That false and senseless Way of Speaking

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Some eloquent 17th-century Quaker peeving, from The history of the life of Thomas Ellwood: Or, an account of his birth, education, &c. with divers observations on his life and manners when a youth: … Also several other remarkable passages and occurrences. Written by his own hand. To which is added, a supplement by J. W., 1714:

Again, The Corrupt and Unfound Form of Speaking in the Plural Number to a Single Person (Y O U to One, instead of T H O U ;) contrary to the Pure, Plain and Single Language of T R U T H  T H O U to One, and Y O U to more than One) which had always been used, by G O D to Men, and Men to G O D, as well as one to another, from the oldest Record of Time, till Corrupt Men, for Corrupt Ends, in later and Corrupt Times, to Flatter, Fawn, and work upon the Corrupt Nature in Men, brought in that false and senseless Way of Speaking, Y O U to One ; which hath since corrupted the Modern Languages, and hath greatly debased the Spirits, and depraved the Manners of Men. This Evil Custom I had been as forward in as others and this I was now called out of, and required to cease from.


See also "George Fox, prescriptivist", 10/24/2010, and more seriously, Ellwood's Wikipedia page.

h/t Faith Jones, who pointed me to this tweet, where the passage is reprinted from a secondary source:



  1. Pflaumbaum said,

    July 1, 2016 @ 4:46 pm

    Perfect. I've been looking for exactly that rant for ages.

    Disregarding for a moment the fact that trying to police such things is daft, I think there's a much better case for singular 'they' than singular 'you'.

    Having a gender-neutral 3rd person pronoun' is actually useful, whereas the lack of a distinction between 2nd person forms is not infrequently awkward. (In my dialect only "you guys" and "you lot" are really available, and they have issues of their own.)

  2. Nancy Friedman said,

    July 1, 2016 @ 5:42 pm

    With bonus sentence-ending preposition ("required to cease from")! Take THAT, pedants!

  3. Michael Watts said,

    July 1, 2016 @ 5:52 pm

    Pflaumbaum, how do you feel about the lack of a distinction between inclusive we "me, you, and possibly some other people" and exclusive we "me and some other people, but not you"?

    I haven't found the lack of distinction between second person singular and plural forms to be awkward, but occasionally the lack of distinction between the second person pronoun and the generic pronoun has been.

  4. pflaumbaum said,

    July 1, 2016 @ 5:59 pm

    @ Michael Watts

    I find the occasions when an inclusive/exlusive 'we' would be helpful are pretty rare – it's usually clear enough from context.

  5. David N. Evans said,

    July 1, 2016 @ 6:16 pm

    What a gem. I love the parallelism of "by God to men, and men to God, as well as one to another" (vs. "by God to men, and men to God, as well as to one another"), but I'm having difficulty understanding why the author attributes the use of singular "you" to a tendency "to flatter, fawn, and work upon the corrupt nature of men." Is it that he perceived the use of singular "you" as a kind of Royal "You"? If so, perhaps he also viewed the use of "yourself" (vs. "yourselves") as analogous to the use of "ourself" (cf. "Ourself will mingle with society" – Macbeth).

  6. Levantine said,

    July 1, 2016 @ 6:33 pm

    David N. Evans, yes, he perceives singular 'you' as a kind of royal 'you', which indeed it was. 'Thou' could thus be construed as offensive or demeaning (like being called 'tu' in French when you expect 'vous'). Even in some novels of the early eighteenth-century, when 'you' was largely the default, characters sometimes switch to 'thou' when talking to their inferiors in moments of anger or frustration (Mr B. does this with Pamela, though he usually addresses her as 'you').

  7. JS said,

    July 1, 2016 @ 7:15 pm

    One difference being one doesn't hear modern peevers acknowledging that they are or have been "as forward … as others" in the relevant linguistic debaucheries. This is actually weirdly refreshing.

  8. pflaumbaum said,

    July 1, 2016 @ 7:21 pm

    Thomas Pynchon dives really deep into the subtleties of Thou/You choice in Mason & Dixon, including differences of class, region and religion, as well as of register as Levantine describes. Way too subtle subtleties for me, in fact.

  9. John Jensen said,

    July 1, 2016 @ 10:49 pm

    Interesting to me that every local variety of English seems to have developed some sort of 2nd-person plural, though it is everywhere stigmatised as non-U. You'se should reflect on that :-)


  10. Mary Kuhner said,

    July 1, 2016 @ 10:52 pm

    Katherine Addison's _The Goblin Emperor_ does some very deft things with pronouns–apparently the language the characters speak throughout has singular and plural and formal and informal pronouns. She does not invent pronouns, but uses thee for singular you and gets at the other distinctions with stage directions. Like the characters' way of flattening their ears when upset, it works (for me, anyway) very well as a glimpse of an alien culture.

