.

    Furthermore, @Scott, the references to Italian and Spanish (and to Esperanto!) do indeed help clarify the matter, as comparisons amongst languages often do. (Recall that Levantine earlier invoked the other Germanic languages in defence of one of his assertions.)  Indeed, it was only when I started studying the grammars of these other languages that I began to understand the grammar of English.

    Looking at other languages allows us to draw back and to understand that the imperative as merely an example of the subjunctive is a pattern that is common to multiple speech communities in the European languages. The adoption of the imperative-subjunctive conflation into Esperanto (a language designed to be easily learnt) is especially significant because it reminds us that this feature reflects a practice which many learners will recognise from their native tongues.

  116. Levantine said,

    March 12, 2016 @ 6:44 pm

    Ferdinand Cesarano, "I demand that everyone open his book" is not the same as "Everyone open his book". If it were, then you would be forced to say that "My money be returned" is an acceptable replacement for "I demand that my money be returned". And I doubt that even you would maintain that this substitution is grammatically normal by modern standards.

  117. Scott said,

    March 12, 2016 @ 7:08 pm

    While this discussion of imperatives is interesting, it doesn't have much to do the issue of pronouns. "Everybody open his book" is grammatically acceptable to Ferdinand Cesarano, because he considers generic "he" to be grammatical. For me, and I think many other English speakers, generic "he" is old-fashioned at best, and in this usage it's so unfamiliar that it impedes understanding. (In writing, that is; I'm sure if a teacher went up before a class and said "Everybody open his book to page 75" in an authoritative tone, everybody would get the gist just fine.)

    I still don't think the English imperative and subjunctive have been conflated. They negate differently: "Don't open your books" vs. "I demanded that they not open their books." Besides, saying the imperative is "merely an example" of a much rarer vestigial mood that is restricted to a small few syntactic constructions seems strange. Even comparing the English subjunctive to that of Romance languages is giving it more glory than it deserves.

    You're certainly not the only person who learned English grammar by way of an inflected foreign language. My experience was much the same, first Latin and now Ancient Greek. The latter uses subjunctives for hortatives (where we have "let's"), and also, strangely, uses the subjunctive instead of the imperative when a verb with aorist aspect is negated. I haven't studied Modern Greek, but iirc it has lost the optative and infinitives but kept subjunctives and imperatives distinct.

  118. Levantine said,

    March 12, 2016 @ 7:15 pm

    Scott, would you consider "Everybody open his or her book"/"Everybody open their book" acceptable? I thought the issue was the construction itself, not the pronoun. I don't think any of these versions is grammatically standard (and you yourself earlier said the sentence sounded malformed regardless of the pronoun).

  119. Victor Mair said,

    March 12, 2016 @ 8:40 pm

    Two days ago on the radio I heard an announcer refer to the food of a (singular) squirrel as "their nuts".

  120. Scott said,

    March 12, 2016 @ 11:27 pm

    @Levantine: "Everybody open their book" only bothers me when I think about too much. "Everybody open his book" sounds immediately wrong to me. Perhaps the fact that the construction is nonstandard to begin with makes it more difficult for me to handle an unusual pronoun choice.

  121. Chas Belov said,

    March 13, 2016 @ 1:06 am

    @George: I'm perfectly fine with "30 people (of mixed gender) sit an exam. At the end, the invigilator counts the papers that have been handed in and says 'One person didn't hand in their paper'." (And had I been in the classroom, grateful that the proctor didn't stop to count the genders of the turned-in papers so as to be able to use the proper pronoun, assuming that's even possible in this multicultural, gender-fluid age.)

  122. Levantine said,

    March 13, 2016 @ 5:59 am

    Scott, thanks.

    It dawned on me after my last comment how untenable the construction becomes when "everyone" is replaced with another third-person subject:

    "He open his book."
    "Each of them open his or her book."

    These examples show two things. First, such constructions can't be analysed as abbreviated versions of sentences beginning "I demand that". Second, the only reason "Everyone open his/their book" sort of passes muster is that "everyone" is understood as the addressee. The phrase would be nonsensical if uttered to a single person about an absent group.

  123. Levantine said,

    March 13, 2016 @ 6:08 am

    Sorry, I meant "everybody" rather than "everyone", but either works in this context.

