Singular They Is Word of the Year.

I find the whole “word of the year” thing annoying and generally ignore the many news stories based on PR releases by lexicographers and other harmless drudges trying to drum up a little attention, but I have three cheers for this one from Dennis Baron:

Singular they is word of the year for 2015. A common-gender third-person pronoun, singular they has been popular in English speech and writing for over 650 years. Although frequently classified by purists as ungrammatical, its use seems undiminished, and it may even be on the rise because it fills an important linguistic niche. In recent years, more and more English speakers have sought a gender-neutral alternative to pronouns that express the traditional male/female binary, turning either to invented pronouns like xe and zie, or to that old stand-by, singular they. Because singular they has witnessed a dramatic rehabilitation over the past year, the Web of Language Distinguished Usage Panel unanimously chose to honor it as word of the year for 2015.*

The footnote says, “Truth in advertising: The Web of Language Distinguished Usage Panel, charged each year with picking the Word of the Year, consists entirely of me.” The rest of the post contains a nice history of the form and its history, and I applaud Baron’s choice. If anyone has a problem with it, let them eat xe!

Addendum. Geoffrey Nunberg posted this on Facebook, adding:

I took Dennis Baron’s selection of singular “they” as his Word of the Year as occasion to change my Facebook pronoun to “they” (as in “Wish them a happy birthday”), not so much because I have a problem with cisgender pronouns, but as a finger in the eye of the pedants who think there’s something wrong with “Everyone took their coat,” secure in the grammar they learned in eighth grade at the end of Sister Petra’s ruler.

Comments

  1. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    I couldn’t agree more. Usually I find “word of the year” articles so ridiculous that I don’t read them, but I thought you would have something interesting to say, and I wasn’t disappointed.

  2. I am pro-singular-they and actually, the “plural they” (avar) of Classical Tamil became the gender-neutral, respectful “singular they” of Modern Tamil. This “singular they” + plural suffix (avar + kaL) is now used for “plural they”.

    Is the V also being used as a plural true of all T/V forms? I can’t think of a V that is unrelated to plurals.

  3. I tend to get irritated by the drumbeat for “singular they” from the usual suspects, but not for the usual reason. I think that most of the historical references are not, in fact, singular. A good discussion can be found in MW(C)DEU (2002) under “they, their, them,” (p 733ff in the condensed paperback.)

    The essential argument is that English lacks a “common or neutral number,” that is, a set of pronouns and other grammatical apparatus that is neither singular nor plural. They reference Jesperson to this effect.

    The article ends with this paragraph (my transcription, apologies in advance for any errors):

    They, their, them are used in both literature and general writing to refer to singular nouns, when those nouns have some notion of plurality about them. [several examples from earlier in the article]. Notional agreement is in control, and its dictates must be followed.

  4. I am pro-singular-they and actually, the “plural they” (avar) of Classical Tamil became the gender-neutral, respectful “singular they” of Modern Tamil. This “singular they” + plural suffix (avar + kaL) is now used for “plural they”.

    That’s wonderful, and I’m glad to know it!

  5. Is the V also being used as a plural true of all T/V forms?

    Nope. Some of them, like Spanish usted < vuestra merced, are third person singular titles.

  6. J. W. Brewer says:

    My reaction to the claim that “singular they has witnessed a dramatic rehabilitation over the past year” is “[citation needed].”

  7. As an editor, I protest. I try so hard to eliminate “they” where it is not appropriate. But if it were being used tastefully, let’s at least craft some little ditty for it. Let’s issue our licenses for the word carefully.

  8. ə de vivre says:

    As an editor, I protest. I try so hard to eliminate “they” where it is not appropriate.

    Under what circumstances do you think it isn’t appropriate?

    The article doesn’t mention it directly, but I’ve been under the impression that while singular they under quantifier-scope (the “Everyone took their coat” example) is quite old, quantifier-free singular they (“Wish them a happy birthday”) is pretty recent. Does anyone know if that’s actually true, or is it just a just-so story?

  9. > Is the V also being used as a plural true of all T/V forms?
    >
    > Nope. Some of them, like Spanish usted < vuestra merced, are third person singular titles.

    And funnily enough, vuestra itself was a singular V form derived from a second-person plural. (And is still used as a plural T form in Iberian Spanish.)

  10. @ə de vivre: Yes, that’s definitely true.

  11. Further complicating things in Spanish is the fact that some dialects, like those of Argentina and Costa Rica, use vos rather than tu as the T singular. In these dialects tu continues to supply the clitic forms, though, and the conjugations are a hybrid of the old 2ps and 2pp forms.

    One interesting question relating to singular they is what the reflexive form should be – themselves or themself? I think themself is less widely accepted than nominative singular they, but it seems silly to insist on themselves when we already have the precedent of yourself.

  12. marie-lucie says:

    themsel…

    Here in Nova Scotia (Canada) I have heard singular themself, which I think is peculiar to a certain area.

  13. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    I’m sure I’ve both heard and said “themself”. It seems quite unremarkable to me. I’ve never been to Nova Scotia (though my father was born in Sydney).

  14. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    Further complicating things in Spanish is the fact that some dialects, like those of Argentina and Costa Rica, use vos rather than tu as the T singular.

    Vos is also widely used in Uruguay. However, its existence in such widely separated countries as Argentina and Costa Rica (and not much in between) suggests an origin in Spain, though I don’t know of any Spanish dialect that has it. Is there any explanation of where it came from?