    The problem is, between reading this and playing in a roleplaying game which also has these distinctions (which we handle by saying "you-singular" or "you-plural" when it's ambiguous), I'm really feeling the lack in my native language!

  11. John Swindle said,

    July 1, 2016 @ 11:08 pm

    Wasn't the singular "you" applied first to kings and fancy persons and then later to everyone? If so, when did these stages occur, and where does Fox's rant fall on the timeline?

  12. Bob Ladd said,

    July 2, 2016 @ 1:08 am

    @Michael Watts, Pflaumbaum: There's a mid-1970s Doonesbury strip (I don't have access to the full archive) in which Rick Redfern has interviewed Joanie Caucus about Ginny's run for Congress, and reports that one of Ginny's staff members has said "We're getting nowhere fast". Joanie, who was interested in Rick as more than a journalist, laments "Dammit, I meant him and me". Back when undergraduates read Doonesbury I used to use this strip in class to illustrate the distinction between we-inclusive and we-exclusive.

  13. Phillip Minden said,

    July 2, 2016 @ 1:43 am

    There's an important difference, though, which will be ignored be smug, self-righteous proponents as well as the working part of the analogy will be ignored by philistines on the other side.

    Singular 'you' wasn't articifially introduced against everybody's sprachgefühl. Singular "they" took quickly with many people and feels quite natural to them, I'm sure, but this is because they read different texts. Those who don't, or who read enough texts written by people born before 1990, are less used to it yet. The introduction of singular "you", though, came from the spoken language and evolved over time; it didn't come per royal or revolutionary edict.

    Really, the analogy doesn't hold.

  14. Sid Smith said,

    July 2, 2016 @ 1:43 am

    We're queasy about using "you" to high-ranking people. Flunkies might say "Does madame/sir like the hat?", and "Would Your Excellency/Majesty step this way?"

  15. Pflaumbaum said,

    July 2, 2016 @ 3:16 am

    @ Philip Minden

    I don't think there's any evidence that singular 'they' came from text – though there is evidence from texts that it's been in the language for some centuries.

  16. Phillip Minden said,

    July 2, 2016 @ 3:21 am

    It's popped up occasionally for centuries, but not this way by any stretch. By the way, are there any precedents for the more adventurous constructions like "The student picked up their (= his or her) book." or even "John picked up their (= his) book."?

    [(myl) We've cited many examples over the years, e.g. here and here and here. Here's a new example of your first type:

    This is where choice is important – for the student to improve their academic university experience, and for the university to offer a more inspiring, engaging and challenging educational setting. (Times Higher Education)

  17. Stan Carey said,

    July 2, 2016 @ 5:18 am

    I used the very same quotation in a post about singular they in 2013 ("Singular they, you, and a ‘senseless way of speaking’"), after coming across it in, of all places, William James’s Varieties of Religious Experience.

    [(myl) Thanks! I somehow forgot your blog post, and also William James' quotation (of a somewhat longer passage from Ellwood), which he introduces this way:

    In the autobiography of Thomas Elwood, an early Quaker, who at one time was secretary to John Milton, we find an exquisitely quaint and candid account of the trials he underwent both at home and abroad, in following Fox's canons of sincerity. The anecdotes are too lengthy for citation; but Elwood sets down his manner of feeling [pg 293] about these things in a shorter passage, which I will quote as a characteristic utterance of spiritual sensibility:—


  18. Robert Coren said,

    July 2, 2016 @ 11:07 am

    The only times I find the lack of distinction between singular and plural you is when I'm translating a passage (from, say, French or German) in which the distinction is important.

  19. Jonathan said,

    July 2, 2016 @ 11:09 am

    Not only have I resurrected a plural version of 'you' (by stealing "you all" from Texan American English) but I even found myself using a dual construction ("you both") yesterday.

    The context was writing a card to a couple, where I knew one person would read it out loud to the other, and wanted to emphasize that the good wishes weren't just intended for the one reading it.

  20. Levantine said,

    July 2, 2016 @ 12:32 pm

    Phillip Minden, given that singular 'they' is far commoner in colloquial speech than it is in published writing, it's clearly not something that people are picking up from what they read. As Pflaumbaum pointed out, the instances in print merely reflect (and in fact underrepresent) the prevalence of this usage in real life. I recently had dinner with some elderly Cambridge academics who insisted they never used singular 'they'; five minutes later, I caught one of them doing it, and he and his companions were surprised when I brought it to their attention.

