A singular need for their

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Tim Leonard points out that today's Questionable Content has a piece of dialogue in which their (in "their ship"), though referring to a male individual, could not felicitously be exchanged for his:

The whole strip, reproduced here in case of long-term bit rot:


  1. J.W. Brewer said,

    September 30, 2016 @ 11:59 am

    How would you say the sentence in question in Hungarian (or some other language with a more parsimonious inventory of third-person-singular pronouns than the they-deprecating register of English)?

  2. Rube said,

    September 30, 2016 @ 12:09 pm

    I'm wondering, though: For "their" haters, would the sentence have lost anything if it were put as: "Many a drunken fratboy has dashed his ship against Elliot's rocky coast"?

    (BTW, Personally, I like singular "they").

    [(myl) There are certainly plenty of ways to rephrase the remark without singular their, in English and (no doubt) in Hungarian. The point here, to the extent that there is one, is just that another benefit of singular they is the ability to have disjoint reference with he or she in the same anaphoric domain.]

  3. S Frankel said,

    September 30, 2016 @ 12:15 pm

    Hungarian I don't know about, but the (Germanic) Scandinavian languages have a (3p) reflexive possessive pronoun that must be to refer to the subject of the clause. For ex., Swedish "sitt skepp" can only refer to the drunken fratboy.."Hans skepp" would refer, in this case nonsensically, to the bouncer.

  4. Jerry Friedman said,

    September 30, 2016 @ 12:24 pm

    In speech I think it would be fine with two instances of "his". In writing, if you didn't want singular "they", I agree with Rube that you'd need "Elliot's".

  5. Ellen K. said,

    September 30, 2016 @ 12:42 pm

    I think in a comic, in a speech bubble, "Many a drunken fratboy has dashed his ship against Elliot's rocky coast" doesn't work. It sounds too literary.

  6. wsa said,

    September 30, 2016 @ 12:50 pm

    While "fratboy" is pretty darned gendered, I wonder if it isn't the indefiniteness of the referent that's triggering the use of "their." I personally would be more uncomfortable with this example if a specific drunken fratboy were in play.

  7. J.W. Brewer said,

    September 30, 2016 @ 1:10 pm

    If I may respectfully disagree with Ellen K., the whole sentence sounds pretty high-literary-register for comic-strip dialogue regardless of how that one word is handled. I'm not familiar with the strip but I assume that the register makes sense for the particular character given who she is. I would guess that 98%+ of the American population would never use the word "homoerotic" in a casual standing-in-the-kitchen sort of context but I likewise assume it's not an unexpectedly fancy word for the particular character to utter.

  8. Andrej Bjelaković said,

    September 30, 2016 @ 1:44 pm

    What S Frankel said about Scandinavian languages holds true for Serbian as well (or BCS rather).
    So it's 'svoj brod' vs. 'njegov brod'.

  9. Greg Malivuk said,

    September 30, 2016 @ 3:18 pm

    I suspect wsa is right that the indefiniteness of "fratboy" is what triggered "they" in this case (likely helped along by a feeling that "many" calls for something plural), but it does additionally have the benefit of being less ambiguous than "his" might have been.

    (From other LLog posts and from what I've seen in the wild myself, singular "they" seems to be coming increasingly common for any indefinite or generic human referent, regardless of how certain we are about that person's pronouns.)

  10. Terry Hunt said,

    September 30, 2016 @ 3:46 pm

    @ J.W. Brewer
    Several of the Questionable Content characters are current or ex-university students and/or library employees, and the strip is (mostly) set (in the near future) in the (real) smallish university city of Northampton, Massachusetts which is, to quote Wikipedia:

    ". . . known as an academic, artistic, musical, and countercultural hub. It features a large politically liberal community along with numerous alternative health and intellectual organizations. Based on U.S. Census demographics, election returns, and other criteria, the website Epodunk rates Northampton as the most politically liberal medium-size city (population 25,000–99,000) in the United States. The city has a high proportion of residents who identify as gay and lesbian."
    As someone who both studied and worked in a comparable town-gown situation (in St Andrews, Fife), I find the heightened conversational tone verisimilitudinous. Moreover, clever dialogue is rather a feature of the comic.

  11. Mark Mandel said,

    September 30, 2016 @ 3:53 pm

    "The city has a high proportion of residents who identify as gay and lesbian."

    "gay and lesbian"? I never imagined such a combination to be possible.

  12. J.W. Brewer said,

    September 30, 2016 @ 4:02 pm

    Well, "gay" has different semantic scopes, and for a broader scope "lesbian" is a subset, the way "Sicilian" might be a subset of "Italian." At least if there were also common contexts in which "Italian" was alternatively understood in the narrower sense of "from the peninsula proper" …

    Just from this one strip I had hypothesized the characters might be grad students or twenty-something urban-semi-hipster types with a lot of sociological overlap with the grad-student demographic, although a Northampton setting may be kind of unnecessarily belaboring the point . . .

