Annals of singular their

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"Officials: Flight in Vegas delayed by naked passenger", Washington Post (AP) 730/2017:

Officials say a Spirit Airlines flight leaving Las Vegas was briefly delayed after a passenger removed all their clothes while boarding and approached a flight attendant.

McCarran International Airport says police and medical responders took the passenger for observation.

Police Lt. Carlos Hank said the passenger received treatment after the medical episode.



  1. Rubrick said,

    July 30, 2017 @ 5:39 pm

    So I guess they happened in Vegas and stayed in Vegas.

  2. Viseguy said,

    July 30, 2017 @ 10:26 pm

    Who are these officials, and did they get their clothes back?

    "A Spirit Airlines flight leaving Las Vegas was briefly delayed after a passenger removed all their clothes while boarding and approached a flight attendant, according to airline officials."

  3. Gregory Kusnick said,

    July 31, 2017 @ 12:28 am

    "took the passenger for observation" seems an unfortunate choice of words given that the passenger was naked.

  4. David Morris said,

    July 31, 2017 @ 1:18 am

    Spirit Airlines' website has a section called 'So what exactly is Bare Fare[?]'.

  5. Lance said,

    July 31, 2017 @ 4:03 am

    To be fair, even if a person removes all of their clothes, that doesn't tell you what pronouns they prefer. (In fact, it's arguably harder to tell if they remove all their clothes.)

  6. Keith said,

    July 31, 2017 @ 4:17 am

    What it tells me is that either the people who witnessed the scene were not interviewed by AP, or that the witnesses were so prudish that they averted their eyes from the naked passenger, or that the witnesses are incapable of identifying a naked man from a naked woman.

  7. anhweol said,

    July 31, 2017 @ 4:25 am

    Perhaps an over-zealous attempt to give them complete anonymity pending legal or other proceedings? Admittedly, giving away the gender of the offender isn't much of a clue…

  8. Bev Rowe said,

    July 31, 2017 @ 5:06 am

    The LL archive for the 13th c seems to be missing so I cannot see if any of your predecessors were commenting on the singular use of "you". None of the OED quotes seem to be precriptivist rants on the subject.
    So I am wondering how long it will take before the singular use of "their" will seem entirely natural.

    [(myl) Our archives for the 17th century, on the other hand, are accessible: "That false and senseless Way of Speaking", "George Fox, prescriptivist", etc.]

  9. Pflaumbaum said,

    July 31, 2017 @ 5:40 am

    @Bev Rowe

    I'm pretty sure it already seems entirely natural, depending on the context. In this context (gender of antecedent unspecified) it's wholly natural to me, though clearly not for everyone in formal prose.

    But surely "Has anyone left their bike in the hallway?" in colloquial speech is way less marked than "Has anyone left his bike," "…his or her bike…" etc., for pretty much every native speaker under 200 years old?

  10. cliff arroyo said,

    July 31, 2017 @ 6:37 am

    @viseguy, yeah the whole thing is terribly written, foregrounding the source in three straight paragraphs and mixing present and past says/said.

    Not at all the way I was told to write back many years ago when I (briefly) studied journalism.

    I wonder if it was machine or non-native speaker written…

  11. cliff arroyo said,

    July 31, 2017 @ 6:41 am

    "was briefly delayed after a passenger removed all their clothes while boarding"

    this is a case where 'their' seems to be the only reasonable choice (when the sex of the person disrobing is not disclosed to the reporter).

    "was briefly delayed after a passenger removed all his clothes while boarding" clearly can only be (anatomically) male

    "was briefly delayed after a passenger removed all his or her clothes while boarding" is downright insulting in a "It's Pat!" way.

    I suppose the problem could be gotten round with a "after a passenger disrobed/undressed" but neither sounds extremely natural….

  12. MattF said,

    July 31, 2017 @ 8:39 am

    How about "after a passenger disrobed while boarding."

  13. J.W. Brewer said,

    July 31, 2017 @ 9:41 am

    "Disrobed" has to my ear a somewhat euphemistic feel that doesn't fit the context. Put another way "disrobed" is most naturally used when the resultant state of being disrobed is appropriate for the context (or at least the anticipated context, e.g. before someone who unexpectedly enters the room changes the context as to appropriateness/inappropriateness). Undressed seems more neutral.

    I assume that if the passenger had been dressed in clothing that would cause a different default assumption as to pronouns than the default assumption cued by the same passenger's naked body, that itself would have been such a newsworthy aspect of the story for all but the most high-toned publications that you'd expect it to be explicitly mentioned in the headline and first sentence.

  14. J.W. Brewer said,

    July 31, 2017 @ 10:11 am

    Actually, here's a perfectly good pronounless opening sentence for the story found in the wild that doesn't sound artificially constructed to avoid the pronoun issue: "A Spirit Airlines flight was delayed at Las Vegas airport on Saturday after a passenger stripped naked and approached a flight attendant." Courtesy of the syntactic experts at what I believe is the highest-readership English-language tabloid news website in existence.

  15. Tom V said,

    July 31, 2017 @ 10:38 am

    "Their" as a possessive pronoun is quite common for agendered people, and is also used as a shorthand for his/her/eir when the preferred gender is unknown.

