Singular They of the day

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Today's Questionable Content:

I think we've reached the point where no one who reads this web comic regularly would even notice. For more on those who would, see "Linguistic Reaction at the New Yorker", 3/8/2016.

 



30 Comments

  1. Peter said,

    April 14, 2016 @ 11:09 am

    Can confirm: am regular QC reader, didn't notice this usage at all when I read it this morning. ("Didn't blanch an eyelid", as one friend of mine would say.)

  2. Aaron Toivo said,

    April 14, 2016 @ 12:17 pm

    Out of curiosity, what does being a regular QC reader (which I am) have to do with it? Does Jeph Jacques use it more often than usual?

  3. Anschel Schaffer-Cohen said,

    April 14, 2016 @ 1:00 pm

    @Aaron: I'm guessing it's more that the demographic that regularly reads QC also has a lot of friends who use singular they in real life.

  4. Jake said,

    April 14, 2016 @ 1:05 pm

    A bit of context not mentioned in the post or in any comments thus far: Claire (the speaker in the comic) is trans, so she's likely more aware of, and accepting of, gender-neutral pronoun choice than the population at large. The same might well be be true of QC's trans-friendly (and generally progressive) readership.

  5. Bob Moore said,

    April 14, 2016 @ 1:12 pm

    Looking back at the historical examples from the 3/8/2016 post, It seems that almost all of them involve antecedents that, while syntactically singular, could be considered semantically plural, mostly being "everyone" or "everybody". I think you would be harder pressed to find celebrated writers using singular "they" to refer to a particular, singular individual whose gender is not specified, as in the QC comic. I agree that this kind of singular "they" is part of the language, but it strikes me as marked, like using a resumptive pronoun to avoid violating an island constraint.

    [(myl) The reason for the large number of "everyone" or "anyone" antecedents in that list was that Mary Norris's complaint was about the phrases "Everyone would do exactly what they liked" and "while everyone always thinks that they are on the side of the angels". Historical examples with non-specific but clearly individual antecedents are not especially hard to find, but Norris's objection was even more historically ignorant.]

  6. mollymooly said,

    April 14, 2016 @ 1:28 pm

    Datapoint: I had scanned the first two speech bubbles before I saw the post heading, and only then realised it was the prof, rather than the students, who had skeletonized.

    Research proposal: construct various test sentences in which a pronoun has ambiguous reference to either of two NPs; readers may automatically take one reading or the other or realise there is an ambiguity, and many variables will influence the relative likelihoods of the three outcomes. I suggest one variable is that, if the pronoun is the[y|m|ir(s)] and one reading is singular and the other plural, then ceteris paribus the plural is favoured.

  7. Bob Ladd said,

    April 14, 2016 @ 2:21 pm

    The National Health Service (at least in Scotland) has decided to adopt singular they – I was just at the local chemist's/pharmacy and saw a poster asking "Is your baby due their Meningitis B immunisation?"

  8. Christopher said,

    April 14, 2016 @ 2:42 pm

    And there I thought the topic of the post would be the verb skeletonize…

  9. Rebecca said,

    April 14, 2016 @ 3:10 pm

    @Bob Moore-

    Agreed that it's harder to find examples with a particular singular antecedent, but here's one from Jane Austen's Emma. Although the antecedent is "who", it's clear from context that that who is a particular individual male:

    "Who is in love with her? Who makes you their confidant?"

  10. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    April 14, 2016 @ 3:13 pm

    Given that the professor is now a skeleton, it may be that Claire does not know their gender.

  11. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    April 14, 2016 @ 3:15 pm

    And yes, 'skeletonize' is a bit odd: I would have expected it, if it existed at all, to be transitive.

  12. Bob Moore said,

    April 14, 2016 @ 3:16 pm

    @Rebecca

    That's a good example. The interesting thing is that, in this case, there was no need to make the gender underspecified, since in 1815, there would have been only one possibility openly considered.

  13. Brett said,

    April 14, 2016 @ 3:42 pm

    @Andrew (not the same one): I too found intransitive "skeletonize" odd. In fact, I specifically associate the very with the phrase: "skeletonize a cow."

  14. Guy said,

    April 14, 2016 @ 4:34 pm

    The Oxford English Dictionary lists the intransitive "skeletonize" as its third definition, with citations from 1831 and 1879. Personally, it didn't strike me as odd at all (I didn't consciously notice it until it was pointed out). I think I usually expect -ize verbs to exhibit causative/inchoative alternation.

  15. J. W. Brewer said,

    April 14, 2016 @ 5:05 pm

    That "remains" is plural even for a single decedent (like "bones," but unlike e.g. "skeleton" or "corpse") may be an additional source of potential confusion-at-first-reading as to whether the antecedent of "their" is the singular professor or the plural students. "Their ghost" (not "their ghosts") avoids that particular problem, but that's later on in the narrative.

  16. Ellen K. said,

    April 14, 2016 @ 5:15 pm

    @Bob Moore

    Though I don't have quotes or stats to back it up, it seems to me it's traditional (as in not new) to use "they" for a specific individual if talking about that person as if they are a non-specified person. I think that's been mentioned on Language Log (not sure if in a post or just comments). The first "they" in this comic came across to me as that kind of usage. Though as it continues this impression is not held up.

  17. David Morris said,

    April 14, 2016 @ 5:53 pm

    I would notice, and twitch a little.

