OED cites Language Log again

« previous post | next post »

Back in September 2010, I reported that the Oxford English Dictionary had added an entry for eggcorn, a term that was coined right here on Language Log for an alteration of a word or phrase that makes sense in a new way (like acorn being changed to eggcorn). The earliest citation given for that meaning of eggcorn was, naturally enough, the 2003 post by Mark Liberman in which he relayed Geoff Pullum's suggested coinage.

2003   M. LIBERMAN Egg Corns: Folk Etymol., Malapropism, Mondegreen, ???: update in languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu 30 Sept. (blog, Internet Archive Wayback Machine 8 Oct. 2003)  Geoff Pullum suggests that if no suitable term already exists for cases like this, we should call them 'egg corns', in the metonymic tradition of 'mondegreen'.

Now, in the latest batch of updates to the OED's online edition comes another Language Log citation.  Among the updates, the OED editors overhauled the entries for they, their, themthemselves, and themself to account for using these pronouns in the singular to avoid gender reference or for non-binary gender identities. And in the entry for their is a citation from a 2008 post I wrote about Facebook's use of singular they for non-gender-specific news feed items.

The previous entry for their (from the OED's 1989 second edition) noted its use in the singular, particularly with antecedents such as eacheveryeitherneitherno one, and everyone. The entry said their is "also so used instead of 'his or her', when the gender is inclusive or uncertain," but parenthetically noted that such usage is "not favoured by grammarians." The newly expanded entry opens the section on singular usage of their with the note, "Use of their in relation to a singular noun or pronoun has sometimes been considered erroneous."

The OED's new sense 2, for singular their, is broken down into different subsenses. Subsense 2a is defined thusly: "In relation to a noun or pronoun which is grammatically singular, but refers collectively to the members of a group, or has universal reference (e.g. each personeveryonenobody, etc.)." That's followed by subsense 2b, which includes the Language Log citation (given in bold below).

b. In relation to a generic or indefinite noun or pronoun referring to an individual (e.g. someonea personthe student, etc.), used esp. so as to make a general reference to such an individual without specifying gender. Cf. earlier HIS adj. 1c.
In the 21st century, sometimes used to refer to a named individual, so as to avoid revealing or making an assumption about that person's gender; see e.g. quot. 2008, and cf. sense A. 2c.
c1450  (c1398)    in C. HORSTMANN Sammlung Altengl. Legenden (1878) 189   Ife any wighte Praye..to that damesele, She wille hyme helpe..Ife theire desire be goode & leele.
1563   N. WINȜET Bk. Four Scoir Thre Quest. liv   A man or woman being lang absent fra thair party.
a1642   H. BEST Farming & Memorandum Bks. (1984) 132   Holes of that bignesse that one may thrust in theire neafe.
1735   W. PARDON Dyche's New Gen. Eng. Dict. at Gripe   To..give a Person too little for their Wages or Goods.
1796   F. BURNEY Camilla III. vi. vi. 252   If any one plays their tricks upon me, they shall pay for their fun.
1847   W. M. THACKERAY Vanity Fair (1848) xli. 371   A person can't help their birth.
1925   N.Y. Times 26 July 23/2   I have no objection to a person dancing their feet and head off.
1981   Mass. Daily Collegian 19 Oct. 3/3   He said he had never heard of a tuition plan than that takes into account the income of a student or their family.
2008   B. ZIMMER in languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu 27 June (accessed 10 Sept. 2019)    Facebook uses they as a singular pronoun when the gender of the user is not known, leading to news feed items like: 'Pat Jones added Prince to their favorite music.'
2016   Scotsman 17 Nov. 12/5   A spokesperson for the DVLA said: 'When someone sells their vehicle they should inform the DVLA immediately.'

But what's truly novel about the revised entry (as with the entries for they and other forms of the pronoun) comes next in subsense 2c, covering usage for those with nonbinary gender identities.

c. Used with reference to a person whose sense of personal identity does not correspond to conventional sex and gender distinctions, and who has typically asked to be referred to using their (rather than his or her).
2009   @genderbitch 11 Dec. in twitter.com (accessed 9 Oct. 2019)    My partner is FAAB nonbinary. I avoid their genitals when they have dissonance flares.
2013   K. FLEISCHMAN Open Let. in nbcbayarea.com 14 Nov. (Internet Archive Wayback Machine 13 Dec. 2013)    Sasha feels comfortable wearing a skirt. It's part of their style. They also frequently sport a necktie and vest.
2019   Morning Call (Allentown, Pa.21 Feb. (Go Guide section) 25/3   The groundbreaking, award-winning series is based on Soloway's own experience with their parent coming out as trans.

