They were a prophet

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Ben Zimmer, "How Maguire Accidentally Made the Case for Singular ‘They'", The Atlantic 9/27/2019 (subhead: "The national intelligence director’s recent testimony inadvertently supported the argument against grammar purists"):

When the committee chairman, Adam Schiff, asked Maguire if he thought that the whistle-blower was “a political hack” as Trump had suggested, Maguire responded, “I don’t know who the whistle-blower is, Mr. Chairman, to be honest with you. I’ve done my utmost to protect his anonymity.” But if Maguire was seeking to protect the whistle-blower’s anonymity, why use the pronoun he to identify the person’s gender?

Schiff, in his questioning, was more circumspect, avoiding gendered references by relying on a time-honored strategy: deploying they as a singular pronoun. When Maguire said he thought the whistle-blower was “operating in good faith,” Schiff said, “Then they couldn’t be in good faith if they were acting as a political hack, could they? … You don’t have any reason to accuse them of disloyalty to our country or suggest they’re beholden to some other country, do you?”

As Geoff Pullum wrote 15 years ago ("They are a prophet", 10/21/2004):

My student Nick Reynolds reports on a beautiful example of singular they found in an exchange of graffiti. Someone had scrawled this on the wall:

Vote Arnold 4 prez

— recommending a vote for Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger as President of the United States. Someone else, mindful perhaps of Schwarzenegger's ineligibility for that post, had scrawled something obscene below it about the first writer's ignorance. But a third person, mindful of how the future may resemble the world of the Terminator movies in which our governor had his greatest movie successes, added this response:

This person is not ignorant.
They are a prophet.
The machines will rule us

As it turns out, the third graffiti writer was a better prophet about usage than the first one was about politics.




  1. Robert Coren said,

    September 28, 2019 @ 10:34 am

    I wouldn't be surprised if Maguire was using "he" as a generic third-person pronoun, as he was no doubt taught in school, and was neither intentionally nor unintentionally revealing the whistle-blower's gender. Schiff, I would imagine, is more in tune with modern views on the subject (and, perhaps, is also younger).

  2. Michael Leddy said,

    September 28, 2019 @ 1:29 pm

    A similar scenario: some years ago, an e-mail exchange between a clueless student and an arrogant professor became briefly infamous. When I asked my students to write some thoughts about these e-mails, the student’s identity was unknown. What to do? I suggested working around the pronoun question. For instance:

    Not: If this student wants to make a good impression, he or she will need to rethink his or her way of addressing his or her professors.

    And not: If this student wants to make a good impression, they will need to rethink their way of addressing their professors.

    Instead: For this student, making a good impression should begin with thinking about how to address professors.

    Nine years later, I’m more inclined toward singular they, and I noticed and appreciated Schiff’s use of it to hide the whistle-blower’s identity. But it’s not always necessary. Another way to write on that wall:

    This person is not ignorant.
    This person is a prophet.
    The machines will rule us.


    This person is not ignorant but prophetic.
    The machines will rule us.

  3. Christian Weisgerber said,

    September 28, 2019 @ 2:16 pm

    I distinctly remember from spy movies that you always refer to your clandestine sources as he, no matter their actual gender. Of course that could be fiction or obsolete.

  4. KevinM said,

    September 28, 2019 @ 6:37 pm

    Affidavits in support of, e.g., search warrants will routinely include a footnote at the outset stating that a confidential source will be referred to as "he" irrespective of gender. I've never seen a default "she," however.

  5. J.W. Brewer said,

    September 29, 2019 @ 1:19 pm

    Prototypical uses of the traditional "generic he" presume that the actual sex of the person referred to is unknown (and possibly unknowable) to both speaker and hearer. What usage conventions are best when the speaker knows the sex (and/or is suspected by the hearer of knowing it) but wishes to conceal it (and/or is suspected by the hearer of ditto) raise other questions. Note generally that a conversation in which one participant is trying very hard to avoid inadvertently revealing something that the other participant is very interested in learning may not be governed by the usual default Gricean maxim.

  6. KevinM said,

    September 29, 2019 @ 6:01 pm

    @JWB. Yes – and hence the lack of a default "she." Given the historical background convention of a "generic he," the reader might well assume that the substitution of "she" had informational content (and, though hopefully not, go out and tamper with the testimony of the most likely female "rat").