  13. January First-of-May said,

    September 30, 2016 @ 4:24 pm

    Similarly for Russian – "свой корабль" vs. "его корабль" (the pronouns are cognate to the Serbian equivalents).

  14. January First-of-May said,

    September 30, 2016 @ 4:25 pm

    (The above was in reply to Andrej Bjelaković.)

  15. Joe Clave said,

    September 30, 2016 @ 5:27 pm

    I like to pretend that the thing she now knows, but has to keep secret is that her friend should have said 'his ship' which would both make it sound more homoerotic (imo), and be grammatically correct. Because they are in an awkward situation, now would not be the time to correct here grammar.

  16. Joe Clave said,

    September 30, 2016 @ 5:29 pm

    Excuse me, …"they're" in an awkward… and …."her" grammar.

  17. J.W. Brewer said,

    September 30, 2016 @ 5:31 pm

    Come to think of it, "the Horrible Revelation" as a name for a bar or nightclub is another pretty strong "tell" of a college-town or gentrifying-hipster neighborhood setting. You couldn't plausibly stick it into the wonderful Homeric catalog of blue-collar drinking establishment names in the old punk-rock-turning-C&W classic: "at the hi-d-hi and the hula gal /
    bee-hive bar and the zircon lounge / g.g.'s cozy corner the gift of love /
    stop'n'drink, sit'n'sip, rest'n'pieces / dexter's new approach and the get down lounge" etc.

  18. M.N. said,

    September 30, 2016 @ 7:17 pm

    Coincidentally, I ran across this blog post — which satirically gives "evidence" of people being able to fly unaided — earlier today. The following paragraph accompanies a photo of a woman using a flying harness on stage (i.e., the female referent is visually salient in the context):

    "Here is another picture – this person is clearly not jumping, they are high off the ground, and there is a background for reference. This addresses all of the objections of skeptics. She is not using the wires to fly – they are only there as a safety precaution for insurance purposes."

    I sort of agree that "they" sounds more natural than "she" would in this case, where we have the overt linguistic antecedent "this person"; later, when the antecedent is more remote, the pronoun switches to "she". I can't say exactly why it feels more natural this way, though.

  19. Ellen Kozisek said,

    September 30, 2016 @ 9:26 pm

    @M.N. "They" is also used when talking about someone as if they are indefinite, even if referring to a specific person.

  20. Bloix said,

    September 30, 2016 @ 10:20 pm

    It's not clear to me what would be wrong with 'his." I did an ngram for "many a man" – here's a selection:

    For many a man that may not stonde a pulle,
    Yit lyketh him at the wrastling for to be…
    Chaucer, A Parliament of Fowls

    How is many a man distressed by his own folly!
    Addison, The Spectator

    Sir, what a man avows, he is not ashamed to think; though many a man thinks, what he is ashamed to avow.
    Boswell's Life of Johnson

    Many a man has died with an heroic expression on his lips, but with heaviness and distrust at his heart.
    James Fenimore Cooper, The Pathfinder

    There is many a man who thinks he can recall the works of Swift or of Goldsmith; but, indeed, he himself is the principal author of 'Gulliver's Travels' or 'The Vicar of Wakefield', which he recalls.
    G.K. Chesterton

  21. Michael Watts said,

    September 30, 2016 @ 10:29 pm

    I also don't think there's any fundamental problem with "many a drunken fratboy has dashed his ship against his rocky coast", with his and his referring to different people. That happens all the time in English; context can easily allow the two hes in "He says he's not going to do it" to refer to two different people.

  22. M.N. said,

    September 30, 2016 @ 10:41 pm

    @Ellen Kozisek: Right, I hear and use it that way all the time:

    Employee to manager: "I have a customer here who's having a problem with their account…"

    I thought the photo example was different in some way, because the referent is visually salient and also referred to as "she" later in the discourse.

  23. ohwilleke said,

    September 30, 2016 @ 11:42 pm

    It says something about the evolving acceptability of the singular their that I read that comic strip last night without noticing the usage at all. It no longer sounds awkward or out of place at all.

  24. Jussi Piitulainen said,

    October 1, 2016 @ 2:24 am

    No one said anything about a language with a parsimonious inventory of third-person singular pronouns yet? In Finnish, the standard personal pronoun is hän 'he/she'. There is a system of possessive suffixes to nouns. A possessive pronoun is also used when the possessor is different from the subject. I hope I got that at least approximately right.

    Both laivansa and hänen laivansa mean 'his/her ship(s)'. Both kallioonsa and hänen kallioonsa mean to his/her rock. I think the possible combinations are unambiguously as follows. In the standard language.

    pirstonut (laivansa) (hänen kallioonsa) 'dashed (fratboy's ship) to (Elliot's rock)'

    pirstonut (hänen laivansa) (kallioonsa) 'dashed (Elliot's ship) to (fratboy's rock)'

    pirstonut (laivansa) (kallioonsa) 'dashed (fratboy's ship) to (fratboy's rock)'

    pirstonut (hänen laivansa) (hänen kallioonsa) 'dashed (Elliot's ship) to (Elliot's rock)'

  25. V said,

    October 1, 2016 @ 7:41 am

    J.W. Brewer: "Just from this one strip I had hypothesized the characters might be grad students or twenty-something urban-semi-hipster types with a lot of sociological overlap with the grad-student demographic, although a Northampton setting may be kind of unnecessarily belaboring the point . . ."

