The Finer Points of Singular they.

This post at the Log makes me very happy (the narrator is Bean):

My eight-year-old daughter in conversation with me last night:

Scene: I am giving her a sock, which she had brought home, only to find she already had both of her socks. So it logically must belong to some other girl (it’s obviously a girl’s sock).

Me: So, bring this lost sock back to school, and put it in the lost and found. Do you remember who was wearing it? Well, anyway if the other girl is looking for it she can find it. I’m assuming it was a girl so I’m going with “she”.

Daughter [scornfully]: You mean “they”.

I think this clearly illustrates the way the kids use “they”. We know it’s a girl, but since we’re not sure which girl, it becomes “they”. And it was such a firm rule in her mind she felt the need to sneer at me. 🙂

The girls (and, I think, us parents) also use this consistently in their all-girls’ hockey league, and in Brownies – both all-female pursuits. For example, I heard something along the lines of: Q. “Is the other goalie any good?” A. “I don’t know, I’ve never seen them play before.” Whereas if we were talking about our goalie, whose name and face we know, it would have been along the lines of “I don’t know, she hasn’t played much lately.”

Peevers, you might as well give up the hopeless struggle; singular they is not only of ancient and unimpeachable lineage, it is developing its own fine points of grammatical usage that are being enforced not by the futile injunctions of schoolteachers but by the young wielders of the language. They know what they mean when they say “they”!

Comments

  1. This is an interesting fine point. So singular “they” really doesn’t mean just “his or her”; it means “a nonspecific person, whether of known or unknown gender.”

  2. I’m 28 (so fairly “old”) and in my mind, too, a sentence like “I’ve never seen her play” would have to refer to a specific person who was mentioned earlier in the conversation. Using “him” or “her” to refer to a nonspecific person sounds kind of odd.

  3. There are counterexamples to this, but it’s definitely my usage (singular they for indefinites), and I’m no spring chicken.

  4. “him or her” is what I meant to say

  5. Squiffy-Marie von Bladet says:

    Peevers, you might as well give up the hopeless struggle

    But as Hemingway famously said, “When the cause is lost, the losers get going”.

  6. She’s eight. No-one writing an obstetrics textbook is about to start phrasing things as ‘when someone is 12 weeks pregnant they conceived 10 weeks ago’ or ‘observation will tell if the mother is in pain, which suggests abruption or labour, and there may be visible blood on the bed or legs or floor. If they are pale, with low blood pressure and rapid pulse, there is probably hypovolaemic shock.’

    (Right, right, I’m sure it wasn’t meant seriously as a probable direction the language will move in, I’m throwing cold water on things.)

  7. Known-gender singular “they” even seems to go back to Shakespeare: “There’s not a man I meet but doth salute me / As if I were their well-acquainted friend.”

    @Aidan Kehoe: Honestly, those sound fine to me – especially in the case of “someone”, which would really ring off for me if paired with anything but “they”.

  8. I’m sure it wasn’t meant seriously as a probable direction the language will move in

    Of course it’s meant seriously as exactly that. Where are you getting your confidence about what no one is going to write in future textbooks?

  9. @Squiffy-Marie von Bladet: Judging from the remote hills to where Languagelog commenters have brought the discussion, you were right…

  10. Even if Aidan is right, that will merely represent a divergence between spoken and some forms of written English, which is nothing so strange.

  11. David Marjanović says:

    ‘when someone is 12 weeks pregnant they conceived 10 weeks ago’

    I’m not sure I’d even notice this anymore – and that’s in spite of the fact that my native German has nothing comparable to singular they, and the fact that the few trans men who have become pregnant in recent years are not so commonplace that I wouldn’t associate pregnancy with she first.

    …OK, there’s the intriguing phenomenon in *handwave* northern Germany that indefinite and interrogative pronouns referring to persons take neuter (singular) agreement: jemand anderes “someone else”, wer alles as in “tell me everyone who did this”. That’s alien to me; all such words are masculine in Austria – jemand anderer, wer aller.

  12. David Marjanović says:

    Known-gender singular “they” even seems to go back to Shakespeare: “There’s not a man I meet but doth salute me / As if I were their well-acquainted friend.”

