Annals of singular "they"

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"Pilot misses destination by 29 miles after dozing off", Sky News 11/27/2018:

A pilot in Australia is being investigated after they fell asleep in the cockpit and missed their destination by 29 miles.

The pilot, who was the only person on board at the time, overshot the remote Tasmanian island where they were due to land after dozing off.

The Piper PA-31 was travelling from Devonport to King Island on a routine flight by Vortex Air, a high-end private jet tourism operator.

A statement from the company said the flight was the pilot's first after a period of leave.

They had declared themselves fit to fly, were deemed adequately experienced, and had "previously flown the route a number of times without incident", the operator said.

Use of they for a specific singular human referent of unspecified gender is becoming routine.

[h/t Tim Frost]

 



58 Comments

  1. Laura Morland said,

    November 28, 2018 @ 6:24 am

    Wow. I approve of using 'they' for 'agender' people who have requested it, but unless the wayward pilot falls into that category, this news report simply feels ridiculous (or perhaps just uneducated) to me.

    I'm curious what others think.

  2. Robin Melnick said,

    November 28, 2018 @ 6:26 am

    I just enjoy the PP-attachment ambiguity in "The pilot … overshot the remote Tasmanian island where they were due to land after dozing off." So was the plan all along to doze off before landing?

  3. Antonio L. Banderas said,

    November 28, 2018 @ 6:32 am

    https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/themself

  4. Crystal said,

    November 28, 2018 @ 6:34 am

    I often find myself using singular they when the gender of the referent is known. I think (but I'm not really sure) that I do this more often when the gender or the identity of the referent is less salient, and that using he or she ends up being a slightly marked alternative because it draws attention either to the referent's gender or to the fact that their identity is known.

  5. Philip Taylor said,

    November 28, 2018 @ 6:39 am

    "Use of 'they' for a specific singular human referent of unspecified gender is becoming routine" —I am unconvinced. "One swallow does not a summer make". I might grudgingly accept "is becoming acceptable", but "becoming routine" would seems something of an overstatement. The British tabloid "Metro" uses "he" for the same story, as does a second British tabloid "Daily Mail" and the online source "news.google.com". I would go along with Laura's comment that "this news report simply feels ridiculous (or perhaps just uneducated) to me".

  6. C said,

    November 28, 2018 @ 6:39 am

    If I read that on a news site, I doubt I'd notice the singular they: it's that normal to me (UK).

    In this specific case, I presume the pilot's gender is known. The odds are, they are either male or female, and given that female pilots are still fairly rare, most likely male. That makes me wonder if the pronoun was chosen because the pilot is a woman, but saying so would possibly identify her, and regardless of that, likely trigger derogatory comments about women drivers/flyers.

  7. C said,

    November 28, 2018 @ 6:41 am

    While I was typing, Philip posted a comment that negates most of mine! Interesting.

  8. J.W. Brewer said,

    November 28, 2018 @ 6:49 am

    You can find on the internet the official PR statement of Vortex Air, which uses "they" and which the Sky News piece closely paraphrases. Vortex Air obviously knows the identity and preferred pronouns of its own employee, but perhaps has unique incentives to be as vague and opaque as possible.

    In other media coverage, the Independent has "A pilot in Australia fell asleep at the controls and overshot his flight landing, according to officials." The Daily Mail has "A pilot missed his landing by almost 50km after allegedly falling asleep during a chartered flight." Maybe those publications still find "generic he" to be stylistically cromulent; maybe they know (or assume they know) the sex of the unnamed pilot in question. Maybe it's one of those situations where the press has done no independent investigation or reporting and all the different news sources are just paraphrasing the same public statements by the airline and/or the government regulator; maybe it's one of those situations where it's an "open secret" and everyone close to the situation knows full well who the pilot was, but for various reasons doesn't publish the name or other details that would make it too easy for everyone else to figure that out.

  9. C said,

    November 28, 2018 @ 6:53 am

    Hmm. My follow-up comment has appeared, but not my first one! I'm more with J.W. Brewer than Philip:

    If I read that on a news site, I doubt I'd notice the singular they: it's that normal to me (UK).

