Tolerance for singular they

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Today's SMBC:

The aftercomic:

The mouseover title:

The data is, the data is, the data is, the data is, the data is, the data is, the data is, the data is, the data is, the data is, the data is, the data is, the data is, the data is, the data is, the data is, the data is, the data is, the data is, the data is, the data is, the data is, the data is, the data is, the data is, the data is, the data is, the data is, the data is, the data is, the data is, the data is, the data is, the data is, the data is, the data is


  1. Keith said,

    September 4, 2018 @ 3:00 am

    The aftercomic should have read "what a nooclear response".

    Peeve over.

  2. Sili said,

    September 4, 2018 @ 3:24 am

    "on using"?

  3. Pflaumbaum said,

    September 4, 2018 @ 3:52 am

    Amid all the histrionics about singular they, I wonder if supposedly gender-neutral he Isn’t still quite robust.

    I made a real effort when talking to my kids to swap between he and she with a non-specific antecedent when for some reason “they” didn’t feel right (i.e. in cases where I would “naturally” use he If I wasn’t being careful).

    It seems to have had no effect. My daughter (6) has singular they, but when she doesn’t use it she definitely has he as default. For instance, if I said, “Someone stopped me in the street yesterday” she might easily reply, “What did he want?”

    My son (3) mostly only has he at the moment – he’s only just starting to use she even for female members of his family.

  4. jaap said,

    September 4, 2018 @ 4:58 am

    The thing that caught my ears is "You garbage". That doesn't quite work for me, as I see garbage as a mass noun.


    [link] "You garbage!” Lucknow shouted and scrabbled at his belt for his gun. “Whaam!” Hauser gripped his own pistol, but Schmidt had beat him to firing. Lucknow lurched backward from the heavy caliber bullet's impact, his eyes staring in shock.

    [link] "I'm sick of you, Garbage. Why don't you shut up or get off the field?" Lonnie ignored the ball entirely; it was probably the least painful hit he'd taken all day.


  5. Vilinthril said,

    September 4, 2018 @ 6:36 am

    Re “you garbage”: My instincts on this may not be as strong in English as they are in German, but even there, “du Abfall”, “du Abschaum” etc. work quite well (as do all kinds of mass nouns).

  6. jaap said,

    September 4, 2018 @ 6:56 am

    @Vilinthil: That's interesting, as I don't think it works in Dutch (my native language). Of course, in English "You piece of garbage" works fine for me. And "You utter shit" works too because shit is not being used as a mass noun in this case.
    I'm not really sure if my language sense here accurately reflects the BrE usage I'm used to or if I'm being idiosyncratic.

  7. Miles said,

    September 4, 2018 @ 8:21 am

    @jaap – I'm a BrE speaker, and "you garbage" is not something I would normally accept ("you're garbage" would be OK). However, in the scenario of someone losing their temper and so losing a grip on normal grammar and sense, it works well – a sort of "Oh! I can't even–".

  8. J said,

    September 4, 2018 @ 9:54 am

    " I'm a BrE speaker, and "you garbage" is not something I would normally accept"

    I hope not. Stick up for yourself! ;-)

  9. lylebot said,

    September 4, 2018 @ 10:19 am

    On "nuclear" -> "nucular", I've noticed my 6-year-old daughter goes the opposite way: instead of "popular" she says "pop-lee-ar", instead of "regular" she says "reg-lee-ar".

    I have not noticed any particular pattern in her third-person pronoun usage. I think that I haven't noticed anything means she probably isn't consistently using "he" in unknown/non-specific cases, since I do tend to notice when people do.

  10. MikeM said,

    September 4, 2018 @ 10:40 am

    Like data, garbage is a collected noun. :-)

  11. Michael Watts said,

    September 4, 2018 @ 12:47 pm

    I don't think "I'm sick of you, Garbage" can be considered an example of the construction "you garbage". The person being addressed is being addressed as "garbage", not as "you garbage".

  12. DaveK said,

    September 4, 2018 @ 12:54 pm

    It seems to me that as invective, “garbage” is generally used for abusing people for moral failings, or at most, failing a specific competency (“my team is playing like garbage”). For failures of intelligence, which is what grammar peevers like to accuse people of, the usual term is “idiot” or “moron”.

  13. Ellen K. said,

    September 4, 2018 @ 1:25 pm

    I don't see how it matters if garbage is a mass noun or not, in "you garbage". "You piece of shit". "You slime". Both work. Though I suppose the first is an example of NOT using a mass noun when one could. But then, I see nothing wrong with "You shit". Grammatically, that is, of course.