    [(myl) Indeed, this has been noticed.]

  16. Brett said,

    July 31, 2017 @ 1:33 pm

    @Lance: Since reading the hed for the news story, I have found myself wondering whether stripping naked in public automatically counts as an act of gender presentation in agreement with anatomical sex.

  17. Jerry Friedman said,

    July 31, 2017 @ 2:09 pm

    Was approaching the flight attendant part of the offense? Is approach headed for the same grim fate as accost? (I doubt it.)

  18. DWalker07 said,

    July 31, 2017 @ 2:56 pm

    "Has anyone left their bike in the hallway?"

    What's wrong with "Has anyone left a bike in the hallway?"? Or "Did anyone leave a bike in the hallway"?

    [(myl) Indeed, why adapt to "the Corrupt and Unfound Form of Speaking in the Plural Number of a Single Person (T H E Y for One, instead of H E or S H E ;) contrary to the Pure, Plain and Single Language of T R U T H H E or S H E for One, and T H E Y for 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" . . .]

  19. Pflaumbaum said,

    July 31, 2017 @ 6:01 pm

    To answer much less amusingly than MYL's reply…

    There's nothing wrong with your version. But my question was not whether it's possible to formulate a sentence with roughly the same meaning but containing no personal pronouns; it was which of the various versions containing one or more personal pronouns is the more natural spoken English?

  20. J.W. Brewer said,

    July 31, 2017 @ 7:05 pm

    It's hard to tell how accurate the dating of online news stories is because they may have been silently updated, but the "their" story from the Washington Post quoted in the original post here is dated 7/30 and this evening-of-7/29 piece in Las Vegas' hometown paper has "his." I'm going to speculate that that the Review-Journal was *not* using "generic his" for a naked passenger of unknown sex but was already aware from its sources that the passenger in question was male.

    I think that's the more natural version here because even if singular they is increasingly acceptable for referring to a specific, if unnamed, individual of known sex when the individual's sex is thought simply irrelevant to the point being made, the average reader, even if not necessarily for particularly elevated reasons, would consider the sex of the naked-in-public person a newsworthy detail of the situation. This probably combines with the point being made above about the comparative implausibility of a newspaper learning enough about the other details of the story to run it without learning the sex of the naked individual.

  21. Bev Rowe said,

    August 1, 2017 @ 4:56 am

    The singular use of the th-word cannot be "entirely" natural yet for this subject to have been raised in the first place.
    When it becomes entirely natural it will be so whatever the context.

  22. Pflaumbaum said,

    August 1, 2017 @ 5:14 am

    That's why I qualified it by "depending on the context".

    To give another example, the syntax in "those to whom the comment was addressed" is entirely natural in a legal document, but would likely sound weird in a colloquial conversation between friends.

  23. Bloix said,

    August 1, 2017 @ 12:04 pm

    Plural they in this case appears to be an effort to disguise gender. This seems odd, as to the extent the story is newsworthy at all, gender would be an element that would be of interest to the casual reader.
    The airport spokesperson had no difficulty with gendered pronouns:
    "He removed his clothes and then approached a flight attendant," airport spokesman Chris Jones says to NBC Las Vegas. "Metro officers were called and he was given medical attention."

  24. Pflaumbaum said,

    August 1, 2017 @ 12:40 pm

    Why do you think it appears to be an effort to disguise gender? Everything else you say suggests it isn't.

    For many (most) speakers, and likely the author, it's a natural choice after the largely gender-neutral "passenger". But that doesn't mean "passenger" was deliberately chosen to be gender-neutral.

  25. Tom V said,

    August 1, 2017 @ 7:41 pm

    Back when I was young (late Paleogene? — Not really sure of the dates) it was common practice, at least in the US, to default to the masculine sex/gender when a baby exhibited ambiguous sex characteristics. I'm not sure to what extent this is still the case today. If it is NOT the case then birth certificates, etc., would have to allow for choices other than boy/girl.* If they don't a good lawyer could collect a tidy amount of damages out of the case.
    After the sad Charlie Gard case I can't really see that any of this stuff is worth arguing about.

  26. Bloix said,

    August 2, 2017 @ 4:11 pm

    "Has anyone left their bike in the hallway?" – ok
    "Has George left their bike in the hallway?" – not ok

  27. Bloix said,

    August 2, 2017 @ 5:17 pm

    "Their" as a possessive pronoun is quite common for agendered people"
    Not sure what "quite common" means but it does not mean "idiomatic for most native English speakers."
    "Has Dana left their bike in the hallway?" Not IFMES
    Perhaps this blog is about to become prescriptivist, but if it adheres to its commitment to descriptivism, we should be describing English as she is spoke, not just English for those who are woke.

  28. Ellen Kozisek said,

    August 3, 2017 @ 5:47 pm

    Bloix, what's IFMES.

    How about" "their" as a possessive pronoun is quite commonly the preferred pronoun of agendered individuals and used for the person by those who know the person and their pronoun preference. (In my usage just then, though, "their" is the well-established usage of singular they/their/them when talking in the abstract.)

    And, frankly, there is no common standard in the general population as far as pronouns for agendered people, because many of us simply haven't had reason to talk about individuals we know to be agender.

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