Plural it in E. Nesbit

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Reader KB sends in two interesting passages from E. Nesbit, The Story of the Amulet, 1906, where it is used when one might have expected singular they (emphasis added):

Chapter 1 (in an Edwardian present) "I hope you notice that they were not cowardly enough to cry till their Father had gone; they knew he had quite enough to upset him without that. But when he was gone every one felt as if it had been trying not to cry all its life, and that it must cry now, if it died for it. So they cried."

Chapter 12 (from a Utopian future) "I can’t describe that house; I haven’t the time. And I haven’t heart either, when I think how different it was from our houses. The lady took them all over it. The oddest thing of all was the big room in the middle. It had padded walls and a soft, thick carpet, and all the chairs and tables were padded. There wasn’t a single thing in it that any one could hurt itself with."

Edith Nesbit, who published under the name E. Nesbit, was a prolific author of children's books as well as a co-founder of the Fabian Society. The repeated its in the first quotation, and the recurrence of the pattern in a later chapter, make it clear that this usage was not a slip.

And in fact, there are other examples of the same sort in the same book:

So now every one had a rose in its buttonhole, and soon everyone was sitting on the grass in Regent's Park under trees whose leaves would have been clean, clear green in the country, but here were dusty and yellowish, and brown at the edges.

Every one opened its mouth without thinking of manners, and Anthea, who was peeping into the Psammead's basket, saw that its mouth opened wider than anybody's.

I shall not repeat their conversation; it was very gloomy. Every one repeated itself several times, and the discussion ended in each of them blaming the other two for having let Jane go.

"Let's get our hats. Will you come with us?" […] So everybody got its hat.

There are also some passages where they is used to refer to every one or any one:

So every one said, "Oh!" rather loud, and their boots clattered as they stumbled back.

"She's right there," said every one, for they had observed that the Psammead had a way of knowing which side its bread was buttered.

"I can say it to you, though, of course, if I said it to any one that wasn't a dream they'd call me mad; …"

My guess about this usage is that Ms. Nesbit chose forms of it as a compromise between an editor who insisted that every one and any one must take singular pronouns, and her own reluctance to use either sex-neutral he, his, himself or the awkward he or shehis or her, himself or herself. Of course, the "editor" in question might have been an internal one.

The same usage occurs frequently in her 1902 novel Five Children and It, e.g.

Everyone got its legs kicked or its feet trodden on in the scramble to get out of the carriage that very minute, but no one seemed to mind.

There was no chance of talking things over before breakfast, because everyone overslept itself, as it happened, and it needed a vigorous and determined struggle to get dressed so as to be only ten minutes late for breakfast.

You often notice that sort of silence when someone has said something it ought not to — and everyone else holds its tongue and waits for the one who oughtn't to have said it is sorry.

Everyone now turned out its pockets on the lead roof of the tower, where visitors for the last hundred and fifty years had cut their own and their sweethearts' initials with penknives in the soft lead.

However you eat them, tongue and chicken are new bread are very good things, and no one minds being sprinkled a little with soda-water on a really fine hot day. So that everyone enjoyed the dinner very much indeed, and everyone ate as much as it possibly could: first, because it was extremely hungry; and secondly, because, as I said, tongue and chicken and new bread are very nice.

Whether anyone cried or not, there was certainly an interval during which none of the party was quite itself.

No one had a foot-rule in its pocket, so Robert could not be measured — but he was taller than your father would be if he stood on your mother's head, which I am sure he would never be unkind enough to do.

(Note: these quotations are from a 2007 reprint, which is probably why someone and everyone are written solid.)

A quick search of a few other E Nesbit books (The WouldbegoodsThe Railway Children, …) did not turn up any similar examples.

When the sex of the set quantified over can be assumed to be male, Ms. Nesbit seems to have been happy to use he. Thus from The Literary Sense, 1903:

"Do you mean that I should have liked anyone else as well if he had only been kind enough to kiss me?"

Of course, The Literary Sense was a novel for adults (beginning "She was going to meet her lover. And the fact that she was to meet him at Canon Street Station would almost, she feared, make the meeting itself banal, sordid."). So perhaps she thought of her indefinite human its as a playful gesture suitable only for children's literature. Or perhaps The Literary Sense had a different editor…

[Regular LL readers will be aware that we've mentioned "singular they" once or twice in the past, e.g. "Is 'singular they' verbally and plenarily inspired of God", 8/21/2006; "'Singular they': God said it, I believe it, that settles it"; "'Singular they' mailbag", 9/16/2006; etc.  And in a comment on "Against Atheyism", 7/25/2009, Andrew wrote

E, Nesbit (children's author, early 20th century) did use 'it' where either 'he' or 'they' might be expected; but I think this was always after terms such as 'somebody' or 'everybody', so one could claim that 'body' provided an antecedent for 'it'.