    In this specific case, I presume the pilot's gender is known. The odds are, they are either male or female, and given that female pilots are still fairly rare, most likely male. That makes me wonder if the pronoun was chosen because the pilot is a woman, but saying so would possibly identify her, and regardless of that, likely trigger derogatory comments about women drivers/flyers.

  10. Ellen K. said,

    November 28, 2018 @ 7:38 am

    I think this is a case of talking about a specific person as if it weren't a specific person. Using "they" to be anonymous. Which doesn't seem like a new (within my lifetime) usage. Perhaps that's an illusion, but it doesn't feel natural to me in a way that using they for a specified person does not.

  11. JJM said,

    November 28, 2018 @ 8:29 am

    Philip Taylor: "'Use of "they" for a specific singular human referent of unspecified gender is becoming routine' – I am unconvinced."

    As am I.

    What is much more likely here is a deliberate editorial decision by Sky News to use "they" this way.

  12. philip said,

    November 28, 2018 @ 9:15 am

    Especially ridiculous as 'they' were the only person on board the flight.

  13. Yuval said,

    November 28, 2018 @ 9:24 am

    Well philip, it wouldn't be singular otherwise, would it?

  14. Yods said,

    November 28, 2018 @ 9:46 am

    Hasn't the use of they for a specific singular human referent of unspecified gender always been routine? Surely 'Someone left their umbrella behind,' is a perfectly innocuous sentence.

    [(myl) Singular they with indefinite antecedents, especially antecedents like "someone" and "everyone", has been normal for centuries. Cases with specific, definite antecedents seem to be a more recent phenomenon, especially in formal prose.]

  15. Mark Meckes said,

    November 28, 2018 @ 10:37 am

    To me it doesn't sound ridiculous, but it does sound surprisingly informal for a news report. It also has the effect (since singular they is more commonly associated with an indefinite antecedent) of creating a vague impression that the pilot's identity is unknown, despite the fact that the report makes it clear that is not the case.

    My assumption on reading it was that either the pilot's preferred pronoun is they (a situation I am familiar with, but not enough so to override my association of singular they with an unknown antecedent), or that the writer was deliberately playing on the typical indefiniteness of they for some reason. Based on J.W. Brewer's comment, it seems to have been some version of the latter.

  16. J.W. Brewer said,

    November 28, 2018 @ 10:58 am

    FWIW, here's the entirety of the airline's PR-spin statement (on their facebook page), which may have been the primary-if-not-only underlying source for many of the news stories:

    Media Statement: Incident on Devonport to King Island flight

    On 8 November 2018, a company pilot conducting a Vortex Air flight from Devonport to King Island unintentionally fell asleep while in command of the aircraft. The pilot was the only person on board the aircraft and no one was injured as a result of the incident.
    The flight was the first scheduled flight for the day and the following flights on the aircraft were unaffected.

    The issue became apparent when Air Traffic Control was unable to contact the pilot in-flight, and the aircraft travelled past the intended destination point while operating on autopilot. The pilot safely landed the aircraft at King Island airport.

    The flight was the pilots' first rostered flight with the company after returning from a period of leave, and they had declared themselves fit to fly. The pilot was adequately experienced and had previously flown the route a number of times without incident.

    All safety procedures were adhered to and regulatory compliance requirements have been satisfied to date. There is an ongoing investigation into the incident.

    Vortex Air takes the safety of our passengers, crew and pilots extremely seriously and always abide by all safety procedures. This is an extremely rare occurrence, as demonstrated by the companies' excellent safety track record, and the company is providing the necessary support to the pilot to assist them to safely return to full duties.

  17. Bruce Rusk said,

    November 28, 2018 @ 11:03 am

    It sounds like because this is an ongoing investigation the authorities want to release as little identifying information as possible, and rightly so–it may turn out that the pilot was ultimately not at fault, for example. I've heard police do similar things to avoid providing details about a suspect or victim in a crime.
    What those who find this "ridiculous" seem to forget is that distinguishing gender by pronouns is an arbitrary feature of English (and certain other languages, of course). Another language might ignore gender and require distinctions (in pronouns, verb forms, etc.) based on age, or height, or group affiliation, or whatever else. For English speakers it would be odd to see something like, "A pilot in Australia is being investigated after [this red-haired person] fell asleep in the cockpit and missed their destination by 29 miles," but why couldn't a language happen to focus on that feature? And while we might see hair colour as an arbitrary feature that tends to identify a person, for speakers of such a language it would be a grammatical necessary, and there would be flamewars about how wrong it is to say [person of indeterminate hair colour] of someone whose hair colour is known.