  15. @Athel Cornish-Bowden: vos was historically the second-person plural pronoun in all Spanish dialects. It is archaic in that sense (having been replaced by vosotros, transparently vos+otros ‘others’), though it survived for longer as the V second-person singular. It was replaced by usted in that latter role (except in religious or courtly use) over the second half of the 18th century.

    its existence in such widely separated countries as Argentina and Costa Rica (and not much in between)

    Voseo is common in Argentina, eastern Bolivia, Chile, half of Colombia, the Ecuadorean highlands, Paraguay, part of the Peruvian Andes, Uruguay, and the Zulia district in Venezuela (in South America), as well as Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, the Mexican state of Chiapas and Nicaragua (in Central America). Admittedly, it doesn’t have the same sociolinguistic status in all these countries (in many of them it’s regarded as colloquial or vulgar, and not used in formal contexts), but that’s hardly ‘not much in between’.

  16. And funnily enough, vuestra itself was a singular V form derived from a second-person plural. (And is still used as a plural T form in Iberian Spanish.)

    Interesting. We still need an example of a V that doesn’t derive from a plural.

    (I should have said “derive from” in my original question, because avar itself is an example of a word that is not a plural now at all, though it once was.)

    (Is usted coming from ustadh a fake etymology? I have heard it but not from academic sources.)

  17. @Fisheyed:

    Regarding the etymology of Spanish “usted”:

    http://languagehat.com/mcwhorter-on-proto-world/

    See my January 25 2010 10: 17 PM comment, and later exchanges.

  18. @fisheyed: Italian uses / has used Lei, which is the 3 person singular feminine pronoun and understood to refer to Sua Eccellenza. Which Mussolini reportedly tried to abolish in favor of voi, with predictable backlash.

    This is a similar story to the vuestra merced derivation of usted, of course, but no alternative derivation seems to be jockeying for mindshare there.

  19. Not fake, but certainly a minority view. It’s not explicable in terms of the regular sound changes of Arabic borrowings into Spanish.

    I looked over Wikipedia’s T/V table, and though plural forms are the most common, they are definitely not universal. In particular, the languages like Polish, Brazilian Portuguese, and Chinese and Japanese that use sir and ma’am as polite forms don’t have any trace of plurality in the singular. There are also some other languages with strong T-V distinctions that don’t look like they are using plurals (though it may be a concealed plural), in particular Amharic, Bengali, Malay and Indonesian, the Uralic languages, and the Dravidian languages.

    The rare Faroese V form tygum looks like a T-ish form, but it turns out to have acquired its initial /t/ < /þ/ from the 2pl ending /-ð/ by misanalysis, and is actually from Old Norse er, cognate with you. The same is true in Icelandic, where archaic T-T was the rule right up to the 1920s. At that point, the plural was adopted as V and the old dual took over as the plural; now V appears only in relic uses, as in the other North Germanic languages, so T-V was fully operative for less than a century.

  20. Bengali

    তুমি is historically the plural of তুই; তোমরা and তোরা were needed as respective plurals after it acquired its sense of neutral politeness.

    আপনি (< Pkt. अप्पणा < Skt. आत्मन) historically governed a third-plural, like Hindi आप does. This is now the polite inflection for second and third, singular and plural.

  21. At the Thanksgiving table:

    Everybody help themself = each person piles up their own plate
    Everybody help themselves = pass the food around so everyone gets some

    Is that too fine a distinction?

  22. Kazakh is another language that uses a former 2Pl for politeness. It then introduced a new informal 2Pl and distinguished sg. and pl. in the formal pronoun by adding the plural suffix -lar:
    Previous Turkic System: 2Sg. sen, 2Pl. syz
    Kazakh ystem: 2sg. informal sen, formal syz; 2Pl. informal sender, pl. syzdar

  23. Is that too fine a distinction?

    Not too fine, simply nonexistent. I mean, theoretically English could work that way, but it doesn’t.

  24. There are also some other languages with strong T-V distinctions that don’t look like they are using plurals (though it may be a concealed plural), in particular Amharic, Bengali, Malay and Indonesian, the Uralic languages, and the Dravidian languages.

    Dravidian Languages? Neenkal and thaankal are plurals, +kal is the plural suffix.

    The Tamil T is transliterated as née, which is not right. It’s plain nee (just like in Mandarin, which proves the conspiracy theory I have yet to make up).

  25. There are also some other languages with strong T-V distinctions that don’t look like they are using plurals (though it may be a concealed plural), in particular Amharic, Bengali, Malay and Indonesian, the Uralic languages, and the Dravidian languages.

    Dravidian Languages? Neenkal and thaankal are plurals, +kal is the plural suffix.

    In the Wiki link, the Tamil T is transliterated as née, which is not right. It’s plain nee (just like in Mandarin, which proves the conspiracy theory I have yet to make up).

  26. David Marjanović says:

    just like in Mandarin, which proves the conspiracy theory I have yet to make up

    Where’s John Emerson when we need him!

  27. Speaking of Tamil and Mandarin, I googled for the scholar Ma. Nannan (Ma being the first syllable of his descriptor, Nannan being his name and pronounced with emphasis on the doubled letter).

    To my surprise, Google offered up a picture of Ma Nannan in a state of undress. Ma as in a Chinese last name (horse?), Nan-nan presumably. Seeing a disrobed Chinese girl when I was looking to find the bio of an elderly scholar was….. unexpected.

    I will work this into my conspiracy theory somehow….!

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