  124. George said,

    March 14, 2016 @ 6:52 am

    @ Chas Belov

    I wasn't asking whether that would be acceptable. It clearly is perfectly acceptable. In asking "Does that make sense?", I was asking whether the distinction I was making between such an example of an unambiguous singular they and the examples involving everyone/everybody made sense. I could have been more clear.

  125. Bean said,

    March 14, 2016 @ 12:20 pm

    Coming late to the party here…

    I was the kid who would have not opened my book, if someone said "Everybody open his book to page 75" – because I am female. I would have sat there with crossed arms daring the teacher to tell me to open my book anyway, or to rephrase the request, and that was at a time when the generic "he" was considered completely normal. So for almost 40 years I have viscerally, on an almost atomic level, not considered "he" to be gender-neutral even when intended that way, and was always to some degree looking over my shoulder to see who these statements were referring to, since it was obvious that "he" could not be referring to me personally. I'll wildly speculate here that most females don't consider themselves particularly included in the subject when reading writing with "generic" or "gender-neutral" he/his. The writer may intend inclusion, but it's not received at the female reader's end. Perhaps male readers don't really notice it because it *does* include them. I have no idea how you would measure this feeling of "this text applies to some other set of creatures that obviously does not include me". For me the feeling is more pronounced now that you don't see it as often.

    So in the quotation in the post, "Everyone would do exactly what he liked," I would assume there were no girls in the group, or if previous sentences indicated that it was a mixed group, I would have assumed the men/boys were all doing exactly what they liked, and the women weren't doing anything at all, or perhaps even the women were doing what the men/boys liked…

  126. Ferdinand Cesarano said,

    March 14, 2016 @ 1:12 pm

    @Bean Good for you for objecting to this usage of the neutral "his". This reflection of cultural sexism rankled even me as a male feminist, despite its being grammatically sound. But please allow me to reiterate that one needs to be clear on why one is objecting to something. When you or I bristle at this usage and ultimately avoid it, we are rejecting it on ideological grounds, not on grammatical grounds. That is perfectly valid; a speaker naturally affects a style which reflects his/her worldview.

    (Still, I would like to note that, in the decades before the dawn of the modern feminist consciousness in the 1960s, the gender-neutral "he" and "his" tended to be received even by female readers as neutral and all-inclusive.)

    As I mentioned above, every case of the gender-neutral "he" and "his" can be solved either by use of "he/she" and "his/her", or by rewording the sentence. But, hypothetically, if I were forced to choose between the gender-neutral "he" or "his" on the one hand, and the the singular "they" or "their" on the other, then I would choose the former, in spite of its unsavoury overtones. The sentence "A speaker naturally affects a style which reflects his worldview" is grammatical but old-fashioned; whereas the version "A speaker naturally affects a style which reflects their worldview" is a total clanger. (Again I state that this is a hypothetical. There exists no circumstance in which one would actually have to make such a limited choice. In the real world, re-wording the sentence is always an option.)

  127. Levantine said,

    March 14, 2016 @ 1:52 pm

    Ferdinand Cesarano, how can you call it a total clanger when you're apparently willing to accept a sentence like "He open his book"?

  128. Ferdinand Cesarano said,

    March 14, 2016 @ 2:42 pm

    @Levantine While that sentence looks pretty weird at first glance, it is no different from "God bless…" or "Heaven forbid…". If these sentences with subjunctive verbs are correct when their subjects are nouns, then an analogous sentence must be correct when its subject is a pronoun. The sentence which you gave seems odd only because there is no real-world call for it.

    And, regarding your earlier example "My money be returned!", which you claim is not acceptable while the full version "I demand that my money be returned" is acceptable: note that we can make the sentence "Be it known that…", which is equivalent to "I demand/want/wish that it be known that…". So the only bar to the usability of "My money be returned!" is its unfamiliarity, not its degree of conformity with grammatical norms.

    In practice, I would use neither "He open his book" nor "My money be returned!" But there are millions of other grammatical sentences that I wouldn't use, either.