  18. paul garrett said,

    April 14, 2016 @ 7:09 pm

    For various unsurprising reasons, I've been trying to move my own language use in such directions, and, probably-therefore, I am completely unsurprised by QC's use here. Yes, I am a daily QC reader, and/but hadn't thought of myself as "progressive" for the reading thereof, though I suppose many regressives would consider me progressive. :)

  19. Xtifr said,

    April 14, 2016 @ 9:23 pm

    I noticed the ambiguity about who was skeletonized, but didn't notice that it had to do with a singular they. I just registered it as a normal case of pronoun ambiguity. ("George and his son traveled to Africa, where he died.")

    Two or three years ago, I think the singular they would have jumped out at me, but reading QC (among other things) has indeed started to affect me.

  20. Trent said,

    April 14, 2016 @ 11:34 pm

    Took me awhile to realize it wasn't the reviews that were skeletonized.

  21. GH said,

    April 15, 2016 @ 4:29 am

    Yesterday I found myself correcting he to singular they, when I realized I had assumed a person I was referring to was male, but that in fact I couldn't be sure of their gender or preferred pronoun. It was a nice little moment.

  22. Terry Hunt said,

    April 15, 2016 @ 9:38 am

    Somewhat at a tangent, I first found out about QC from a post on Language Log and quickly became a devoted reader. (I like to read a week at a time, on Friday after work, as with the other web comics I follow.)

    In fact, following a previous recent post concerning QC, I followed up my own suggestion and re-read all 3000-odd pages over the course of a week or so.

    I can't say who made that original post, but whoever they were – my sincere thanks.

  23. andyb said,

    April 15, 2016 @ 1:36 pm

    I just got an email from someone asking, "Why do all the examples in these books keep saying 'she'? Are there different examples for men? Why don't they just use 'they' like in regular English?"

    I think that's a sign of progress. To writers born in the 40s and writing in the 80s, using "she" was a daring way to avoid gender-neutral "he"; to a reader born in 1999 and reading in 2016, it looks like they're avoiding "they" instead.

  24. BarleySinger said,

    April 15, 2016 @ 4:53 pm

    Part of the trouble is that English (unlike German) has no gender neutral pronouns aside from "it", which is insulting when directed at people. This often makes sentence structure problematic, especially with trans issues (even just with accuracy that does not assume a gender). In German you can use the gender neutral formal pronoun "SIE", instedad of "ER" (he) or sie (SHE) and the verb form shows the difference between SIE formal-neutral, and SIE female.

  25. Guy said,

    April 15, 2016 @ 8:43 pm

    @BarleySinger

    Well, English has a perfectly serviceable gender-neutral pronoun other than "it" in the form of "they", which historically has always been available to refer to individual people in some contexts. The aversion to using it with singular reference in formal writing is mostly a modern prescriptivist problem based on an oversimplified description of English grammar. Although it's probably true that the "some contexts" I was talking about before is broader now than it used to be.

  26. Rebecca said,

    April 15, 2016 @ 9:12 pm

    @BarleySinger

    Is that true that German formal "Sie" can be used for third person (he or she)?
    I had thought it was strictly second person, but I am not a native speaker. If it can be used for third person, is that a recent thing, or have I just been clueless all these years? (maybe I didn't actually inadvertently insult my boyfriend's father lo these many years ago)

  27. GH said,

    April 15, 2016 @ 9:14 pm

    @BarleySinger:

    But "Sie" is a second-person pronoun, no? I don't think it can really substitute for "er/sie" in most contexts. There is a generic third-person pronoun, "man", which corresponds to the (rarely used) "one" in English – as in "one doesn't normally speak like this any more" – but that doesn't really work either.

  28. andyb said,

    April 16, 2016 @ 12:05 am

    Looking at languages with more detailed gender systems than English is probably a bad idea. In most such languages, using a neuter pronoun as a gender-neutral pronoun is just as insulting as using "it" in English, or maybe even more so. Plus, they have a lot of problems that English doesn't have (e.g., "Doktor" is masculine-gendered, so do women become male when they become doctors, or do you try to come up with a female-gendered term that doesn't sound insultingly like "lady-doctor", or do you use "doktor" with feminine agreement, or…?) before they even get to pronouns.

    The place to look is languages with _less_ syntactic gender than English. For example, in Japanese, "ano hito", "yatsu", or "kare" can all mean he or she. If you really need to make it explicit that you're talking about a woman but still leave it pronominal, you can use "kanojo", but that's not the default word for "she". (Japanese may not be the best example, because usually you'd just leave the pronoun off if it's understood, or use a name or description if it isn't, so the problem would be easily avoided even if it existed. But I don't know any other genderless languages as well.)

    But anyway, I don't see why we need to look at other languages. "They" is doing better in English than equivalents in other European languages (except maybe Swedish "hen"?). It has centuries of history in some contexts, and in the past few decades it's grown to take over all the other contexts so completely that young speakers find it strange to avoid it. Aren't we done?

  29. V said,

    April 16, 2016 @ 3:37 am

    I've been a regular reader of both QC and Language Log since basically the beginning* (wow, how the years go by) and I didn't notice anything strange about the language in that strip until I read this. I'm not a native English speaker, though.

    *Around the same time.

  30. Bob said,

    April 21, 2016 @ 12:19 am

    I notice many singular "they"s in QC, and I've read the entire run in the last four months. But yes, since there are trans characters, I "forgive" the writer (and the "cast") that.

    In fact, in my personal life, since I've recently started associating with trans people more frequently, I've grown less critical of the *absolutely egregious* faux pas of using the singular "they." One does with one's pronouns what one must!

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