  7. Ray said,

    September 29, 2019 @ 8:36 pm

    the graffiti cited on the bathroom wall example above in 2004 strikes me as odd:

    This person is not ignorant.
    They are a prophet.
    The machines will rule us.

    it seems like an offhand graffiti writer would have written:

    This person is not ignorant.
    They're a prophet.
    The machines will rule us.

    (to my ears, the use of "they're" sounds more natural a use of the singular they than "they are". "they're just sayin" sounds more like graffiti than "they are just sayin". so the example sounds a bit staged, to make a point.)

    (just sayin)

  8. Rodger C said,

    September 30, 2019 @ 6:39 am

    @Ray: I've often seen graffiti using written English constructions. People with a less than firm grasp of written English can have trouble with contractions and the like that they don't see often in book-prose.

  9. Alyssa said,

    September 30, 2019 @ 1:00 pm

    I think we're not giving the graffiti writer enough credit – it's a poem, not prose. The original phrasing has a nice sense of meter and pacing that is lacking in all the suggested re-phrasings.

  10. Andrew Usher said,

    September 30, 2019 @ 6:00 pm

    I don't think that it could be assumed to be poetry. But whether or not, the uncontracted form sound find to me there, even though (of course) the contraction is more common in speech. Presumably, the implied contrast favors some stress on the verb, thus not contracting it.

    As to the original subject, yes, there's no reason to think this anything other than a special case of the generic masculine (and maybe not even the special case here). I wouldn't have noticed anything strange about it, and I'm guessing most people wouldn't either. We just have another example of linguists' extraordinary bias against the mascline generic, often going so far as to deny it exists.

    k_over_hbarc at

  11. J.W. Brewer said,

    September 30, 2019 @ 8:20 pm

    Note the use of the generic he in this quote attributed (accurately or otherwise) to a White House official: “After we learned that the whistleblower is CIA, we figured it would be pretty quick to narrow down his identity among the few people there with a moral compass, but the more we looked into it, we realized we can’t think of anybody who has one.” (The CIA's current director is female, as it happens, but the story says that she has been cleared of suspicion.)

  12. Andrew Usher said,

    September 30, 2019 @ 9:38 pm

    That is a satirical story (from The Onion) but, none the less, a certain use of gender-neutral 'he' because the female director is explicitly included in that group of people the fictional official 'can think of'; it is therefore whoever wrote that article that had no problem using it.

  13. Ray said,

    October 1, 2019 @ 12:10 am

    @Roger C quite true. remember how in the early oughts everyone was wildly laughing at "all your prophet are belong to us"? :-)

  14. Thomas Shaw said,

    October 1, 2019 @ 9:53 am

    Part of what made the pronouns noticeable was how often the witness stumbled over them, at least in the segment of the hearing that I listened to. I remember more than once that Maguire used "he" and then at the end of the sentence corrected himself to "he or she". (He also several times addressed congresswomen as "congressman" before correcting himself). There was palpable awkwardness over it, so I wasn't surprised to see it written about here.

  15. Andrew Usher said,

    October 2, 2019 @ 6:48 pm

    That's helpful – it would seem that Maguire naturally uses generic 'he' in this kind of context but (presumably) felt that inappropriate to use in a public hearing nowadays.

    'Congressman' including females also has precedent, of course, and is natural to me. But I suppose you couldn't get away with it before Congress – where pretty much everyone feels uncomfortable.

    To add, even if you never heard of The Onion it should have been fairly obvious reading that whole story that it was far-fetched. And whether the leaker did in fact do it because of a 'moral compass' remains to be seen.

    I should think that The Onion's writers are likely to be young, so that shows the use isn't confined to older generations exclusively as some may imply.

  16. Michèle Sharik Pituley said,

    October 4, 2019 @ 8:56 am

    I've always preferred "Representative" to "Congressman/person". The Senate is also a House of Congress, so they are "Congressmen", too.

    Plus "Representative" emphasizes that they're supposed to actually represent their constituents.

  17. KevinM said,

    October 4, 2019 @ 3:16 pm

    Coincidentally, from today's NY Times story about Pedro Almodovar:
    "Banderas snorted at the memory. 'They tried to be a prophet, which is a very common thing in my country.'"
    Of course, we shouldn't necessarily rely on Antonio Banderas for idiomatic English: "Banderas said, adding, “He’s not like that. Pedro is a hard cookie.”

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