This doesn't seem right, given that most of the examples involve __ one rather than __ body, and that we also see things like "… none of the party was quite itself". But I should have followed up on the comment at the time, and didn't.]


  1. Victoria Simmons said,

    June 2, 2012 @ 1:55 pm

    Are the various people referred to as 'it' children? It used to be pretty common to refer to animals and children (especially very small ones of indeterminate gender) as 'it.' (Now, with babies, we have to guess, and we get into trouble if we get it wrong.) Could that be what's going on here?

  2. David Denison said,

    June 2, 2012 @ 2:01 pm

    I don't think most of your examples are singular they. Nesbit (whose books I loved reading with my daughters, and whose pronoun use I studied in depth for another point – subjective ~ objective change differentiated by person – usually has a group of children who have adventures without an adult in attendance (that standard formula for children's stories). It's usually 2 boys and 2 girls, and she makes a point of using it to refer to a generic child. I think they examples of they that you cite are ordinary plural pronouns, referring to all the members of the group rather than just one. The last one does look like it, though, but notice that it's in direct speech: she is always very careful to distinguish the colloquial speech of young, middle-class children from their elders and betters, and from her own authorial voice.

    [(myl) I didn't mean to suggest that these were examples of singular they, but rather that they were cases where singular they might have been used, but it was used instead. And the main issue with singular they, after all, is how to refer to a generic human as a variable in a quantified context. The (recently) traditional prescriptive solution is to use he, he or she, etc. The vernacular solution, as well as the solution chosen in works from Chaucer, the King James bible, Shakespeare, and Jane Austen, forward to many present-day writers, has been to use forms of they (as of course you know). Nesbit's idiosyncratic solution is often to use it.

    And she seems to do this in some cases where the set being quantified over is not just the children in the story, or even children in general, e.g.

    You often notice that sort of silence when someone has said something it ought not to — and everyone else holds its tongue and waits for the one who oughtn't to have said it is sorry.

    There wasn't a single thing in it that any one could hurt itself with.

    For those readers who are interested — and you all should be — David's paper discussing other aspects of Nesbit's pronoun usage is "The case of the unmarked pronoun", originally published in Derek Britton, Ed., English Historical Linguistics 1994.]

  3. Ralph Hickok said,

    June 2, 2012 @ 2:12 pm

    Ooh, idden it a pwety wittow thing?

  4. David Denison said,

    June 2, 2012 @ 2:15 pm

    To conclude my previous comment, I think one reason that Nesbit was such an excellent children's author was that she had a really good ear for the way real children speak, and her children's dialogue is a good source of natural-sounding data for its period. So your last example (they'd call me mad) shows that she had observed singular they. Without further evidence, though, I'd be surprised if she or her publishers would have been willing to countenance it in ordinary prose.

    [(myl) Another example in quoted speech, from The Literary Sense:

    Here, let me put my Inverness round you. Keep it up round your chin, and then if anyone sees you they won't know who you are.

    The speaker is a respectable doctor whose usage is presumably canonical, speaking in awkward circumstances to a woman he doesn't know.]

  5. Jason Eisner said,

    June 2, 2012 @ 2:36 pm

    A story about my daughter at age 5 yrs 7 mos (quoted from a contemporaneous email):

    She made some comment in which she referred to a hypothetical student as "it" and a hypothetical teacher as "she." I asked why. She said that she didn't know whether the student was a boy or a girl. I said, "But the teacher could be a man or a woman, too." She said, "Right, but there's a good chance it'll be a woman."

    (It was a year or two ago that I first noticed her sometimes using "it" as a gender-neutral pronoun. But I'd never asked her to explain it before, and I didn't know until now that she had an odds threshold.)

  6. David Denison said,

    June 2, 2012 @ 3:06 pm

    OK, my guess was wrong: singular they isn't only for children and the uneducated. Is it ever found in her authorial voice, Mark? I'd be happy to be proved wrong again.

    [(myl) There are examples like these from The Enchanted Castle:

    Everyone grew calmer — more contented with their lot.

    The suddenness with which all the ring-magic was undone was such a shock to everyone concerned that they now almost doubt that any magic ever happened.

    In these cases, the group referred to is at least somewhat specific rather than generic, of course. On the other side, I haven't yet found any examples where Nesbit uses "he" or "he or she" to refer to a mixed-sex or generic every one, some one, etc. But she wrote and published ~60 books, so a complete picture of her (edited?) practice in this respect would take a fair amount of work to compile.

