Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Someone asked me about 'singular they,' and this is what I told them

If you are a native speaker of English, it's very likely that nothing in the title of this post struck you as unusual -- and yet, it contained a form that many English teachers would wholeheartedly denounce. This form is known as 'singular they,' and although it's a linguistic feature that many English speakers employ conversationally, it is often attacked as incorrect, particularly when it shows up in writing. Essentially, singular they refers to the use of the plural pronoun “they” (as well as “them” and “their”) to refer to a single person. It’s controversial because some people think these words should only ever be used to refer to more than one individual.

So, is it truly unacceptable? As usual, I have a short answer and a long answer to this question. The short answer is of course not, because language doesn’t work that way. As I've discussed in other posts on this blog, no linguistic form is inherently unacceptable. Anything that a speaker intentionally produces is grammatical for them, and successfully serves the primary purpose of language: to communicate ideas with other people.

For the long answer, we'll need to look at the many, many reasons why singular they is a regular -- and useful! -- part of the standard English language.

First of all: even calling this pronoun use ‘singular’ is overlooking the fact that the pronoun is still grammatically plural. This can be seen in the verb agreement in the following standard English sentences:

1. Bill left his bag on the table, and I hope he comes back for it.

2. Some students left their bags on the table, and I hope they come back for them.

3. Some student left their bag on the table, and I hope they come back for it.

The ‘singular they’ in Sentence 3 is grammatically plural, because it is the subject of the verb "come" and that verb is inflected for a plural subject. If "they" in Sentence 3 were grammatically singular, that verb would be in the singular agreement form "comes" as in Sentence 1. So using a ‘singular they’ is not violating any grammatical rules of subject-verb agreement in standard English, and it is not changing the pronoun from a singular paradigm to a plural one. All that has changed is the referent of the pronoun.

So, is there a problem with plural-marked noun phrases having singular referents? Let's take a look at the subjects in the following standard English sentences, each of which refers to a single entity but is grammatically plural (as can be seen by the verb agreement):

4. My glasses are on the nightstand.

5. These scissors are sharp!

Standard English also has some plural-marked nouns with singular referents that are grammatically singular:

6. Checkers is my favorite game.

7. Measles is a terrible disease.

And plenty of singular-marked nouns with plural referents:

8. The army has defeated the enemy.

9. This band sounds awesome.

Not only that, but there’s variation across countries. The subjects in the above two sentences were grammatically singular, but the following sentences, which are regular in some dialects of British English, have singular-marked nouns with plural referents that are grammatically plural:

10. The gang are protecting their turf.

11. The committee meet once a week.

The conclusion of all this is simple. There may be a tendency in standard English for referent, form, and grammatical agreement to match one another in number, but there are plenty of cases where this is not true. One can hardly object to the plural pronoun "they" referring to a singular individual without also objecting to the above instances.

Second, singular they is highly useful. The other third-person singular pronouns in standard English require their speaker to make a comment about the gender of the referent, identifying that person as either masculine or feminine. And although it might not seem obvious at first, there may be many reasons why a speaker would not wish to do so. For example, the speaker may not consider the person’s gender relevant to the present discussion, or they may know that the person does not self-identify within the traditional male-female gender binary (and may thus be uncomfortable being labeled as "he" or "she"). When I find singular they most useful, however, is when the referent’s gender is simply unknown. Consider again the following sentence:

3. Some student left their bag on the table, and I hope they come back for it.

In this case, the speaker does not know who left the bag on the table. If we couldn’t use singular they as I have done above, we would have to refer to this person in one of the following ways:

12. Some student left his bag on the table, and I hope he comes back for it.

13. Some student left her bag on the table, and I hope she comes back for it.

14. Some student left his or her bag on the table, and I hope he or she comes back for it.

15. Some student left that student’s bag on the table, and I hope that student comes back for it.

Sentence 12 and 13 assert a gender that is not actually known to the speaker, and may thus be inaccurate. There is also an argument that that sort of sexist language — that is, treating people of an unspecified gender as a certain gender by default — encourages sexist thinking, and we probably want to avoid that when we can. Sentences 14 and 15 are less inaccurate as well as less sexist, but far more cumbersome to say or write than the elegant singular they.

Finally, I’ll bring my argument in favor of singular they back around to usage. Many, many speakers of English utilize this feature in their spoken and written language. If we want to be good scientists, we need to adopt an objective, descriptivist approach to language, and view it as it is actually spoken rather than as we might want it to be. Singular they is out there in the language — and it has been for quite some time. I’d invite you, in closing, to consider one last example sentence. This one was written in 1595 by a Mr. William Shakespeare, in his play Romeo and Juliet:

16. Arise; one knocks. / ...Hark, how they knock!

Juliet doesn’t know the identity of the person on the other side of her door, and thus she doesn’t know the gender either. Her solution is the same one that many speakers would adopt today: she uses the grammatically plural pronoun "they" to refer to a single individual.