  18. Lukas said,

    November 28, 2018 @ 11:14 am

    The most surprising part about this is that there are comments here denying that the singular "they" has become completely routine. I'm not even thinking about seeing, or using it anymore, it's just the best option in the vast majority of cases.

  19. Philip Taylor said,

    November 28, 2018 @ 11:21 am

    Bruce — I think (with respect) that those of us that find the use of singular "they" ridiculous in this particular context do so because the language in which it was written is English, with all the grammatical baggage that this implies.

  20. J.W. Brewer said,

    November 28, 2018 @ 11:53 am

    According to Newsweek, the government regulator (Australian Transport Safety Bureau) managed to sidestep the issue by putting out a completely pronounless (at least if it's quoted in full) statement:

    "The ATSB is investigating a pilot incapacitation involving a Piper PA-31, VH-TWU, operated by Vortex Air, near King Island Airport, Tasmania on 8 November 2018," the agency said in a statement.

    "During the cruise, the pilot fell asleep resulting in the aircraft overflying King Island by 46km. As part of the investigation, the ATSB will interview the pilot and review operational procedures."

  21. Bob Ladd said,

    November 28, 2018 @ 12:44 pm

    @Bruce Rusk: It's perfectly true that lots of languages don't mark gender in pronouns (just as lots of languages don't mark levels of politeness or familiarity, or don't distinguish between we-inclusive and we-exclusive, or don't mark switch-reference, etc.), so in that sense the English distinction is arbitrary. And the general point of your example is obviously valid for lots of structured sub-systems of vocabularies in different languages (e.g. kinship systems). But I think you'd have a hard time finding a language that really uses age or hair colour or even group membership in a pronoun system. Like it or not, gender is a REALLY SALIENT feature of people in human communities, and the range of common pronoun systems reflects that fact.

  22. STW said,

    November 28, 2018 @ 1:12 pm

    Of course they could have used "the pilot" instead of "they" and avoided people rereading the story a couple of times trying to figure out who the other person on the plane was. Saying "they" is now singular does not magically undo centuries of English usage. It simply adds some unnecessary confusion. I'm curious why those hot and bothered by "he" and "she" haven't moved towards "it" when needing a singular alternative.

  23. J.W. Brewer said,

    November 28, 2018 @ 1:26 pm

    Bob Ladd's comment raises an interesting ambiguity in the meaning of "gender." Gender is a common-but-not-universal feature of languages as a way of breaking the universe of nouns (and thus sometimes-but-not-always pronouns, and sometimes-but-not-always adjectives modifying particular nouns etc) into subgroups. But lots of languages have gender systems that don't use masc./fem. or masc./fem./neut. as their organizing scheme, but instead reflect, for example, an animacy hierarchy (one gender for divine beings, another for humans, another for non-human animals, another for plants-and-rocks, for example). And there is a terminological dispute about whether the often more elaborate noun-class systems of e.g. Bantu languages are essentially the same thing as "gender" or something else.

    That said, M/F distinctions are highly salient in virtually all human societies (esp. the pre-modern societies in which all extant natural languages evolved), and animacy distinctions are likewise highly salient on a near-universal basis. Not every language's grammar encodes all such salient classifications, but it is more likely that it will encode some classification which is otherwise salient than one that is completely arbitrary (although obv a language like French will be somewhat arbitrary when it classifies inanimate objects as M or F for grammatical purposes, and the same is true in languages with animacy-based systems when they deal with nouns without concrete physical referents).

    Indeed the only reason "singular they" is even a thing in English in the first place is because in addition to traditional M/F/N distinctions in third-person-singular pronouns there is also a semi-covert animacy hierarchy in our pronoun system that makes it seem Just Plain Wrong to use "it" to refer to a post-infancy human being of unknown or unspecified sex or gender.