    It really is not possible to refute the analysis of the imperative as one particular form of the subjunctive in English. @Scott attempts to refute this on the grounds that the two forms are negated differently. The full subjunctive sentence "I demand that you open your books" has as its negation "I demand that you not open your books"; while the most common negation of "Open your books" is "Don't open your books".

    But we should not forget that we can always negate an imperative with a simple "not" somewhere after the verb, without using the auxiliary verb "do": "Speak not…"; "Doubt not…"; "Judge not…"; "Forget me not"; etc. So "Open not your books" is perfectly grammatical (if extremely old-fashioned, and therefore not to be recommended), and is indeed equivalent to "I demand that you not open your books". This further illustrates the conflation of the subjunctive and the imperative. Deny it not!

  129. languagehat said,

    March 14, 2016 @ 2:55 pm

    While that sentence looks pretty weird at first glance, it is no different from "God bless…" or "Heaven forbid…". If these sentences with subjunctive verbs are correct when their subjects are nouns, then an analogous sentence must be correct when its subject is a pronoun. The sentence which you gave seems odd only because there is no real-world call for it.

    This is so absurd I can only conclude you have let your idea of logic completely run away with your sense of language. "He open his book" is not even a little bit correct in standard English (there are, of course, dialects in which it is fine), and your tortured analysis of why it is OK should make you call your whole approach into question. Any analysis that accepts the blatantly ungrammatical "He open his book" and rejects the perfectly grammatical and acceptable singular "they" we're discussing is false on its face.

  130. Ferdinand Cesarano said,

    March 14, 2016 @ 3:06 pm

    I said that I would never use something like "He open his book". It's just too weird-looking. It feels very strange at first glance; but its grammaticalilty is redeemed upon closer inspection, as no one denies that "God bless our home" is grammatical (even if we atheists deny that it is sensible).

    What should be called into question is any analysis which allows for a noun subject but not for a pronoun subject

    By contrast, singular "they" feels wrong initially, and only gets wronger the closer you look at it.

  131. Chas Belov said,

    March 14, 2016 @ 3:19 pm

    "God bless our home." is a set form, like "Long time no see." I believe were we to study it, we would find that the form is not productive.

    Evidently, we don't agree on singular "they" however. The more I see it, righter it looks. That it also solves issues of women and trans* rights is even better, from an ethical aspect, but the case for it being standard English has long been established and any assertion to the contrary is not based in fact.

    What doesn't look right to me is singular "themselves." I thus use "themself." I recognize, however, that it is nonstandard and that I am in a significant minority with this one.

  132. Levantine said,

    March 14, 2016 @ 3:45 pm

    Ferdinand Cesarano, it's quite clear by now that you are beyond reason, so I won't add much to what languagehat has already said. I will note, however, that I never said that constructions like "God bless America" or "Be it known" are ungrammatical. On the contrary, I said about a million comments ago that they are products of archaic English grammar and survive in certain set phrases. We accept them because they are conventional; they do not give us leave to say things like "He open his book" and expect to be taken seriously.

  133. Ferdinand Cesarano said,

    March 14, 2016 @ 4:22 pm

    Since you persist in attributing to me things which I am not claiming, I will say yet again that I do not assert that anyone should ever say "He open his book", despite the fact that it is grammatical.

    Please note that affirming that a sentence is grammatical is not the same thing as endorsing its use.

    To wit: the entirely grammatical sentence "He open his book" should not be used because it is too strange and unfamiliar to be understood. And the entirely grammatical sentence "Every student should bring his book to class" should not be used because it endorses a larger evil, namely sexism.

    Finally, the form "God bless…" is indeed accepted mainly by virtue of convention. But that doesn't mean that one cannot make analogous sentences with the same structure. An archaic form is simply one which rarely used in the current day; it is not one which is off limits. For example, one may use the archaic pronouns "thou", "thee", and "thy", and the archaic flexions -est and -eth. (Whether such choices make sense from the standpoint of aesthetics or on other grounds is a separate question.)

  134. Levantine said,

    March 14, 2016 @ 5:56 pm

    You were earlier insisting that what you analysed as imperatives with third-person subjects (actually archaic optatives) were not only grammatical but perfectly normal by modern standards: you repeatedly put the construction into the mouth of your hypothetical teacher, questioned why Scott and others had any issues with it, and made irrelevant comparisons to Esperanto. This was your position for as long as we were dealing with examples beginning "everybody", because you failed to see/acknowledge that such examples were simply mangled versions of the standard imperative, with "everybody" as the addressee. Now that we've moved on to examples that prove that you were mistaken, you're trying to move the goalposts. And I'm no better for taking the bait for the umpteenth time!

