SINGULAR “THEIR.”

I have long been pushing for the acceptance of “they/their” as the gender-neutral third person singular pronoun, and I am delighted to discover (via fabulousness) a site that nails down its credentials so thoroughly it might shake even the ossified beliefs of William Safire:

These files contain a list of over 75 occurrences of the words “they”/”their”/”them”/”themselves” referring to a singular antecedent with indefinite or generic meaning in Jane Austen’s writings (mainly in her six novels), as well as further examples of singular “their” etc. from the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) and elsewhere. While your high-school English teacher may have told you not to use this construction, it actually dates back to at least the 14th century, and was used by the following authors (among others) in addition to Jane Austen: Geoffrey Chaucer, Edmund Spenser, William Shakespeare, the King James Bible, The Spectator, Jonathan Swift, Daniel Defoe, Frances Sheridan, Oliver Goldsmith, Henry Fielding, Maria Edgeworth, Percy Shelley, Lord Byron, William Makepeace Thackeray, Sir Walter Scott, George Eliot [Mary Anne Evans], Charles Dickens, Mrs. Gaskell, Anthony Trollope, John Ruskin, Robert Louis Stevenson, Walt Whitman, George Bernard Shaw, Lewis Carroll, Oscar Wilde, Rudyard Kipling, H. G. Wells, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Edith Wharton, W. H. Auden, Lord Dunsany, George Orwell, and C. S. Lewis.
Singular “their” etc., was an accepted part of the English language before the 18th-century grammarians started making arbitrary judgements as to what is “good English” and “bad English”, based on a kind of pseudo-”logic” deduced from the Latin language, that has nothing whatever to do with English. (See the 1975 journal article by Anne Bodine in the bibliography.) And even after the old-line grammarians put it under their ban, this anathematized singular “their” construction never stopped being used by English-speakers, both orally and by serious literary writers. So it’s time for anyone who still thinks that singular “their” is so-called “bad grammar” to get rid of their prejudices and pedantry!

Incidentally, this is part of Henry Churchyard’s linguistics page, which also contains his dissertation, Topics in Tiberian Biblical Hebrew Metrical Phonology and Prosodics, as well as “The vowel system of a reconstructed 18th-century proto-language ancestral to modern ‘standard’ English dialects in both England and America,” Twain’s hilarious “The Awful German Language,” and a couple of other things.

Comments

  1. That’s pretty excellent! :-)

    I don’t feel compelled to advocate this construction specifically, but I’ve always felt that when trying to solve a linguistic quagmire such as this one, it never, ever makes sense to favor tortured constructions like “his/her” / “him/her” or retooling the whole sentence to use “one’s” / “one” instead of what comes naturally.

    Thanks for the link to Henry Churchyard’s page, too.

  2. I find these collections of examples (which I’ve seen before) extremely unpersuasive (and I stop rather short here of saying “intellectually dishonest”).

    It is true that singular they/their have been used in English for many centuries. It is _also_ true that their use was a very marginal phenomenon until very recently. For the few examples with singular they/their culled from Shakespeare, one could cite hundreds with singular he/his. And so it is with most or all the other authors they quote.

    The paraders of the quotations are always too shy to mention that, and they hide the fact behind the rather ridiculous talk of the two constructions “competing” in English.

    I recall, too, looking up one of such quotations in Thackeray, only to find out that the sentence is spoken there by a manifestly illiterate character whose “bad grammar” is _emphasized_ by the author’s putting singular their into her mouth. This, of course, counts as “Thackeray also used this construction…” for the quotation-collectors. Ugh! Who knows how many other such cases lurk behind quotations torn away from their context and forced to confirm their authors’ approval?

    The thing is, I’m not even against singular they. God knows his/her and its ilk are awful, and singular “his”, while grammatically correct and historically non-sexist, is too dated and can no longer be used neutrally, thanks to the long campaign of politicizing the language. Singular they may well be the best solution we have. But isn’t it obvious that the marginal existence of singular they throughout the centuries cannot be honestly used to justify its introduction as the _standard_ singular pronoun of uncertain sex?

  3. But isn’t it obvious that the marginal existence of singular they throughout the centuries cannot be honestly used to justify its introduction as the _standard_ singular pronoun of uncertain sex?

    Well, no, it’s not. Sure, “he” has been far more common, nobody denies that, but if opponents of “they/their” are going to claim it’s subliterate and/or an innovation, then it’s perfectly in order to refute that by producing examples of use throughout the history of the language. And the page linked discusses the “illiterate character” suggestion; I think the extensive collection of Austen examples in particular disposes of it. Of course it’s not a scientific argument designed to convince linguists (who don’t need convincing); it’s designed to convince people who don’t know what a phoneme is but worry about sounding like an ignoramus. If you can reassure them that it’s a perfectly good English construction with an ancient history, it’s all to the good.

  4. I’ve been telling foreigners for a decade that singular they+their is coming into general use in English. I’m very happy to have any literary backing, however naughtily employed some of it is, as Avva rightly points out.