  24. Joe said,

    November 28, 2018 @ 1:53 pm

    In defense of Laura and Philip, language change does entail some discomfort – whether it manifests as ridiculousness, uneducatedness, or even as heartbreak as William Safire felt when faced with change related to gender considerations.

  25. Belial Issimo said,

    November 28, 2018 @ 2:38 pm

    How would a language that does not mark pronouns for gender but does mark verbs for gender handle the sentence "A pilot in Australia is being investigated after they fell asleep in the cockpit and missed their destination by 29 miles" if the writer wanted to obscure the gender of the pilot in the same way?

  26. Toby said,

    November 28, 2018 @ 3:02 pm

    In my experience news outlets seem to use 'they" in stories like this where there is some odour of wrongdoing (like they often overuse "alleged" thinking that they are therefore writing in some sort of legally correct way).

    It is hard to put your finger on but the same outlets (the Daily Mail is big on this) a good news celebrity story will use correct pronouns (whatever is chosen of the current 57) but "alleged" attackers always seem to be "they" – even when we are watching a video of the actual attacker and it is obviously a woman, for example.

  27. Vulcan With a Mullet said,

    November 28, 2018 @ 3:43 pm

    @STW:
    "Saying "they" is now singular does not magically undo centuries of English usage"
    … except that singular "they" has been used for centuries in English as well. See the many posts on this blog's history regarding this for reference.

    And the "hot and bothered" ones seem to me to be the ones who are resisting the use of a perfectly fine gender neutral pronoun because it makes them somehow feel they are "misusing" the language.

    As for using "it": As noted above by J.W. Brewer, animacy and personhood are distinctions that all human beings, regardless of gender, feel they are dignified enough to require.

  28. J.W. Brewer said,

    November 28, 2018 @ 4:02 pm

    Vw/M: Just on your last point, sure, but there's nothing inherent about "they" versus "it" that imbues the former with connotations of dignity and personhood which the latter lacks. It's just an arbitrary convention we mostly sort of picked up by osmosis, especially since many/most of us may have had formal educations that inaccurately deprecated "singular they" as an error and thus did not try to explain it as an actual rule-governed grammatical phenomenon.

    And I expect that quite a lot of native speakers would find it weird and/or undignified and/or depersonalizing to be referred to, as a definite individual, as "they" in third party reference when their (see what I did there?) identity was known to the speaker/reader and there was no reason to obscure it from the hearer/reader via deliberate vagueness. Although I suppose if my employer was acknowledging in public that I had done something questionable and alarming-sounding (but don't worry no one was actually hurt), I might appreciate being referred to as vaguely as possible.

  29. Philip Taylor said,

    November 28, 2018 @ 4:48 pm

    JWB ("I might appreciate being referred to as vaguely as possible.") — Clearly a case for maximal use of the passive voice : "A relatively small nuclear explosion was triggered earlier today in what had previously been thought to be a disused lavatory; enquiries are being conducted into the location of a member of senior management at the time that the incident took place".

  30. AJJ said,

    November 28, 2018 @ 5:06 pm

    Had this not been prefaced as an example of singular 'they' usage, I wouldn't even have batted an eye at the wording. It was perfectly natural and entirely unremarkable.

    I would agree that it was likely a deliberate choice by the author, but I'm not convinced it would have taken too much thought.

  31. Andrew Usher said,

    November 28, 2018 @ 6:43 pm

    Certainly it was a choice by the author, as the original report avoided pronouns altogether. I can't be sure it was part of an attempt to make a point, but certainly to me it's unnatural enough that that's the impression it necessarily gives.

    I glanced at the quote before knowing the subject, and was actually confused by this sentence: "The pilot, who was the only person on board at the time, overshot the remote Tasmanian island where they were due to land after dozing off." – because I naturally took 'they' as plural and implying there were others on board, and concluded the sentence must be wrong because it contradicts itself thus.

