The Inevitability of the Singular ‘They’

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Richard Hershberger

Richard Hershberger is a paralegal working in Maryland. When he isn't doing whatever it is that paralegals do, or taking his daughters to Girl Scouts, he is dedicated to the collection and analysis of useless and unremunerative information.

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41 Responses

  1. Everything you say is spot on, and I appreciate the research you go into. Interesting about usage (3). I’ve probably encountered it, but it’s not something I’ve thought about or been struck by.

    I confess to being one of those grammar peeves who doesn’t like the singular “they,” however. The reason is, I don’t like to use plurals when I can use singulars.* That’s merely an aesthetic preference and nothing more, and it’s not justified, but it still bothers me. And to me, the singular “they” and the usage “him and her” are similarly awkward, so we might as well go with the singular “they.”**

    *Well, I guess I should’ve said, “I don’t like to use a plural when I can use a singular.”
    **Well, I guess I should’ve said “I might as well go with….”Report

  2. I wonder if this phenomenon you describe in English has some sort of analogue with other Indo-European languages’ treatment of neutrals as plurals. My German isn’t too good, my Latin and Greek are pretty rusty–and my Sanskrit is non-existent–but I seem to recall that grammatically “neutral” nouns and articles get treated in special ways, usually when it comes to differentiating between nominative and accusative cases (neutrals tend not to make the distinction), but also when it comes to plurals, so that (at least in Greek, and maybe in Latin…I don’t think it applies to German at all), a plural noun sometimes takes a singular verb form if that noun is plural.

    That’s not the same thing as the singular “they,” but it seems that there’s a similarity of some sort. Or maybe not. Languages can be weird.Report

    • Avatar Morat20 in reply to Gabriel Conroy says:

      IIRC, a lot of English grammar weirdity comes from some fun invasions of England wherein English reverted mostly to a peasant language, and then when — the French I think — got kicked back out, everyone had to relearn it from peasants. Being peasants, of course, it was terribly uncouth so someone bolted on a lot of Latin grammar rules (stealing from Latin was fine, as the other alternative the educated had was French which was unacceptable because of the previous invasion).

      Which fit very, very poorly.

      Which includes the lack of a genderless pronoun in the singular case.

      It’s been ages since Latin, but as I recall the pronouns lacked gender. He/she/it was the crude English approximation (now nouns had gender, yes, but that wasn’t quite the same). English approximates this with…titles, I suppose. “The spouse”, “the farmer”, “the police officer” — the usual language of gender neutral discussions. And, of course, with the universal “he” which was understood to also mean women, except when it didn’t.Report

      • Avatar Michael Cain in reply to Morat20 says:

        As I recall, the decline of full-blown gender in English (ie, different forms for “the”) began in the northern parts of the country during the period when many people were bilingual in both Old English and Old Norse. Both were gendered, but there were differences, and over enough time is was just simpler to use “the” in the mash-up of the two languages that emerged.

        I seem to recall reading that one of the linguistic myths about that period is that once the vikings had sailed up the river, killed off the lord of the manor, and moved in, the new lord discovered that he had to learn English so he could order the peasants about. But he didn’t bother with Old English gender and just used “the”. The peasants picked up the habit quickly because no one wants to make the new lord, who got his position by cutting off the old lord’s head, look bad.Report

    • Avatar dragonfrog in reply to Gabriel Conroy says:

      In German, I wouldn’t say neuter nouns get treated really more or less specially than masculine and feminine ones. That’s the only language I know that has masculine, feminine, and neuter grammatical gender, so I have no idea if German is exceptional or typical that way.Report

      • You’re right, I was thinking more of the articles and adjectives, and those only in the singular accusative and nominative, which of course is different from what I’m claiming for ancient Greek and Latin. I do think it’s interesting, though, that neuter Latin nouns (and, I think ancient Greek neuter nouns) and neuter German articles both use the same form for the nominative and accusative. Maybe it’s only a coincidence.Report

        • Avatar dragonfrog in reply to Gabriel Conroy says:

          In German, the articles have a bunch of crossover – the feminine articles are also the same in nominative and accusative, and dative is the same between masculine and neuter – is there something similar going on in Greek or Latin?Report

          • D’oh! I forgot about the feminine articles being the same in the nominative and accusative. Disregard whatever I said about them.

            As for Latin, my understanding is that it didn’t have articles, at least classical Latin didn’t, from what little I learned several years ago. Ancient Greek did have articles, and I believe they were mostly declined as nouns were.

            However….I’m speaking about things I know only a little. The only language besides English that I know pretty well is French, and even with French, I’m far from fluent.Report

    • Avatar Murali in reply to Gabriel Conroy says:

      I know that for tamil, at least in the spoken variety, it is somewhat common for people to use the second person plural in place of the second person augmentative. It is still regarded as ungrammatical by official grammar standards. i.e. school essays can require you to write dialogue in a way that would get you laughed at if anyone actually talked that way. Imagine if the rules of english grammar still required you the use thou for second person singular even though no one outside of a period drama actually uses it anymore.Report

  3. I think it’ll happen, even though they ain’t no logic in it.Report

  4. So likewise shall my heauenly Father doe also vnto you, if yee from your hearts forgiue not euery one his brother their trespasses.

