Tuesday, October 28, 2008

They Are Not Singular

I was going to post the below as a comment on this post of Matthew Cheney's, but it's gotten too long and too grumpy for that. So it goes here...and you folks get to deal with my grumpy old-fashioned ire.

"They" is used, and understood, by the vast majority of English speakers to be third person plural, and making that word less useful and distinctive does not seem to me to be a worthy goal. Many writers have used individual words idiosyncratically, or in a non-standard manner, but that doesn't mean that all of the things a word has ever been thought to mean in the past are equally valid as meanings today.

I also note many of the usages noted by Cheney or on the linked page are of the form "everyone...they" or "anyone...they." Those may be technically singular, but "any" and "every" always retain a sense of multitudes to them.

There are many good ways to communicate that a singular third-person has an unknown (or unimportant) gender; making a myriad of other sentences less intelligible along the way is not one of them.

In the current case: "I'll pay one author for one story."

Join the Campaign to Keep They Plural!


Kerry said...

I respectfully disagree. ;-)

David Isaak said...

I generally admire your posts, but I have to disagree with this one. You might a well start a campaign to keep Japan British: It never was before, and isn't at the moment.

From Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary:

1 a : those ones used as third person pronoun serving as the plural of he, she, or it or referring to a group of two or more individuals not all of the same sex *they dance well* b : 1HE 2 often used with an indefinite third person singular antecedent *everyone knew where they stood E. L. Doctorow* *nobody has to go to school if they don't want to N. Y. Times*
2 : PEOPLE 2 used in a generic sense *as lazy as they come*
usage They used as an indefinite subject (sense 2) is sometimes objected to on the grounds that it does not have an antecedent. Not every pronoun requires an antecedent, however. The indefinite they is used in all varieties of contexts and is standard.
usage They, their, them, themselves: English lacks a common-gender third person singular pronoun that can be used to refer to indefinite pronouns (as everyone, anyone, someone).

Writers and speakers have supplied this lack by using the plural pronouns *and every one to rest themselves betake Shakespeare* *I would have everybody marry if they can do it properly Jane Austen* *it is too hideous for anyone in their senses to buy W. H. Auden*. The plural pronouns have also been put to use as pronouns of indefinite number to refer to singular nouns that stand for many persons *'tis meet that some more audience than a mother, since nature makes them partial, should o'erhear the speech Shakespeare* *a person can't help their birth W. M. Thackeray* *no man goes to battle to be killed. * But they do get killed G. B. Shaw*. The use of they, their, them, and themselves as pronouns of indefinite gender and indefinite number is well established in speech and writing, even in literary and formal contexts. This gives you the option of using the plural pronouns where you think they sound best, and of using the singular pronouns (as he, she, he or she, and their inflected forms) where you think they sound best.

Deanna Hoak said...

I disagree with you, Andrew. I can pretty much assure you that if I went about rewriting sentences in the way you recommend, I would find myself short of work. "His" needed to be eliminated as a gender-neutral pronoun, since it so obviously isn't. For most sentences, using "their" as a singular (a far lesser crime than using "him" for men and women, IMO) results in the most natural sentence structure.

Andrew Wheeler said...

David: That quote is mostly in favor of "they" as an indefinite third-person pronoun, which is not at all the same thing as a definite singular third-person. Note that the examples tend to have antecedents like "everyone" or "some more audience" -- antecedents that are themselves plural and indefinite.

The usage I object to is of the kind "I went up to the receptionist and gave them my name." I'm seeing more and more of it lately, and it's both lazy and stupid -- assigning indeterminacy to a specific person.

A single, defined person is not a "them," and never will be.

And a single, undefined person doesn't need to be a "they," either -- that's a use which can almost always be avoided.

Anonymous said...

You are, in this case, completely and utterly wrong. The English language does not work as you imagine it to, and those who have seriously investigated "singular they" have no problem with it, nor have multitudes of writers of widely-acknowledged skill.

Robert Hutchinson said...

I humbly submit that you are arguing for 3PS "they" making other sentences less intelligible without actually showing us how it does so. What confusion arises when reading "I'll pay one author for their story"? I don't think anyone is pausing to wonder whether the story is owned by a previously unmentioned group of people who aren't the author.

As for irritation about using it when the gender is already known, what if someone said: "Some crazy person was ranting about vampires at the grocery store today"? The only difference I see between that and the receptionist example is that the former usage is "normal" and the latter is irksome, which brings you back around to arguing for why it's irksome.

And I'm pretty sure that "we can already say that a different way in English" is never going to work as a means to hold back changes in English. :)

Ian Sales said...

"They" is used, and understood, by the vast majority of English speakers to be third person plural...

Not true. Speakers of British English understand "they" when it is used as an indefinite third person singular. And given that Indian English is derived from British English, that would make the British English usage the one understood by the "vast majority".

Besides, being prescriptive about language is just plain silly.

Andrew Wheeler said...

Once again, David's citation from Merriam-Webster (for whatever that's worth) actually supports my complaint.

What is "indefinite" in those cases is number.

Let me say that again: number.

All of those historical usages have antecdents like "someone," "anyone," "nobody" -- words that mean "a number of individuals greater than or equal to one." They do not support the usage of "they" to refer to a single individual -- that is not indefinite in this context.

I object to use the use of "they" as the definite neuter singular third-person pronoun. That usage is not standard English at this point in time, though there are -- I admit -- many people currently committing terribly, horribly ugly sentences with that usage. (And, if enough people do it for long enough, of course it will become standard. That's why I argue against it.)

Ian Sales said...

That usage is not standard English at this point in time...

It is in British English. And has been for centuries.

Deanna Hoak said...

Andrew, Merriam-Webster's Collegiate (11th ed.), which the vast majority of publishers use, offers this definition of "they": "his or her: HIS, HER, ITS--used with an indefinite third person singular antecedent.

"Their" is what you were initially complaining about. The definition clearly shows you can use it for indefinite gender, and it specifically says "singular."

Øystein said...

Popular topic over on the excellent Language Log.
CF this search-history on their old server:

And they have a category for it on their new site: http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?cat=27

I'm not a native English speaker so I shan't try our hand at joining this discussion. I might sneak in a lousy joke though.

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