    I don't think people would normally think it necessary to hide the pilot's gender in order to give anonymity (although there are other cases where it might be so), and if doing that consciously using no pronouns would be no harder than using 'they' – so this can only seem bizarre, and again a decision by the author (presumably not specific to this article) that he or she must use 'they' for political reasons.

    k_over_hbarc at yahoo.com

  32. JPL said,

    November 28, 2018 @ 6:48 pm

    Interesting that the three instances of the use of the 3pl pronoun to refer to a definite singular referent in order to indicate irrelevance of the gender distinction are ordered in terms of decreasing "routineness": "Indef article + pilot" (although the referent is a particular, definite person); "Def article + pilot"; and subject NP of an independent sentence with antecedent in the previous sentence: by this time we might expect the article to identify the pilot by name, but the continuation of the gender neutrality was probably determined by the previous instances, and the company really didn't want to provide any further information. But even that third instance I would not consider remarkable wrt current usage.

    Do languages with gender neutral pronoun systems ever use the 3pl pronoun to refer to non-definite singular referents?

  33. Jim Breen said,

    November 28, 2018 @ 7:30 pm

    What caught my eye was the description of King Island as "remote". In an Australian context it's a bit like calling Martha's Vineyard or the Isle of Wight "remote". It's just off the Tasmanian coast and gets a lot of tourists.

  34. Rebecca said,

    November 28, 2018 @ 7:41 pm

    I'm with Mark Meckes on this: it sounds informal, (or maybe a genre error). If a person just told me that story, perhaps having it heard it but not noting much about the pilot, I'd not blink at the use of singular they. But a published story is presumably researched well enough to be more specific. The decision not to sounds evasive and so should be explained.

  35. David Nash said,

    November 28, 2018 @ 7:51 pm

    The (preliminary) official report https://www.atsb.gov.au/publications/investigation_reports/2018/aair/ao-2018-075/ doesn't use any pronoun, as J.W. Brewer surmised from the Newsweek report. This is consistent with the ATSB policy of de-identifying individuals in their reports.
    @ Jim Breen: I don't think there's a passenger ferry to King Island; and it is noticeably further from other land than the islands you cite. For a light aircraft, there's some remoteness in an operation over water beyond gliding distance from a possible landing site.

  36. /df said,

    November 28, 2018 @ 8:02 pm

    Per J.W.Brewer, if the statement was actually as quoted
    "…
    The flight was the *pilots'* first rostered flight with the company after returning from a period of leave, and they had declared themselves fit to fly. The pilot was adequately experienced and had previously flown the route a number of times without incident.
    …" [my ** throughout]
    then the first sentence is self-consistently plural and the second singular. I would finger the author's word processing grammar checker for recommending "they" and "themselves" to agree with "pilots'" (or vice versa) but that would be too astonishingly sophisticated. If the author was really going for They (s.), the corresponding object pronoun would have been "themself", surely.

    Also, the last paragraph of the quoted statement shows that the author's singular/plural confusion is consistent, before finally exhibiting an unarguable They (s.) construction in the finishing double infinitive phrase.

    "…
    Vortex Air *takes* the safety of *our* passengers, crew and pilots extremely seriously and always *abide* by all safety procedures …, as demonstrated by the *companies'* excellent safety track record, and the *company is* providing the necessary support to the pilot to assist them to safely return to full duties."

    If this is an example of grammatical innovation, then the piece seems to offer a few more. Or perhaps we should reintroduce the profession of scribe rather than expecting some communications studies graduate to be able to draft a coherent writtten statement.

  37. Chas Belov said,

    November 28, 2018 @ 9:13 pm

    As I've noted multiple times, I am fine with this usage. The gender of the pilot is irrelevant to the story. The burden of ambiguity for whether "they" is singular or plural is no worse than any other English word with multiple meanings, which English has in abundance.

    That they is singular is firmly established with "The pilot, who was the only person on board at the time." While one may argue that that sentence would not have been necessary had "he" or "she" been used, it is certainly of consequence to the story as a whole whether anyone else had been on board.

  38. mollymooly said,

    November 29, 2018 @ 8:47 am

    @dfIf this is an example of grammatical innovation, then the piece seems to offer a few more.

    Misspelling a possessive plural has nothing to do with grammar or usage (for a human; it may do so for a computer's heuristics).

    Of those English speakers comfortable with singular "they", some (including me) prefer "themselves" for the reflexive while others prefer "themself". (A subset of each insist their preference is the One True Usage, which I concede is ironic.)