    As for "You're garbage", yes, that works, but it's a different kind of speech act than "you garbage". (Although it does strike me that "you garbage" can mean "you are garbage" in some non-standard varieties of English, I don't think that's what's happening here.)

  14. jaap said,

    September 5, 2018 @ 3:58 am

    @Ellen K:
    None of your other examples of "You X" use X as a mass noun:
    "You're a piece of shit" -> "You piece of shit"
    "You're a shit" -> "You shit"
    "You're a slime" -> "You slime"
    *"You're a garbage" -> ?"You garbage"
    All have the indefinite article in their long form so are not used as mass nouns, except for garbage which cannot be anoything other than a mass noun. Of course "You're garbage" and "You're shit" work but are different to the above examples as you've noted.

  15. Vilinthril said,

    September 5, 2018 @ 4:05 am

    I have to disagree, jaap. “A shit” is ungrammatical for me, so “you shit” cannot be an instance of a singular “shit” for me, yet “you shit” is still grammatical for me. (“Slime” can be singular for me, but I'm sure my sense of language is warped by decades of playing fantasy RPGs on this issue. ;))

  16. David Morris said,

    September 5, 2018 @ 6:59 am

    I was recently subediting an article in which the external contributor got seriously confused about pronouns. There was one instance of "anyone … they", then (slightly edited): "If you give the best expert the wrong data, he will make the wrong decision. If the data is right, they will probably make the right decision."
    I changed "he" to "they" and kept "is".

  17. Andrew Usher said,

    September 5, 2018 @ 7:14 am

    'You garbage' is also wrong for me – mass nouns aren't acceptable in that position. That said, I know some people might say it. Contrary to the previous post, "you shit" and "you're a shit" are equally acceptable – I wouldn't say them, because I don't have that sense of 'shit', but I think speakers that do could say either. I agree that 'idiot' or one of its countless near-synonyms would be far more likely is that context.

    People that are not native speakers should be very careful about issuing judgements on English usage, in general. I doubt any other language has that problem, but because of its global status everyone can think that he's an expert on English.

    The most interesting post here, Pflaumbaum's comment about generic 'he', has attracted no reply – very few people other than peevers are even willing to acknowledge anymore that generic 'he' exists and always has. Well I'll chime in, then – I have no dogma here, and I know I use it myself (like him, in addition to 'they').

    k_over_hbarc at

  18. Andrew Usher said,

    September 5, 2018 @ 7:19 am

    David Morris's example could be a very bad case of elegant variation; I would consider either pronoun OK there, but not both!

    And, certainly, I agree that 'data is' is just fine, in the mass-noun sens of 'data' that is now dominant.

  19. Alexandra England said,

    September 5, 2018 @ 8:45 am

    I think I agree with Ellen K that the usage of 'You garbage' feels wrong becasue it's a different kind of speech act. Could it be to do with vocative case? I've heard 'trash' used like this but not alone, the phrase was 'you white, white trash.' Which I guess would also be vocative and not fit in with my idea at all.

    I don't use generic 'he' myself and if I'm honest I find it really alienating and jarring if I come across it in contemporary writing… and in contemporary speech even more so. I find 'they' for the third person singular fine in principle, but the difficulty I experience is then having to switch to the third person plural form of the verb. If we could agree to use 'they are' for plurals and 'they is' for singular my brain would maybe cease its restless seeking of the plural persons referred to by 'are.' But then again, maybe it would just reach 'they is' and recoil from the disagreement.

    The post-cartoon made me think of the Vapors' 1980 Debut album (featuring the hit single 'Turning Japanese') titled 'New Clear Days'. The cold war was over before the penny dropped on that pun.

  20. Ellen K. said,

    September 5, 2018 @ 9:37 am


    Shit and slime ARE mass nouns, and I've no reason to assume a starting place of "you're a…". It seems an odd assumption. My point is that "you're (a) [word]" and "you [word]" are different speech acts.

    @Alexandra England

    Actually, I did not say nor mean to imply that "you garbage" feels wrong. Quite the opposite.

  21. Fionnbharr Ó Duinnín said,

    September 5, 2018 @ 11:21 am

    For anyone living outside a native speaking English territory railing against the use or misuse of count/noncount (mass) nouns is a moot point given the differences between International / Globish English and the various flavours of native.

    Outside the linguistic harbour of the British Isles, in the EU and beyond it is pretty standard to hear things like: an advice, feedbacks, one luggage, some trainings, many evidences, etc. In terms of 'correcting' these I take the pragmatic approach of asking my translation students whether they are ever planning to work in a native English country, if what they are producing might be seen in those countries or whether it is going to be preserved for perpetuity in print. If so, I correct them mercilessly: if not, there is absolutely no point. I'm not going to play King Canute to the unrelenting tide of non-standard English. There is no point because they will be surrounded by non-native speakers communicating in this alternative, parallel form of English and not one jot will be cared. And in terms of pragmatic communicative intent, little to no meaning will be lost.