  135. Ferdinand Cesarano said,

    March 14, 2016 @ 6:23 pm

    The sentence which I put into the mouth of my imagined professor is "Everybody open his book to page 75". That is the one which I call perfectly normal, as a condensed version of "(I demand that) everybody open his book…" and a typical example of an imperative verb with a third-person subject. This sentence is fully comprehensible; indeed, I am certain that I heard this sort of sentence (probably the exact one, excepting the page number) during high school.

    I made no such claim regarding the level of normality of the analogous sentence "He open his book"; that was your straw man. While this sentence is equally grammatical (which is the same thing as saying that it is analogous to another sentence which we accept as grammatical), it is nevertheless far from normal. I would not expect ever to hear such a sentence uttered.

    And my comparisons with Esperanto, Italian, and Spanish in order to support the analysis of the third-person imperative are no more "irrelevant" than your comparison with the other Germanic languages in order to support the analysis of the optative. In other words: cross-lingual comparisons can be edifying and highly instructive.

  136. Levantine said,

    March 14, 2016 @ 6:47 pm

    The sentence "Everybody open his book" is comprehensible because the hypothetical addressees (everybody) are present and and because it is sufficiently close to its standard counterpart ("Everybody, open your books") that the brain can compute it. If the sentence were "a typical example of an imperative verb with a third-person subject", there should be no trouble replacing "everybody" with something grammatically equivalent, whether "he", "she", "John", "Mary", or "each of them". And, as you yourself have admitted, "He open his book" sounds far from normal in modern speech.

    I never made any comparison with other Germanic languages. I said English, as a Germanic language, has (at least as a relic) the kind of optative that J. W. implied was a clipped version of a Latinate construction.

  137. Katharine said,

    March 14, 2016 @ 10:43 pm

    I think that it would be very funny to take a room full of men who shriek at the use of the singular 'they', toss some women in there, and refer to them all as 'she', just to see what happens.

    Language is shaped by the people who use it, and society used to be pretty misogynist.

  138. Victor Mair said,

    March 14, 2016 @ 10:59 pm

    Just heard another announcement on the radio: "have a picture of your dog taken in their favorite Easter costume".

    Cf. above comment here.

  139. Chas Belov said,

    March 14, 2016 @ 11:07 pm

    I'm amused at the thought that a dog would have a favorite Easter costume.

    @Katherine: Agreed. "Everyone pick up her pen."

  140. Levantine said,

    March 15, 2016 @ 6:40 am

    Katharine, I've seen some TV adverts for baby or cat products where "your baby"/"your cat" is referred to as a she. (Less pertinently, I've also heard liberal Christians refer to God as "She".) In each of these cases, I (a male) was taken aback, which gave me a fair idea of how many women must feel when confronted with "gender-neutral" "he". So I'd be curious to see how your experiment plays out.

  141. Victor Mair said,

    March 15, 2016 @ 8:38 pm

    @Chas Belov:

    So am I!


    Announcer for Philadelphia's 95.7 BEN FM (Ben Radio): "Ben does play anything they feel like."

  142. Scott said,

    March 15, 2016 @ 9:40 pm

    @Katharine, Levantine: I remember reading Dungeons and Dragons sourcebooks that consistently used "she" as a generic pronoun, which at the time struck me as something like wishful thinking. It was very jarring at first, but eventually I got used to it.

  143. languagehat said,

    March 16, 2016 @ 7:50 am

    Which reminds me to recommend Ann Leckie's "Imperial Radch" trilogy (Ancillary Justice, Ancillary Sword, Ancillary Mercy), in which the viewpoint character is from a culture to which formalized gender is meaningless, and everyone is referred to as "she" except on a few occasions in which another language is being used or someone's physical gender is relevant at the moment. For most of the characters, you never have any idea whether they're "actually" male or female. It's an amazingly simple device that works perfectly, and the books are gripping page-turners as well!

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