    This can be interpreted as “a friend of all of them”, not just the one who doth salute him at the time.

  13. Mr. Wickham’s society was of material service in dispelling the gloom, which the late perverse occurrences had thrown on many of the Longbourn family. They saw him often, and to his other recommendations was now added that of general unreserve. The whole of what Elizabeth had already heard, his claims on Mr. Darcy, and all that he had suffered from him, was now openly acknowledged and publicly canvassed; and every body was pleased to think how much they had always disliked Mr. Darcy before they had known any thing of the matter. (Chapter 24)

    Plenty of similar examples can be quoted from Pride and Prejudice, from Jane Austen in general, and from other writers at least since Sir Thomas Malory (euery man losed other of their bondes) if not Chaucer. Otto Jespersen has a whole subchapter (5.56) devoted to the common-number/common-gender use of they, them, their in A Modern English Grammar, Syntax, Vol. I (1914). He regards it as frequent and perfectly natural usage.

  14. One more example from Oscar Wilde:

    Experience is the name everyone gives to their mistakes. (Lady Windermere’s Fan)

    And a known-gender they from G. B. Shaw:

    No man goes to battle to be killed. — But they do get killed.

  15. Narmitaj says:

    ‘Q. “Is the other goalie any good?” A. “I don’t know, I’ve never seen them play before.” ‘ – This use of ‘them’ could be someone saying they’d never seen that whole team play before, not just a specific goalie.

  16. Matthew 18:35

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

    The New International Version: This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.

    Sounds like Stan/Loretta from Monty Python’s Life of Brian.

  17. David: Antipholus of Syracuse is speaking, and the reason everyone likes him is that they assume he is his (unknown) twin brother, Antipholus of Ephesus. His following line is “And every one doth call me by my name”, so the context is firmly singular.

    Piotr: I don’t think the Shaw example will fly. Singular they can always be replaced by he or she with at most an error in gender, and by he or she in any case. But “No man goes to battle to be killed. But he does get killed<" is impossible; it would have to be "But men do get killed". So what we have here is not a singular they but a pronoun without an explicit antecedent, whose meaning must be (easily) glorked from context. It’s one thing to have an implicit antecedent, quite another to have an antecedent that is explicitly said not to exist: cf. the Red King’s confusion about Nobody:

    “Who did you pass on the road?” the King went on, holding out his hand to the Messenger for some hay.

    “Nobody,” said the Messenger.

    “Quite right,” said the King: “this young lady saw him too. So of course Nobody walks slower than you.”

    “I do my best,” the Messenger said in a sullen tone. “I’m sure nobody walks much faster than I do!”

    “He can’t do that,” said the King, “or else he’d have been here first.”

  18. This is yet another low-cost way to irritate people. Individuals will have their preferences on using he or they (both having long precedent in English to represent situations where gender is unclear), and people like me can decide whether I want to irritate my conversation partner by selecting deliberately the choice he or she does not like.

  19. > But “No man goes to battle to be killed. But he does get killed.” is impossible

    It is? Like, actual asterisk-the-quotation impossible? I don’t realize.

    Do others hear it that way?

  20. It would mean that the writer has a particular “man” in mind. But this is precisely the she/they situation from the original post: they is not only gender-free; it’s additionally indefinite.

  21. Aidan Kehoe:

    I’m 33 and not an obstetrician, but I would definitely use “they” in that context. And I agree with Lazar, pairing “someone” with anything other than “they” sounds off to me also. And what if the pregnant person is a trans man? Honestly, using “she” in that context is not only borderline ungrammatical (and it is, in my idiolect), it can be outright offensive.

  22. If I may quote someone who commented on Language Log, whose thoughts on this I agree with?

    “It occurred to me while reading this that people who default to “she” in this situation are actually doing an additional mental calculation before they speak, i.e. going through the logic of “this sock looks like a girl’s sock so the person it belongs to must be a girl”.

    It’s obviously not a terribly complex or time-consuming calculation, but I still find it interesting that people who use “she” in this context are wired to automatically use available data to attempt to determine an unknown person’s gender, whereas people who default to “they” aren’t wired to do this at all, and are just going with “unknown person = they”.”

  23. gwenllian says:

    And I agree with Lazar, pairing “someone” with anything other than “they” sounds off to me also.