  21. Phillip Minden said,

    July 2, 2016 @ 12:44 pm

    I've no doubt that this happens, but the degree is something that isn't confirmed by my experience. Apart from that, I explicitly agree that it took in certain age and social groups. (Doesn't change that it was consciously introduced, as opposed to the 17th century change.) My impression is that this usage is still far from general, and that examples like your own above are marked in most native speakers' ears.

  22. Levantine said,

    July 2, 2016 @ 1:03 pm

    Phillip Minden, are you actually arguing that the prevalence of singular 'they' is because of some concerted campaign to introduce it? That's patently absurd. Who do you imagine is behind this effort? And what do you say to all the historical instances that MYL has collected?

  23. Phillip Minden said,

    July 2, 2016 @ 2:19 pm

    Not some concerted action (which it wasn't but which wouldn't have been a patently absurd possibility), but some conscious movement. For the same reason and starting around the same time, phenomena like the glottal stop in German -innen emerged (older 'Bürger', 'Bürger und Bürgerinnen', 'Bürgerinnen und Bürger' -> newer 'BürgerInnen'), or 'Studenten' reinterpreted to imply only male students and after an intermediate stage of 'Studenten und Studentinnen' etc. -> 'Studierende'. Of course, much of this is building on occasional (!) precedents, as opposed to solutions like 'ze'.

    But are you actually aguing that Jane Austen wouldn't have noticed anything uncommon about ""My dear Mr. Bennet," said their lady to them one day"?

    About the examples above, I'd like to know what time we're talking about, and which use exactly. There's a difference between "everybody … their" and "Mr Darcy blew their nose."

  24. Levantine said,

    July 2, 2016 @ 2:37 pm

    Examples like 'Mr Darcy blew their nose' sound weird to me also, but you're constructing a straw man argument here. Those of us who use singular 'they' and would like to see it accepted as standard are not arguing that it should be employed in cases where it isn't needed. I would not say 'A king wears a crown on their head', but I would say 'A monarch wears a crown on their head'. Someone who says the former is not doing so to make an ideological point, but because, for them (!), the construction is unexceptional, just as for some speakers, 'We was' is normal.

    So yes, I agree that the 'Mr Darcy blew their nose' variety of singular 'they' is fairly recent, but I'm baffled as to why you think it's the result of some consciously driven shift rather than simply something certain speakers have started saying.

  25. Phillip Minden said,

    July 2, 2016 @ 2:52 pm

    I'm afraid this is a misunderstanding. I didn't give the nose example as an example of the whole, but explicitly as the outer end of the spectrum. That there is a such a bandwidth is part of my point: those constructions that are (still) more startling are based on the ones that have at least occasional precedents. The way you put it ("Those of us who use singular 'they' and would like to see it accepted as standard") shows it is a conscious choice, not like the 17th ct change. Others go further and consider it desirable to use 'them' etc. even if it refers to a person of known and binarily clear sex.

  26. Levantine said,

    July 2, 2016 @ 3:27 pm

    Phillip Minden, no, it isn't a conscious choice. I'm arguing for its standardness in the same way that others defend the splitting of infinitives or the placement of prepositions at the end of a sentence. In other words, I'm not trying to promote singular 'they', as it needs no promotion: it is already extremely widespread, and has been so for a long time. You're trying to convince yourself that this usage is newfangled or ideologically loaded, and you're misleadingly conflating the normal variety of singular 'they' with less typical instances (this would be like me claiming that 'We was' and 'I was' are part of the same spectrum). Those of us who use the 'normal' kind of singular 'they' do so because we find it useful, not to make a point. Most of those who use singular 'they' when the gender is clear do so because it sounds normal to them; in very few cases is the decision motivated by anything more than idiom.

    It's ironic that you can't see how similar your position is to that of the seventeenth-century peever, who likewise believed that the rise of 'you' was the result of some objectionable conscious decision.

  27. Phillip Minden said,

    July 2, 2016 @ 3:37 pm

    In this case I misunderstood what you had written (about wanting to see it as standard). Please don't assume what I'm trying to convince myself of. Also, please consider and read again before you reproach me of misleading. I'm afraid I'm too busy to explain again what I wrote explicitly about the bandwidth in even easier words. And where have I said I find the use objectionable?

    I'm afraid the more you write, the clearer it is that you confuse what should be in your view with what is.