    In the EU they produce a number of handy guides to help standardise the non-standard EU-English neologisms. My favourite being "Misused English words and expressions in EU publications": The aim of which is not to correct these cionages, but to entrench them into accepted forms within the various bodies of the EU. A quick peruse of which will show many examples of mass nouns suddenly being countable.

    The general rule in Europe for the 'best' to the 'worst' International / Globish English is that it is stronger the father South and East you go, So the Scandinavian countries have International English closest the native standard. This rule is reversed in the British Isles, given the use of Hiberno-English and Scots.

    With regard to the EU's use of gender neutral "they" this can be sound on page 57, section 15 of their style guide, available here:

    NB. The American use of accommodation as a non-mass noun for the meaning "a room, group of rooms, or building in which someone may live or stay" sounds ungrammatical to UK/Irish ears, but you can get use to anything once you hear enough people using it in that 'ungrammatical' way. The mass form of accommodation being reserved for other meanings, see

  22. Andreas Johansson said,

    September 5, 2018 @ 3:12 pm

    Andrew Usher wrote:
    People that are not native speakers should be very careful about issuing judgements on English usage, in general. I doubt any other language has that problem, but because of its global status everyone can think that he's an expert on English.

    FWIW, it's certainly happened to me that someone who patently wasn't a native speaker of Swedish tried to correct me, who am, sometimes on points where I was clearly correct and they clearly wrong in prescriptivist terms.

  23. Alexandra England said,

    September 6, 2018 @ 1:03 am

    As a native speaker of English, I'd argue that, while 'correcting' is a socially risky venture with any language, English perhaps allows more room for non-native speakers' input regarding usage, with its worldwide status and its majority of non-native users of the language. As a Brit I'd feel a bit ruled by a correction from, say, a Singaporean, in general conversation in the UK, but elsewhere in the world I think I'd find it hard to argue for the correctness of my dialect's standard over that of other world Englishes.

  24. JK said,

    September 6, 2018 @ 9:12 am

    The singular "they" has become pretty common with commentaries of online streamed video game competitions — the people doing the "play-by-play" of video game races don't know the gender of the racers, so they just go with "they" most of the time

  25. philip said,

    September 7, 2018 @ 7:59 pm

    Miles: Would you accept 'scum' when talking to one person? "Listen, you scum, just put down the needle and get away from my bin (garbage)."

    Fionnbharr: Do you bother correcting their prepositions? That is the funniest bit for me about Euro-English. I was mock-proposing a company paid for us translators to go off for a freebie 'conference' in Mallorca, and some of the staff immediately said, "We are going with." Which is cute, but wrong. On another point, non-native translators into Irish mess up prepositions on an alarmingly regular basis, eg *fanfaidh mé ort instead of the correct fanfaidh mé leat.

  26. Alexander said,

    September 7, 2018 @ 9:52 pm

    " 'We are going with.' Which is cute, but wrong."

    Totally fine in Minnesota.

  27. Andrew Usher said,

    September 8, 2018 @ 1:31 pm

    Not only Minnesota: it's understood all over the US, if not used by everyone. Note that 'come' and 'go' are the only verbs that can take that construction (other Germanic languages may allow more). Perhaps those Europeans did pick up the construction from American English rather than just making a mistake.

    To reply to Philip, 'you scum' does seem OK, although it would be still more likely for a group of people. I guess mass nouns are not excluded by an iron-clad rule, but they are not preferred.

  28. Andrew Usher said,

    September 8, 2018 @ 1:52 pm

    Andreas Johansson:

    Obviously, my statement was too general to be absolutely true. There are those kind of people everywhere … but certainly the phenomenon must be more common in English – after all, it's almost exclusively English in which one can have interaction almost exclusively with other non-native speakers, and not be able to realise that one's usages are not standardly acceptable.

    I am a native speaker, and even I don't usually like correcting people on grammar – unless it's clearly a case of being grossly mistaken, I'd only want to correct someone if they were attempting to spread it to others or making false arguments based on their error.

  29. Andreas Johansson said,

    September 9, 2018 @ 4:21 am

    @Andrew Usher:

    It's surely more common in English, yes. Other languages where it may be expected to be common would be others widely used as lingua francas – French in Africa might be a likely candidate.

  30. Bryan Hann said,

    September 16, 2018 @ 3:58 pm

    Remember too that "a shit" is something you both take and give when giving it to the toilet.

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