For reference, here are the corresponding subsenses 2b and 2c in the OED's new entry for they:

b. With an antecedent referring to an individual generically or indefinitely (e.g. someonea personthe student), used esp. so as to make a general reference to such an individual without specifying gender. Cf. HE pron. 2b.
In the 21st century, other th– pronouns (and the possessive adjective their) are sometimes used to refer to a named individual, so as to avoid revealing or making an assumption about that person's gender; cf. sense A. 2c, and quots. 2008 at THEIR adj. 2b2009 at THEM pron. 4b2009 at THEMSELF pron. 2b.
a1450   in Neuphilol. Mitteilungen (1948) 49 154 (MED)   If þou sall lofe, Þe person fyrste, I rede, þou proue Whether þat thay be fals or lele.
1526   W. BONDE Pylgrimage of Perfection III. sig. IIIiiiiv   If..a psalme scape any person, or a lesson, or els yt they omyt one verse or twayne.
1653   Mercurius Pragmaticus No. 8. 61   If any one of them so elected members die, the part which they serve for, have liberty to chuse and present another.
1759   Ld. CHESTERFIELD Let. 27 Apr. (1932) (modernized text) V. 2350   If a person is born of a..gloomy temper..they cannot help it.
1818   H. B. FEARON Sketches Amer. 80   Servants, let me here observe, are called 'helps'. If you call a servant by that name they leave you without notice.
1877   J. RUSKIN Fors Clavigera VII. lxxx. 234   I am never angry with anybody unless they deserve it.
1940   Educational Forum May 423/1   True education is based upon the needs of the pupil… The needs of the pupil are expressed in the activities in which they are engaged.
1968   Listener 3 Oct. 440/3   When somebody becomes prime minister they're immediately put on a pedestal.
2019   @_ShristiUprety 26 Aug. in twitter.com (accessed 28 Aug.)    My personal rule is to never trust anyone who says that they had a good time in high school.

c. Used with reference to a person whose sense of personal identity does not correspond to conventional sex and gender distinctions, and who has typically asked to be referred to as they (rather than as he or she).
2009   @thebutchcaucus 11 July in twitter.com (accessed 9 Oct. 2019)    RT @pieskiis: @FireboltX What about they/them/theirs? #genderqueer #pronouns.
2013   Harvard-Westlake Chron. (Los Angeles25 Sept. B2/3   Asher thought they were the only nonbinary person at school until a couple weeks ago.
2019   www.thecut.com 3 June (accessed 21 Aug. 2019)    In 2016, they got a role on Orange Is the New Black as a wisecracking white supremacist.

It was just this combination of referential uses that led the American Dialect Society to select singular they as its 2015 Word of the Year. (For more on that selection, see the ADS press release, my writeup for Vocabulary.com, and the Feb. 2016 installment of "Among the New Words" in American Speech.) Since then, the use of they/their/them/themself as a nonbinary singular pronoun (OED's subsense 2c) in particular has received increased attention — for instance, when Merriam-Webster revised its own entry for they last month.

The use of singular they "to avoid revealing or making an assumption about that person's gender" (OED's subsense 2b) has also been the subject of much discussion of late — see, for instance, my recent piece for The Atlantic, "How Maguire Accidentally Made the Case for Singular 'They'," in which I talk about how handy singular they has proved in the Ukraine whistleblower saga. In the article, I make mention of historical precedents for singular they used to conceal someone's gender identity, with examples provided by pronoun-meister Dennis Baron:

Baron, who has a forthcoming book titled What's Your Pronoun?: Beyond He and She, shared with me a number of historical examples when the singular they has been strategically used to conceal a person's gender, going back to the 18th century. It's a tactic that has even appeared in fiction. In an 1861 installment of Emma D. E. N. Southworth's serialized novel Allworth Abbey, or Eudora, for example, a character defends her use of the singular they by saying, "Mamma, when we speak of anyone in the third person without wishing even to divulge their sex, we say 'they,' because we have no third person singular of the common gender." More than a century and a half later, some of us are still struggling with the concept.

The publication date for Baron's book is Jan. 21, 2020, but given all the action lately on the pronominal front (particular with respect to singular they), I expect he'll have plenty of material for a revised edition.


  1. Jenny Chu said,

    October 13, 2019 @ 10:45 pm

    On the topic of the singular "they": last night I was watching The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies. In the course of battle, Bard (the dragon slayer) shouts, "Any man who wants to give their last … follow me!"

    Of course, the convention is that the English used in the movie is a translation from Westron. Shall we conclude that Westron also had singular "they" – and the translation into English which was conveniently provided in the movie was doing its best to reflect that by using the modern English equivalent?

    Yet the rest of the English "translation" is rendered in a pseudo-old-ish English ("The Dwarf I knew would never have doubted the loyalty of his kin!"). Shall we further assume that the scriptwriters were well educated in the fact that singular they is quite long-established?

