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The Word

Singular challenge

Maybe 'they' is becoming OK

By Jan Freeman
October 19, 2008
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"DOES ANYBODY IN their right mind think that the value of American business has dropped by $6 trillion?" asked investment guru John Bogle in a recent interview at Marketwatch.com.

That was a rhetorical question, but this is not: Does anybody in their right mind object to Bogle's grammar?

The answer is yes, "they" do - but opposition to singular-they seems to be losing steam. For the first time ever, a reader has e-mailed not to complain about "everybody has their quirks," but to wonder why we don't all use the construction. When you need a gender- and number-inclusive pronoun, writes John McCosh, "I think they makes sense."

Usage writers, even if they don't think singular they has achieved respectability, agree that its day is coming. Barbara Wallraff explains why in a post at her new blog at TheAtlantic.com: "Write 'he' about a nonspecific person and you're a sexist. Write 'she' and you're a flaming feminist. Write 'he or she' and you're a pedant. Write 'they' and you're an ignoramus."

Bryan Garner, in Garner's Modern American Usage, says that singular they is increasingly common, and he notes that some constructions require it: "Everybody was crouched behind furniture to surprise me, and they tried."

"Disturbing though these developments may be to purists, they're irreversible," writes Garner.

Like it or not, usagists agree that they and their have been referring to indefinite antecedents like everybody, nobody, and anyone - grammatically singular but plural in sense - since Chaucer's time.

That is not because the Wife of Bath and her 14th-century feminist friends objected to being subsumed under the pronoun he. It's because using he to include both sexes often sounded odd to ordinary people, including writers.

It still sounded odd some 500 years later, when H.W. Fowler, in Modern English Usage, said that men and women were equally reluctant to shape up grammatically. Some people, he said, just resisted the idea that "the right shortening of the cumbersome he or she, his or her, &c., is he or him."

Those resisters had history on their side. English had prospered, messy pronouns and all, for centuries before the 18th-century grammarians decided to clean it up and sort it out. The earliest known document stating the rule against "singular they" is - I suppose we can call this ironic - a 1745 grammar book by a woman, one Anne Fisher. "The Masculine Person answers to the general Name, which comprehends both Male and Female; as, any Person who knows what he says," Fisher decreed.

But though the rule has been enforced in much edited prose, it never managed to stamp out the older notional agreement. Bergen Evans, in A Dictionary of Contemporary American Usage (1957), contradicted Fowler, saying that they, them, and their "may be used in speaking of a single individual whose sex is unknown," as in "everybody brought their own lunch."

Singular they comes up in two situations, however, and most usage commentators treat them as one. "Did everyone bring their pen" is indeed ancient usage. But in a recent essay, etymologist Anatoly Liberman argues that when the antecedent is not an indefinite pronoun but a noun - "A student must bring their pen" - it does not deserve the same respect. "This usage did not develop naturally (it was forced on English)," he charged in his weekly etymology column at the Oxford University Press website.

Liberman thinks the anti-sexism forces are sneaking nouns like student, tenant, and hero into the generic category, pretending that they are as plausibly plural as anyone and nobody, and just as appropriately referred to with they and their. And he strenuously objects.

But is it really sneaking? Even when the noun-pronoun disagreement is made plain, some usage writers embrace the form. Bill Walsh, in "Lapsing Into a Comma," offers the sentence "Every music lover has their own favorite album" for our consideration. He calls it "grammatically incorrect (for now) but intuitively plausible and rather tempting." Garner says this kind of construction is "Either a common blunder, or a godsend that allows us to avoid sexism."

And if political pressure has increased acceptance of the usage, why should that make it suspect? Every generation learns that some once-common usages are no longer socially acceptable, whether they're racial slurs or religious taboos or the much-missed "ain't I."

But I'm not convinced feminism alone accounts for the spread of the noun-pronoun mismatch. As Fowler noted, reality exerts its own pressure on grammar; many speakers, referring to a generic "student" or "tenant" or "hero," might choose the pronoun they or their to avoid not the sexism of he or his but the inaccuracy of the male pronoun.

And of course, this is English we're speaking, language of pure democracy. Nobody can make you say "Everyone should bring their pencils" if you have a different preference. To each his (or her, or his and her, or their) own.

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