    Agreed.

    I never understand how people can hate on singular they. It’s so simple, elegant, practical and just all-around amazing.

    Okay, okay, I do get it, I have my share of pet peeves myself… But singular they… It just seems so easy to love!

  24. David Marjanović says:

    No man goes to battle to be killed. — But they do get killed.

    Yes, they do, by the thousands – I interpret this one as plural, with an implicit (and subtle) change of referent between the sentences, as so often happens in real conversation.

    Indeed, it would be odd to use a singular pronoun here even in German; in more literary styles, you’d have to avoid the dangling new referent by making it explicit.

    I still find it interesting that people who use “she” in this context are wired to automatically use available data to attempt to determine an unknown person’s gender, whereas people who default to “they” aren’t wired to do this at all

    Now imagine having to determine an unknown person’s social status or distance in generations from you.

  25. I was about to point out that I have to do this occasionally with generational distance, and the first analogy that came to me was social status in some languages, but I kept getting database errors, and I gave up. This is the second website I frequent that was out for most of the day yesterday.

  26. Yeah, sorry about that. There’s some sort of memory issue that I haven’t wanted to bother Songdog about while he was on vacation.

  27. Even if Aidan is right, that will merely represent a divergence between spoken and some forms of written English, which is nothing so strange.

    And it’s as confusing as when ages ago one English speaker decided they should start using the second person plural pronoun to refer to the second person singular.

    (Yes, I know no one person actually decided anything.)

  28. “and that’s in spite of the fact that my native German has nothing comparable to singular they”

    As other people here are saying, I am also ‘fairly old’ (40).

    My children have grown up in Germany, and my wife and I are still slightly shocked by the things they say in English (their instant translations) due to the lack of terms that are genderless in German. (With the occasional opposite of calling a specific baby or young girl “it”.)

    As far as I know, I almost always use the ‘singular they’ when I am not talking about a known person.

  29. J.W. Brewer says:

    I am not sure why having ones own usage “corrected” by someone else should be thought less irksome when the prescriptivism comes out of the mouths of children. Earlier this month I had the interesting experience of being, for the first time, on the receiving end of prescriptivism from my youngest child (aged approx 2.5 years). While reading aloud to him, I pronounced “lever” to rhyme with “never” (i.e. /ˈlɛ.vɚ/), which is the predominant AmEng pronunciation. He looked at me with what seemed a scornful expression and said with what seemed a disdainful tone “/’liː.vɚ/”, i.e. “lever” pronounced to rhyme with “beaver,” which (modulo rhoticism) is what I’m given to understand is the predominant BrEng pronunciation. It turns out that for some idiosyncratic reason (although I’d never previously noticed it), that variant pronunciation can be found in the idiolect of my wife (whose phonology is usually free of obvious British influence and is at least broadly consistent with her having spent her formative years in Southern California). One can hardly fault the boy for thinking his mother a more reliable source of information than his father in the event of apparent inconsistency, but we need to figure out how to educate him out of assuming there can be only One Right Way of handling such issues.

  30. Children’s prescriptivism is illustrated in their insistence that stories be told in exactly the same words every single time.

    When my wife’s friend’s daughter was about four, my wife was speaking to her and happened to use the normal Southern American tag question /ɪdənɪt/. The girl interrupted and said in tones of freezing scorn: “It’s not /ɪdənɪt/, it’s /ɪzənɪt/!” Unfortunately, her snob tendencies have remained intact to this day. Her mother being a speech pathologist may of course have had something to do with it.

  31. David Marjanović says:

    Back to singular they:

    Well, it is possible that an author died in 1944 aged a hundred and that he had published his or her first book in their late teens in 1864.”

  32. That’s very odd indeed.

  33. “To start a local 4-H Club [American youth organization for those interested in farming], you need a leader. This may be a man or a woman or a combination of both.”

  34. Impressive if real, but Google can find no trace of it. (In the search, I did turn up a great quote by Warren G. Bennis: “The factory of the future will have only two employees, a man and a dog. The man will be there to feed the dog. The dog will be there to keep the man from touching the equipment.”)

  35. David Marjanović says:

    That’s very odd indeed.

    I bet it’s deliberate.

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