    Was it really the custom in those days to use “u” as a consonant and “v” as a vowel?Report

  5. You (Richard) might recall what our old Usenet buddy James Nicoll said about the development of English:

    The problem with defending the purity of the English language is that English is about as pure as a cribhouse whore. We don’t just borrow words; on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and riffle their pockets for new vocabulary.[

    Report

  6. Avatar Saul Degraw says:

    I’ve tended to split between writing she/he and they as the third person singular gender neutral pronoun.Report

  7. Avatar Michael Drew says:

    I like this piece by Richard; I hope they had as much fun writing it as they seem to have.Report

  8. Avatar Jaybird says:

    Your momma’s so fat their pronouns are plural.Report

  9. Avatar Brandon Berg says:

    “You” is the traditional second person plural pronoun. The singular form was “thou” (and its inflected forms).

    Well, yeah. What’s thy point?Report

  10. Germans the same pronoun for “she”, “they”, and “you”, and it them no confusion to cause seems use.Report

    • Avatar Zac in reply to Mike Schilling says:

      Uh oh, somebody go check on Schilling, I think he’s having a stroke.Report

      • Avatar Michael Cain in reply to Zac says:

        No, just channeling his inner Mark Twain:

        An average sentence, in a German newspaper, is a sublime and impressive curiosity; it occupies a quarter of a column; it contains all the ten parts of speech — not in regular order, but mixed; it is built mainly of compound words constructed by the writer on the spot, and not to be found in any dictionary — six or seven words compacted into one, without joint or seam — that is, without hyphens; it treats of fourteen or fifteen different subjects, each inclosed in a parenthesis of its own, with here and there extra parentheses which reinclose three or four of the minor parentheses, making pens within pens: finally, all the parentheses and reparentheses are massed together between a couple of king-parentheses, one of which is placed in the first line of the majestic sentence and the other in the middle of the last line of it — after which comes the VERB, and you find out for the first time what the man has been talking about; and after the verb — merely by way of ornament, as far as I can make out — the writer shovels in “haben sind gewesen gehabt haben geworden sein,” or words to that effect, and the monument is finished.

        Report

    • Avatar dragonfrog in reply to Mike Schilling says:

      I’m glad I while reading that nothing drinking was.Report

  11. Avatar Oscar Gordon says:

    Function words only change slowly, and not due to some blog item that everyone thinks is brilliant. It is that semi-automatic stuff that you don’t usually think about. It is much easier to adapt an existing pronoun than to introduce a new once: hence the singular ‘they.’

    This. Language is a human construct, but not one that involves edicts from on high. It is largely an organic construct, with changes flowing from what the current & next generations find useful for communication.Report

    • It is largely an organic construct, with changes flowing from what the current & next generations find useful for communication.

      Yes, generations. I heard a radio commercial the other day where the phrase “on accident” was used multiple times. That one made me crazy back when my kids started using it, but now I’ve just relaxed since it’s obviously inevitable. My wife will probably go to her grave trying to correct people who say it.Report

  12. Avatar CK MacLeod says:

    Et tu, Jane?

    …Though on the other hand, both of the Austen examples are of characters speaking, so can be taken as depictions of how her character would speak, not how Austen thought statements of the same type should be written. I’d like to see examples of how Henry James or, a different thing, his characters handled the problem.

    As for the King James examples, in two of the three passages from the Bible, the full context is very plural:

    And the children of Israel did according to all that the LORD commanded Moses: so they pitched by their standards, and so they set forward, every one after their families, according to the house of their fathers.

    The “their” after “every one” is situated within a passage about the (plural, obviously) “children of Israel,” and is already marked by two “they”‘s and a “their” before we get to the “every one.”

    More generally, in English, much in usage has been regularized since the King James Bible and since Austen’s times: Using plural pronouns strictly to refer to plural antecedents is more modern and more scientific, and in (present-day Americanized) English partly compensates for a general lack of declensions and other syntactic mechanisms.

    In my own writing, I view each occurrence of these personal pronoun problems as an opportunity – for instance to situate a statement contextually: If I’m making an argument that I suspect may be upsetting to feminists or the gender-political avant-garde, I may deploy a female singular pronoun or even “ze” and “hir.” It I can come up with a version of “every/they” or “each/they” that I find particularly clumsy, I may use it precisely to underline how awkward I find it (even when used by some of the most influential and beloved writers of English).

    The change may be “inevitable” for accepted or “standard” diction, but formal or elegant diction will still, as ever, be typified by conscious choice on the level of the word, by imposition of one’s own authority where necessary or appropriate, and never by the desire to get along with or fade into the crowd in some theoretically defensible position. As for what the kids are doing, if you want to sound like a child, then I say, sure, talk like a child.Report

  13. Avatar Alan Scott says:

    The real question is this:

    singular themself or singular themselves?Report

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