    "Vortex Air *takes* the safety of *our* passengers" is I confess formally incoherent, although of a type entirely natural in spontaneous speech.

  39. Ellen K. said,

    November 29, 2018 @ 9:53 am

    Even if the "original report" doesn't have pronouns, the airline's statement (as posted by J.W. Brewer on November 28, 2018 @ 10:58 am) does use a pronoun, "they" and "themselves".

    The flight was the pilots' first rostered flight with the company after returning from a period of leave, and they had declared themselves fit to fly.

    It seems to me like using "they" rather than "the pilot" there sets up the "themselves" reflexive. (Which to me, should be themself, singular. But that's another debate.) While "they" can easily be replaced by "the pilot", there's really no way to avoid a pronoun where it has "themselves".

    And note that the article in the original post does include the exact same wording, "They had declared themselves fit to fly".

  40. Ellen K. said,

    November 29, 2018 @ 9:59 am

    P.S. I had not noticed the misplaced apostrophe in the airline's statement. Seems clear that "pilot's", singular, is what is meant.

  41. ktschwarz said,

    November 29, 2018 @ 11:29 am

    @mollymooly: "Vortex Air takes the safety of our passengers" is the same phenomenon as "My family is gathering in Philadelphia, and I'm preparing a Thanksgiving feast for them", thoroughly analyzed here by Mark Liberman. Actually, J.W. Brewer may be right about a "semi-covert animacy hierarchy in our pronoun system": the collectives that take singular verbs and plural pronouns all seem to be animate.

    Mixing a 3rd person verb with a 1st person pronoun also sounds normal to me for a collective making a statement about itself.

  42. J.W. Brewer said,

    November 29, 2018 @ 1:31 pm

    Yes, the article in the original post presumably tracks the wording of the press release, as Ellen K. noted, because the journalist who wrote it had the press release in front of, um … um … him-or-herself when writing. The more interesting question is whether the other news stories that used "masculine" pronouns had additional information about the specific pilot's sex or were just transforming singular-they to generic-he for stylebook reasons. Or thought that even if "journalism" often consists of uncritically rewriting press releases rather than independent factual investigation you at least ought to actually rewrite the press releases rather than cut-and-paste them word for word.

  43. Ben Olson said,

    November 29, 2018 @ 5:03 pm

    As a "millennial", singular they strikes me as completely normal. I think nothing of it and it doesn't scan as weird to me at all.

    I actually find it very fascinating that older people make such a big stink about it.

  44. philip said,

    November 29, 2018 @ 7:11 pm

    Yuval: I find it ridiculous because I find all singular theys ridiculous.

    Is there a mid-Atlantic split here on the tendency to view singular they routine?

  45. Andrew Usher said,

    November 29, 2018 @ 7:29 pm

    I 'make such a big stink' (not really), and I'm not even that old, because this use of 'they' causes confusion, adds nothing to the language, and was clearly implemented for political reasons.

    No, I don't object to all 'singular they', even if that term were defined properly, which none of its advocates seem able to do – and even the objectionable use, really, is more pathetic than ridiculous.

  46. Ben Olson said,

    November 30, 2018 @ 9:30 am

    Andrew,

    I've never been confused by singular "they" in my life, and I'm not sure what sort of confusion it causes.For example, I see absolutely nothing weird about the example sentences above.

    What kind of confusion do those example sentences cause?

  47. Gregory Kusnick said,

    November 30, 2018 @ 1:20 pm

    Andrew: Why should word choices motivated by "political reasons" be considered less legitimate than word choices motivated by any other reason, such as coolness or in-group signaling? The fact remains that people actually do talk that way, whatever their reasons for doing so.

  48. Michèle Sharik said,

    November 30, 2018 @ 2:16 pm

    re singular they — I was born in 1969 and find the usage of singular they entirely natural and share Ben's fascination of the big stink made of it by "older people" (who are sometimes younger than me).

    re "political reasons" — Just a reminder that the personal is political, and likewise, the political is personal. I want to also add a bit of snark: It must be very nice for you that your personal political situation lines up so neatly with "Standard" academic pronoun usage. /snark

  49. Kenny Easwaran said,

    November 30, 2018 @ 5:37 pm

    "there's nothing inherent about "they" versus "it" that imbues the former with connotations of dignity and personhood which the latter lacks. It's just an arbitrary convention we mostly sort of picked up by osmosis, especially since many/most of us may have had formal educations that inaccurately deprecated "singular they" as an error and thus did not try to explain it as an actual rule-governed grammatical phenomenon."