    And a truly dedicated scholar might visit the library at the University of Tulsa, to check out Nesbit's letters.]

    I'm sorry if I was unclear in my first post. In effect I went off-topic by concentrating on the bit where you said "There are also some passages with singular they:". I certainly didn't take you to be applying that to the many examples you gave of her rigidly sex-neutral it.

  7. Michael Watts said,

    June 2, 2012 @ 6:54 pm

    In the first book of the series, "it" is used to refer to the Lamb (a single individual of known male gender, albeit an infant). You can find this in the children's direct speech ("Let's get the Lamb and lug it home to dinner") as well as in the narration ("the Lamb was still in the hands of Martha having its clothes changed"). I found Nesbit's use of "it" very jarring when I recently reread that book, but I put it down to language change. It's hard to attribute the cited "it"s to a war of editing.

    (Forms of "he" are also used for the Lamb; they are more common than "it". However, I don't find the use of "it" acceptable at all.)

    [(myl) Nesbit is not alone in referring to an infant as "it", or in representing older children as referring to an infant as "it" — just search Google Books for e.g. "its nappy" or "its diaper". Some people think that way of talking is natural, some people think it's cute, and some (like you) find it jarring. But that's not what's going on in the passages discussed in the original post, though it may be what gave her the idea: these are not things like "the Lamb was having its clothes changes", where it refers to a specific infant, but rather things like "there was nothing that anyone could hurt itself with", where it refers to a generic individual.]

  8. Steve Morrison said,

    June 2, 2012 @ 7:58 pm

    There are several instances in her novel The Wonderful Garden:
    (on a railroad journey)

    The one who got the little bit of the engine in its eye was Charles that time. But some one always gets it, because some one always puts its head out of the carriage window, no matter what the printed notices may say.

    (the children are chewing fern seeds in the attempt to cast a spell)

    ‘One, two, three, four, five, six,’ said Mrs. Wilmington’s highly ornamented pink china clock; and each child thrust a little bunch of fern fronds into its mouth.

    (the children eat flowers for magical reasons)

    Caroline divided the three flowers with extreme care and accuracy and handed its share to each child.

    (last sentence of the book; the children learn that they will be reunited with their parents)

    As they turned to go to the house they saw the seven stems on which the white starry flowers had grown, and suddenly and surely each child saw that the Uncle, when he brought them the bunch of pale papers in one hand and the bunch of stephanotis in the other, was really bringing to each child its Heart’s Desire.

    I'm currently working on an e-text of this book (there seems to be none so far.)

  9. Rodger C said,

    June 2, 2012 @ 8:41 pm

    @myl: I'm puzzled as to how the sentence about the Inverness is an example of the usage under discussion.

    [(myl) Sorry for the confusion — David Denison and I got involved in a side discussion about Nesbit's treatment of "singular they". David hypothesized that she might treat "singular they" the way she treats e.g. the case of pronouns in cases like "or PRO", where his 1994 paper documented the fact that she quotes children as saying "or me" but respectable adults as saying "or I".

    While I didn't compile any statistics, I did cite that one example of "singular they" in the reported speech of a respectable adult (though in a book meant for adults.]

  10. Will Watts said,

    June 4, 2012 @ 10:54 am

    An example from The Railway Children, Chapter IV: 'Crying is catching, I believe, like measles and whooping-cough. At any rate, everyone at once found itself taking part in a crying party.'

    The sex ratio at the crying party is three F to one M, so 'himself' really would be intolerable. I have always admired E Nesbit's resolve in following this logical solution against contemporary convention, which I feel is somehow apiece with her other habits, such as cigar smoking and adopting and raising the children of her husband's lover as her own.

  11. Rodger C said,

    June 4, 2012 @ 12:04 pm

    And my apologies too. I'd completely failed to register the significance of the "they" in the sentence.

    Peripheral, but this reminds me of the use of the neuter plural 3sing pronoun in Old Norse to refer to a group, as þau Skapti, "Skapti and the others."

  12. Rodger C said,

    June 4, 2012 @ 12:06 pm

    "neuter plural 3sing "? Must not post when in a hurry …

  13. Fiona Hanington said,

    June 5, 2012 @ 12:20 pm

    Oh, I love her use of "it" in these examples! To me, they sound utterly charming.

  14. Maureen said,

    June 6, 2012 @ 8:13 pm

    I always took her use of generic "it" as being humorous in nature, because I always found it pretty droll as a kid. Possibly it was more of an ideological thing, of course. But a lot of Victorian and Edwardian writers played language and usage games, particularly in children's books where such games were seen as acceptable fun, not as proof of ignorance and bad education.

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