  28. Levantine said,

    July 2, 2016 @ 3:51 pm

    Your opening reference to 'smug, self-righteous proponents' suggested to me that you found the usage objectionable. Anyway, I agree we've both said as much as we probably should.

  29. Phillip Minden said,

    July 2, 2016 @ 3:54 pm

    Yes, and "philistines on the other side".

  30. John Jensen said,

    July 2, 2016 @ 5:39 pm

    The way it has always seemed to me – regarding the use of 'singular they' – which might almost be called 'impersonal they without number' – is that it has been around for a long time, precisely as an impersonal third person pronoun; that the spread has been due to social pressure against the specification of gender; that it fills a natural place in pronoun inventory, rather like the use of 'one' as a pronoune.

    Yapese has a third person pronoun 'ni' – not singular, dual, or plural – which is used for an indefinite third person subject;

    'Kea yib fowaap' – He/she came yesterday.
    perf-thirdsg come yesterday
    'Ka niib fowaap' Someone came yesterday.
    perf one-came yesterday


  31. Mackenzie said,

    July 2, 2016 @ 6:05 pm


    Fox was pushing back against a custom that came from the king expecting to be treated as plural. As far as the king was concerned, for Fox to call him "thou" was a grave insult. You don't see that as singular "you" being enforced from the top?

    As to singular "they," I am one of those young folks you're talking about, but I'm pretty sure I learned singular "they" from my parents. "Who was that on the phone?" "They didn't say; just hung up."

  32. Pflaumbaum said,

    July 2, 2016 @ 6:54 pm

    There are several different kinds of singular 'they', and presumably some of them are sometimes deliberately chosen as a political act.

    But the notion that its very widespread and longstanding use after an antecedent unmarked for gender – as in Did anyone leave their car outside? – is driven by either written text or political correctness, sounds incredibly unlikely.

  33. Levantine said,

    July 3, 2016 @ 12:21 am

    I'm with Mackenzie and Pflaumbaum. Singular 'they' is a usage we've inherited from older generations, for whom it was a normal part of speech. Only in writing has its use spread, and even here I don't think it's 'due to social pressure against the specification of gender', but because fewer and fewer people are aware of, or care about, the longstanding prescriptions against its use (and that these prescriptions go back to the eighteenth century already disproves the notion that the usage is newfangled).

    All of which is to say that singular 'they' is far too normal to carry the sort of ideological weight some commenters here are ascribing to it, and even those who complain about it usually do so on grammatical rather than political grounds. Individuals who really are trying to make a point about gender can (and do) use recent coinages like 'ze' or generic 'she'.

  34. Phillip Minden said,

    July 3, 2016 @ 4:49 am

    Mackenzie, so you're saying the old case is one of edict, and the new one is a natural development? Not that I agree but in that scenario, there wouldn't be an anology either.

    Anyway, much of the above simply exemplifies what I had written in my first comment.

  35. Catanea said,

    July 3, 2016 @ 5:57 am

    I really have heard a BBC programme on breastfeeding that included an expression close to: "Each mother picked up their baby." & I really thought I'd draw the line, there.

  36. RP said,

    July 4, 2016 @ 4:54 am

    Where you or your OCR software have put "The Corrupt and Unfound Form of Speaking", I think it should actually be "unsound" rather than "unfound".

  37. Hg said,

    July 4, 2016 @ 6:40 am

    RP is quite right – that's definitely a long S, not an f.

  38. Chris (different Chris) said,

    July 7, 2016 @ 3:58 pm

    John Swindle: Singular "you" as a mark of respect, or of addressing someone whose perceived status was higher than your own (i.e. not just to royalty) began in the late 1500s, as far as I know.

    George Fox was preaching in the last half of the 1600s, and at that point singular "you" was becoming more normal and accepted. But many people still knew that "you" had a history of being used only as plural within historical memory.

    The slight complication here is that Quakers fairly quickly became a relatively isolated subculture with its own language quirks. A number of well-known Quaker writers continued to assert until well into the 1800s (as Ellwood does) that "you" was in its purest essence a plural construction and thus was "false" when used to any one person.

    The semi-isolation of Quaker speech later led to further developments, such as the tendency of US Quakers to use "thee" as nominative as well as objective. (For instance one might say "Thee has a spider on thy shoulder" and be perfectly within the subcultural norm.) With time, this became an in-group marker used more to fellow Quakers than to others.

    Nominative "thee" is, IIRC, more of an 18th or 19th-century development and doesn't seem to have happened at all in Britain as far as I know. My personal theory is that it originated with teenage Quakers who wished to shock their elders by using slang. ;)

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