    Jeph used to live there, back when he started the strip. He moved to Canada recently.

  26. Linda Seebach said,

    October 1, 2016 @ 9:30 am

    To the extent that "they" is fully acceptable as referring to a clearly singular antecedent, "their ship" is just as ambiguous as "his ship." If it feels less so, isn't that because "many a drunken fratboy" is understood to be plural in a way that "a bouncer" is not?

  27. Bloix said,

    October 1, 2016 @ 9:32 am

    The thing is, "many a man"' is a phrase in a high register. It's obsolete in ordinary usage, and the play on it here is intentionally arch ("dashing" a ship on a rocky coast is equally old-fashioned). The singular their, although acceptable today, clashes with the tone and ruins the joke.

  28. John Roth said,

    October 1, 2016 @ 12:21 pm

    I agree with the three commenters who said the referent was indefinite rather than singular. Analyzing it that way makes their perfectly appropriate, without having to invoke "singular they" at all. It's a prototypical use of a plural pronoun with a not-singular antecedent.

    Given the gender-specificity of "fratboy," gender-neutrality doesn't come into it at all.

  29. Greg Malivuk said,

    October 1, 2016 @ 1:17 pm

    @Linda Seebach:
    It's not that "a bouncer" is understood as singular, but that it's understood as definite. They're not talking about some generic bouncer, nor even some particular but as-yet not-fully-specified bouncer. They're ralking about their friend, a specific "he"-using bouncer whom they both know.

    As the bouncer in question has already been identified as "he", "their" is definitely not ambiguous in this example. It could be if the bouncer were left unspecified, or if the bouncer used "they" pronouns themself, but not with a specific male bouncer.

  30. Randy Hudson said,

    October 1, 2016 @ 4:06 pm

    There's a Northampton bar named The Dirty Truth which was apparently the inspiration for the Horrible Revelation.

  31. J.W. Brewer said,

    October 1, 2016 @ 4:54 pm

    Interesting background detail (re the Dirty Truth). Although the excessive polysyllabilicity of the paraphrase makes it sound even more like a bar that only those in the grad-student-slash-pretentious-hipster demographic would be likely to patronize.

  32. Adrian said,

    October 1, 2016 @ 4:56 pm

    What Michael Watts said.

  33. Bloix said,

    October 1, 2016 @ 6:52 pm

    Better would be, "Many a drunken fratboy has dashed his ship against that rocky coast."

  34. Chas Belov said,

    October 2, 2016 @ 3:13 am

    @Bloix: I'm not familiar with this character so don't know if they speak arch frequently, but going on the evidence from the other panels, they don't speak it all the time. It's incredibly difficult in casual conversation or even in writing to keep a consistent non-natural tone. I wrote a play My Visit to America with several chosen differences from English today, and after editing and re-reading the play for several years I still found words that didn't belong in that artificial version of English. In my personal speech, I have not qualms about mixing high and low, or multisyllable and ain't, in the same sentence, not that I do it frequently.

  35. Greg Malivuk said,

    October 3, 2016 @ 6:44 am

    I don't get how "their" is supposed to be a greater clash with the high register than "drunken fratboy".

  36. Rodger C said,

    October 3, 2016 @ 9:46 am

    What's a higher-register way of referring to a drunken fratboy?

  37. Greg Malivuk said,

    October 3, 2016 @ 12:28 pm

    "intoxicated fraternity brother"?

    There are probably others. After all, surely they were a thing befofe the 1980s, when the phrase started showing up in books.

  38. Rodger C said,

    October 3, 2016 @ 1:04 pm

    Sounds like newspaper register to me. "An intoxicated fraternity member set off a bottle rocket in his anus last night."

  39. Alon Lischinsky said,

    October 8, 2016 @ 10:56 am

    @Bloix: The singular their, although acceptable today, clashes with the tone and ruins the joke.

    Actually, you'll find exactly the same kind of singular they in Fielding, Thackeray and Bernard Shaw— all writers who would sound high-register today even if they did not during their own times.

  40. Bloix said,

    October 8, 2016 @ 3:48 pm

    Alon, upthread I quoted five many a man – his examples, beginning with Chaucer. Find a many a man – their example from a recognized author and then we'll talk.

  41. Alon Lischinsky said,

    October 9, 2016 @ 4:08 am

    @Bloix: I don't understand your reasoning. There is ample evidence that singulary they is used in many high-register texts; unless you have some particular reason for singling out many a man as requiring he (as opposed to, say, every man or any man), the claim of a clash in tone is unwarranted.

    Examples are less likely to crop up simply because many a man has long been a far less frequent phrase.

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