    When I grew up in Manchester in the 70s my mother made ends meet by renting out rooms to students. While the two of us were moving furniture or cleaning a room together we had to constantly talk in the future tense about a singular occupant where we never knew whether ‘they’ would be male or female. These regular discussions every few months quickly convinced me of the practicality and simplicity of the ‘they’ usage.

  5. Andy Fielding says:

    Oh, good grief. Those who disapprove of the singular “they” should be required to say “you is” when addressing one person.
    I believe in good grammar, but when language hinders communication, it defeats its purpose.
    Our forebears would laugh out loud—or at least puzzle over—the “proper” English we speak today. Times change, and language must follow. It serves the people, not vice versa.

  6. God knows his/her and its ilk are awful, and singular “his”, while grammatically correct and historically non-sexist, is too dated and can no longer be used neutrally, thanks to the long campaign of politicizing the language.
    I still use the “dated” masculine singular in contexts when it’s clear that it’s used in a gender-neutral way. If anyone then corrects me with some variation on “he or she” or “his or her” instead, I’ll know that I’m wasting my time with either a pedant or an idealogue. Sorry if that means I’ve painted any of you with too broad a brush. I would rather appear insensitive to gender issues than adopt something that sounds ungraceful to my ear, but it’s perfectly kosher if other people want to use “hir” or “they” or whatever else as their third person singular. I use “they” as a singular myself if the context demands some emphasis on the gender ambiguity, but I don’t bat an eye if a hypothetical “he” turns out to be a “she”. If the gender wasn’t important within the context, then what difference does it make?
    (The previous sentence, of course, is anathema to anyone who identifies himself entirely through gender, or race, or sexual orientation, or whichever other accident of birth. To whom I can only offer pity.)
    I have female friends who do the opposite and use “she” for all gender-neutral third person singulars, and I think that’s great. I’m just taking a lazy, path-of-least-resistance refuge behind inculcated tradition, oops, I mean The Patriarchy (TM).
    Really, arguing for the inherent superiority of one usage or another is rather trivial. Usage either catches on or it doesn’t (or it could land somewhere in between as well). Speech patterns is one of the dumbest things to proselytize others over.
    The whole “his or her” vs. “their” hoopla reminds me of the silly “Asian-American” political moniker I’m supposed to adopt, when I’m perfectly fine with answering “Asian” for ethnicity and “American” for nationality. Oh yes, we can’t forget about the oppressed portions of our population when we label things. Ever. Long live “sensitive” constructions. *sigh*

  7. Actually, I have pretty similar speech habits, mixing generic “he” and “they” according to circumstances (and I couldn’t even define what they are). I would never dream of telling anyone what pronouns he should use; I just don’t like people setting themselves up as authorities and making demonstrably false claims about the facts of English. Hence the post.

  8. Bill Billson says:

    They should just invent a new word to be used instead for this case. It could be something like “seh” (pronounced like “say” but a little shorter).
    Seh said, seh says, seh’ll say, seh’s going to say, seh already said, seh must’ve said, etc.
    And from there we could get other types of pronouns too:
    Possessive: sehs
    Direct Object: hem
    Indirect Object: hem
    It wasn’t too difficult to come up with those, they have parts from both words within them (he, she, him, her). Of course, this was just an example of such an idea. More linguistic people than me could probably come up with something much better than that!

  9. Bill: They’re way ahead of you. People have been inventing such pronouns for a long time, without much success. This FAQ says:
    The two most popular seem to be “sie, hir, hir, hirs, hirself”, (especially “hir”), and “zie, zir, zir, zirs, zirself”… Third and fourth, differing only in the first and maybe last word, are “e or ey, em, eir, eirs, eirself or emself”. Fifth, some people use “per”, from “person”, which i assume has the set “per, per, pers, pers, persself”, although i’ve never seen it developed that far…

  10. So far my favorite is ve,vis,ver used in some of Greg Egan’s fiction for a genderless person. (I did not notice what he uses for a generic pronoun in that context.)
    I must say, though, I hope I never use themselves in the singular.

  11. Michael Farris says:

    I prefer “singular” they, most of the proposed replacements fail because they overlap somehow with the current system.
    The specifications:
    he/she = must end in -e and should begin with a consonant (since the h in he is frequently dropped)
    him/her = ???? anything ending in -m or -r will be confused with existing forms (due to vowel reduction) unless the vowel is unnaturally long.
    his/her = similar problem with endings and short vowels
    his/hers = similar problem with endings and short vowels
    on the other hand, what about (not a serious proposal).
    ey = rhymes with “hay”
    ee = rhymes with “see”
    ees = rhymes with “sees”
    ees = rhymes with “sees”
    Did ey go?
    I havne’t seen ee yet.
    A doctor should listen carefully to ees patients or ey will lose them.
    If you love someone set ee free.
    I do think ee is a little awkward, maybe some creating germanizing – en
    If you love somebody set en free.
    Do you know en?

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