    Or is it so natural that nobody noticed it?

  2. John C Laviolette said,

    October 14, 2019 @ 1:12 am

    I don't have an Old English grammar handy anymore, but weren't the third person feminine and plural nominative pronouns practically interchangeable? I seem to remember them as either "heo" or "hie", and there was no way to tell which pronoun it really was except by context.

    I hope I remember correctly, because I've been citing this as a reason why people shouldn't be getting hung up on pronoun change or using singular "they".

  3. Ursa Major said,

    October 14, 2019 @ 5:37 am

    In the fourth paragraph you've quoted the definition of 2b instead of 2a (I got confused playing spot the difference). Sense 2a is:

    a. In relation to a noun or pronoun which is grammatically singular, but refers collectively to the members of a group, or has universal reference (e.g. each person, everyone, nobody, etc.).

    [(bgz) Thanks for spotting that — now fixed!)]

  4. Jerry Friedman said,

    October 14, 2019 @ 9:07 am

    I think congratulations are in order. Mazel tov, Ben!

    Jenny Chu: I'm not sure what we should conclude about the screenwriters' education from their choice of "give their last" instead of "give their last breath" or "breathe their last" or "give their all". Anyway, I prefer the convention that the films are adaptations of the real translations, which are by Tolkien. In a quick glance I didn't see Bard saying anything like that in The Hobbit. I'd give even money that Tolkien never used singular they in his fiction except for non-standard speakers, and 100 to 1 that he never did it (with the same exception) when the antecedent was a gendered word such as "man". All bets a nickel or less, please.

  5. Ursa Major said,

    October 14, 2019 @ 11:32 am

    @Jerry, you got me looking through Tolkien.

    He uses sense a in The Hobbit, and in the narrator's voice not that of a character.
    – "No one would see him, no one would notice him, till he had his fingers on their throat." (on Gollum)

    But he also uses 'his', although in a situation that can only refer to the male dwarfs or hobbit:
    – "no one seemed anxious to run the chance of being lost and never finding his friends again" (when they first encounter the elves in Mirkwood)

    AFAIK there are no non-binary characters, so sense c is irrelevant. Eru/Iluvatar (i.e. God) is a 'he': "There was Eru, the One, who in Arda is called lluvatar; and he made first the Ainur."

    For sense b, Tolkien seems to use 'he', but most of the ones I could find (e.g. "Frodo crawled to the edge of the road and watched the rider, until he dwindled into the distance") are like the Mirkwood quote where all possible referrants of the generic reference are male.

    There are some interesting cases with characters of ambiguous or unknown gender.
    – The Balrog is an 'it' during the action in Moria ("His enemy halted again, facing him, and the shadow about it reached out like two vast wings") but a 'he' when Gandalf later retells the story ("'Come, Gandalf, tell us how you fared with the Balrog!' 'Name him not!'").
    – When Shelob is an unknown threat in the dark, she is referred to exclusively by metonymy as 'the eyes', thus avoiding the problem. As soon as Shelob is identified she becomes 'she': "Too little did he or his master know of the craft of Shelob. She had many exits from her lair."

    The most interesting example is Eowyn (a woman) when she is disguised as Dernhelm (a man). It looks to me like Tolkien has attempted to write around the problem as much as possible, by using phrasing that avoids the problematic words. But he couldn't completely do it, and Dernhelm is a 'he' when they are first introduced:
    –"'Where will wants not, a way opens, so we say,' he whispered".

    This infrequent use of 'he' continues until Eowyn reveals herself, but the paragraph after the revelation ends with a rapid-fire 11 (!) occurences of 'she' or 'her', really hammering the point.
    – "A little to the left facing them stood she whom he had called Dernhelm. But the helm of her secrecy had fallen from her, and her bright hair, released from its bonds, gleamed with pale gold upon her shoulders. Her eyes grey as the sea were hard and fell, and yet tears were on her cheek. A sword was in her hand, and she raised her shield against the horror of her enemy's eyes."

  6. Jerry Friedman said,

    October 14, 2019 @ 3:46 pm

    Thanks, Ursa Major. I owe you a nickel.

    I think that use of "their" in reference to Gollum's victims might be at least partly attributable to the possibility that "his" would refer to Gollum.

    Incidentally, in The Lord of the Rings, orcs are sometimes "it" and sometimes "he" (but never "she"), like the Balrog.

  7. Jenny Chu said,

    October 15, 2019 @ 1:23 am

    @Jerry and Ursa Major – thank you for doing the due diligence which I did not! Yes, the quote is only from the movie and I immediately recognized it because it did not appear in the book.

    There were a lot of lines which are immediately recognizable as Hollywood standard throwaways and not Tolkein standards – one that jumped out was the frequent use of "Do I know you?"

RSS feed for comments on this post