"WR6_gUnUj-ztiW07KQcOCnTel9A"/> Notes From Atlanta: 02/17/13

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Why Use of “They” as Singular Pronoun Isn’t Bad Grammar

Over the last few years, the pronoun “they” (and its other inflections such as “their” and “them”) has replaced “he” or “he or she” as the preferred pronoun, at least in conversational English, when referring back to a singular antecedent. For instance, instead of saying or writing “Everybody should bring his or her book,” most people now say or write “Everybody should bring THEIR book.” Many grammarians have denounced this usage as inexcusably careless and illegitimate. They say it’s an unacceptable slaughter of proper grammar on the altar of (feminist) political correctness. In fact, the Associated Press Stylebook, the bible of American journalism, forbids the use of “they” as a generic, singular pronoun.

 Well, in a beautifully written and hugely insightful January 16, 2013 article in the language blog of the Economist, I learned that the use of “they” as a singular pronoun actually has deep roots that go back to several centuries. Please enjoy this brilliant article originally titled “Singular ‘they’: everyone has their own opinion” and learn about the history and evolution of the pronoun “they.” 



FREDDIE DEBOER, a graduate student and blogger, has just summed up his class project examining the use of singular they. It will be hard going for most readers, using as it does terms like "anaphor" and "c-command" that aren't part of ordinary school and university grammar-teaching. After his technical analysis of the few cases where singular they is allowed (as in "every student aced their project"), he sums up for the lay reader:

Using "their" for singular antecedents is one that I think people need to just give up on. As I've argued, it only occurs in a very limited set of circumstances, and those circumstances [are very] unlikely to produce confusion about what is meant. We all know what is intended in such a statement, to the point that most of us don't even notice it in spoken conversation. And as we lack a satisfying alternative, the usage is likely to persist. That's not to say that you shouldn't understand what the "rule" is, if only to be able to satisfy those gatekeepers that police it. (Don't use it in your resume, don't use it in your grade school application.) But this is an example of a gate that's not worth defending anymore.

It's a nice piece of work, but it's useful to revisit the old question of singular they, and go deeper into two of Mr deBoer's arguments, one of which he makes explicitly, and one of which he waves away.
First, the argument he waves away:

When dealing with scolds, it's nice to be able to point out that "they" was used as a singular pronoun for centuries before anybody said that you couldn't. But we shouldn't be tempted to take that as dispositive when we are trying to avoid exactly that kind of rigidity.

He's right that no single argument is dispositive. Tradition alone must contend with the modern vox populi and with logic when we ask "what's correct?" But many who oppose singular they do so precisely on historical grounds. Such people argue that singular they is a product either of sloppy modern grammar teaching or of political correctness (that is, the desire to avoid "Every student aced his project").

If singular they has deep historical precedent, then it is dispositive on the sub-question of what is traditionally correct. In this case, liberal descriptivists and conservative prescriptivists can sing a happy song in harmony. Descriptivists note that nearly everyone uses singular they, at least in speech. Prescriptivists can relax in the knowledge that Chaucer, Shakespeare, the King James translators, Swift, Byron, Austen, Goldsmith, Thackeray, Shaw, Herbert Spencer and others used it. In collecting these examples, the "Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage" notes that these are not "lapses" by the greats. They are the regular pattern, many centuries old. The "prohibition" of singular they is only two centuries old. This simply should not be a controversy.


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