    Isn't the dignity/personhood distinction between singular "they" and "it" exactly as strong as the gender distinction between singular "he" and "she"? Both of these are just arbitrary conventions we mostly sort of picked up by osmosis. (Though perhaps our formal education is more likely to explicitly mention the gender distinction between "he" and "she", and is unlikely to explicitly mention the animacy/personhood distinction between "they" and "it".)

  50. Tom davidson said,

    December 2, 2018 @ 8:21 am

    Recast the lead sentence. After falling asleep…missing the destination.

  51. Rose Eneri said,

    December 4, 2018 @ 11:47 am

    I find it hard to believe that any native English speaker, regardless of age, would not be even a little confused by singular "they" when paired with the copula, as in, "They is here." I have never been in the situation of being asked to use a plural pronoun when referring to a single person. I'm sure if I were, I would find it would difficult and confusing. I would simply stop using pronouns when referring to the person (and maybe everyone) as in the original press release about the pilot. No matter how many times I hear it, I'm still confused when Axe refers to Taylor as "they" on Billions.

  52. Philip Taylor said,

    December 4, 2018 @ 12:50 pm

    I am certainly in the "singular 'they' can be confusing" camp, but I can nonetheless envisage situations in which its use would be natural to me. For example, "I tried to make an appointment to see the consultant gastroenterologist but apparently they are fully booked up for several weeks". In this case, not only is the sex of the consultant gastroenterologist unknown but so is his/her identity, so "they" would (for me) seem both idiomatic and natural. If, on the other hand, I were to want to write "I tried to make an appointment to see Julian Chrysostomides but apparently ???? is fully booked up for several weeks" I would feel completely lost if I did not know his/her sex, and I would be forced to re-cast, since the use of singular 'they' after a named individual is completely alien to me.

  53. George D said,

    December 4, 2018 @ 2:26 pm

    "I have never been in the situation of being asked to use a plural pronoun when referring to a single person."

    Well, except for every time you use the word "you" to refer to a single person (similarly, no one would say "they is here" when referring to a single person, just as you don't say "you is here", regardless of whether you're referring to one or more people)

  54. Philip Taylor said,

    December 5, 2018 @ 9:23 am

    George D — "no one would say "they is here" when referring to a single person". Is this necessarily true ? I have never heard anyone use "they" to refer to a single trans-gender person, but it seems not impossible to me that if I were to ask (e.g.,) "where does Julian come from" of a trans-gender Julian, then someone who does use singular "they" in such contexts might answer "they is Irish", since it is clear that "they" is being used as a direct substitute for "he" or "she".

  55. Ellen K. said,

    December 5, 2018 @ 9:57 am

    Well, I suppose it's possible some would say "they is", the same as some say "you is" (a dialectal thing). But it's certainly not the standard way to use singular they, and I've never noticed or seen mention of it being used.

  56. SusanC said,

    December 6, 2018 @ 5:59 am

    As a speaker of British English, singular "they" sounds completely fine in this context – who the pilot was hasn't been disclosed, so you don't know their gender.

  57. Jack said,

    December 10, 2018 @ 1:35 pm

    For me this is perfectly natural and the typical way I refer to somebody who has a particular position ("the pilot", "the mailman", "the bus driver"). Regarding the discussion about verb forms, for me "they" always uses plural verb forms, so I would never say *"they is here", even when talking about a single person. "The mailman is here, but they have to go soon, so you need to sign this form", which switches verb forms, is fine. To me this is generally reminiscent of the way usted/ustedes works in Spanish, using 3rd-person verb forms for a 2nd-person pronoun. Sure, this technically breaks the xoncentional description of the grammar, but that's how it is.

  58. Jack said,

    December 10, 2018 @ 1:37 pm

    I meant "conventional", the submit button was covering the word "xoncentional" and I was not able to notice until the message was already posted.

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