13 comments:

  1. Thanks a lot for this. I remember my first encounter with the singular they as a 13 year-old immigrant to the UK in my English class. I told my teacher about this (an immigrant herself): 'but this is a mistake' I said. She just brushed it off as 'one of those things that are correct in the context' and I shouldn't worry about. I hated not being given an explanation. As I became a more confident speaker of English, this form became natural to me and I do use it instead of the sexist 'he'. But finally, I have an explanation! After 7 years of waiting! :D

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  2. My response to the singular they controversy is to point out that plenty of languages use grammatically plural pronouns for singular referents in the T/V distinction, e.g. tu/vous in French and du/Sie in German. German even uses "they" (Sie) for singular you!

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  3. "the following sentences, which are regular in some dialects of British English, have singular-marked nouns with plural referents that are grammatically plural"

    Actually, this is grammatical in most dialects of British English, including the standard. We have a lot of variation, and any one speaker probably uses both forms at various times, but you can certainly hear BBC newsreaders saying things like 'the government have decided...'. I don't recall ever being taught a rule about it at school (although I'm of the generation that didn't really get any grammar education at all) and only really became aware of it as an adult, which suggests to me that teachers in this country don't see it as a problem.

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  4. I continue to disallow singular they. I use he and she interchangeably to bring the female gender more actively into the written word. To use singular they is to prevent bringing the female gender more actively into the written word.

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  5. Wow, what a great and well thought-out post! Thank you!

    Rob Haskins, I agree with alternating use of he or she in cases where you are writing an anecdote as an example (rather than always defaulting to "he" as the subject of an anecdote).

    But I do not think that arbitrarily using the pronoun "she," which denotes a female person, is helpful, if you are not necessarily talking about a female person. To me that's tokenism, and it also is undoing the definition of the words - taking away some of their meaning. To me (and, I think, most people), "he" means a male and "she" means a female. Ignoring those definitions takes away the specific and precise meaning that words have.

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  6. After 8 years of college education, finally I have an explanation that makes sense. I especially love the Shakespeare example!

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  7. And let's not forget about "you," which is used for singular or plural number of people, but always plural in construction. "What are you doing?" can refer to one person or a roomful of people.

    I wish singular "they" would take hold. As a copyeditor, I'm so tired of fixing *technically* mismatched antecedents while trying to avoid the dreaded "he or she," and I hate alternating "he" and "she" -- very distracting unless you're reading a magazine or book intended for new parents.

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    1. Indeed. When people complain about singular "they", I reply: "I hope thou dost not use singular "you"."

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  9. Thanks! This is the best and most sensible explanation I have found about the "singular they".
    You've got brains in your head.
    Nice to meet you here.
    :)
    --Sorry for deleting my first comment: I think it had a mistake, "You've got A BRAINS in your head", but maybe it's correct, who knows...? A BRAINS = A BRAIN WORTH MANY (???)
    Nice to meet you here.

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  10. There was a book we read for high school where the singular they was used to great effect. The gender of the main character was unknown until the penultimate chapter - an intentional omission by the author.
    I would reference it, but cannot remember the name of the book, let alone the author.

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  11. I enjoy your defense of the singular they. I use it myself. But there IS an alternative: singular neuter pronouns. I have written about this (three posts, the middle one is tinyurl.com/ne-ner-nis) and - independently - so has Dr. Al Lippart, a veterinarian (see third post,
    http://myunpublishedworks2.blogspot.com/2013/04/ne-ner-nis-part-3-language-03.html ). With NE as subject pronoun, your Shakespearean example becomes an alliterative pun:

    17. Arise; one knocks. / ...Hark, how ne knocks!"

    With NE-NER-NIS (subject-object-possessive) there is another alternative to the singular they in your example about the student's bag. Let's call it 21 (since you used 16 for Shakespeare):

    21. Some student left nis bag on the table, and I hope ne comes back for it.

    In the Twitter Age (Twitter having been, as I said in my first ne-ner-nis post, what prompted me to post at all), the ne-ner-nis trio has the additional advantage that it employs fewer characters than the trio of they-them-their/theirs.

    Thanks for a wonderful blog. (I got here from the Oxford Comma post. You are wise and witty.)

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    1. Good idea. There's just one problem: it's not English.

      You can pick whatever letters you want out of the Scrabble bag, but it won't change what's going on in the minds of native English speakers when they interpret and use pronouns.

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