Posts Tagged ‘Singular they’

They

December 14, 2017

Over the past ten days there has been storm of contention on Language Log (see here, here, here, here and here), involving sometimes angry exchanges of posts and comments, around the use of singular they — not with reference to an indeterminate person of unknown sex, as is by now generally accepted, except in the stodgiest circles, or even of known sex, as found in Shakespeare — but (as discussed a few years ago by Mark Liberman) referring to a particular person of known gender, and even more specifically to a person identifying as non-binary. The storm was started by Geoff Pullum’s statement that for him “singular they is ungrammatical with a personal name as antecedent.” He added,

I don’t want to offend anyone. But it’s a bit much to expect me to start saying things that are clearly and decisively ungrammatical according to my own internalized grammar. I’ll do my best, but it will be a real struggle.

Despite the disclaimer, numerous people took offense. I have criticized Geoff Pullum on occasion, but I never came anywhere near the vehemence that was expressed in these posts and comments.

It may very well be, however, that if the use by young people as described by Mark Liberman expands, some day they will become the default third-person singular pronoun, just as you has become the second-person one.

What this means in the future (I don’t expect to be around for it) is that, just as with you, people will struggle to find an alternative to plain they as the plural pronoun. Will the Irish say theys? The British they lot or them lot? Southern Americans they-all? Or will the putative “General American” they guys or them guys take over?

Any bets?

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