Sunday, August 7, 2011

In praise of Singular they

After Somebody/someone/anybody/anyone, we often use the plural pronoun they instead of the rather cumbersome he or she. This usage happens even though somebody etc is singular, and is known as Singular they and includes them, their and themselves.
  • If somebody wants more coffee they should just ask.
We also sometimes use singular they when we don't know the gender of the person we're talking about:
  • If the next candidate is ready can you ask them to come in, please.
Or when we don't want to specify a gender, as what we are saying applies to both men and women:
  • When dealing with a customer we want to try and exceed their expectations.
Do a couple of exercises on Singular they, and read why, for some strange reason, some people don't like it.

Exercise 1. - Use the expressions in the box and a suitable form of the verb where given to fill the gaps. Where you have a choice between Present simple and Present perfect (3 questions?), use Present perfect. Use contractions wherever possible.

they   ·   them   ·   their   ·   themselves   ·   they're   ·   they've   ·   they'd
1.If anybody wants to take this extra course, could (give) name to supervisor, who will also give more details.
2.When somebody comes to take away the dishes could you ask (bring) us some more water.
3.Could everyone make sure (weigh) baggage before (go) to check-in, please.
4.If anybody had wanted vegetarian food, (say), wouldn't ?
5.Each student should make sure that (have got) a suitable computer, and that (know) how to use it.
6.Every employee must ensure (be) on time for work and that (sign) the register before (start) work..
7.Nobody can avoid paying taxes, even if (earn) very little this year.
8.Everybody should ask very seriously whether (be) ready, before applying for the next stage.

Exercise 2. - Use a suitable form of Singular they plus a suitable form of the verb where given to fill the gaps. Note that one of them is in Future perfect. Use contractions wherever possible.

Anybody thinking of taking up blogging should first think what (1) want to blog about, and ask (2) some basic questions. What is (3) message, if any? What motivates (4) to blog? Is it a desire to impart (5) accumulated wisdom to the world, the need to get something off (6) chest, or simply the natural wish to see (7) in print?
And what about the average visitor to your blog? What (8) (look for)? What are (9) expectations? You need to think about (10) needs and try and answer (11) as well as your own. After all, yours is not the only blog in the world, and no doubt (12) (look) at a few before finding yours. Mind you, if (13) (find) what they wanted somewhere else already, (14) (not land up) on yours, so you're still in with a chance.

Here endeth the lesson and now beginneth the rant.

For some people, however, there is a problem

Someone recently asked the Grammarphobia Blog if it was "now acceptable to use 'their' when referring to a single person", and they got the terse, or should that perhaps be stentorian, reply:
In our world view, it’s not correct. We’re not alone in this. Using the plural pronouns “they,” “them,” and “their” in reference to singular antecedents is widely considered a misusage in modern English.
There is meant to be a rule that every pronoun should agree with its antecedent in number, case and gender. But for just one exception to this rule, see 'Singular you' below. And there are others too.
The people at Grammarphobia are not particularly known for being pedantic, and they advertise on their blog that their "latest book ... debunks myths of English". But they seem to have a blind spot when it comes to Singular they. And as for being "widely considered a misusage in modern English", perhaps not quite as widely as they make out – as we shall see a bit later on.
Strangely enough in their New York Times article they put forward rather a good case for Singular they, before ending up condemning it.
In another post on the same subject one of them says:
Here’s one solution: In a long piece of writing, use “him” in some places and “her” in others when referring to a generic individual. I used to work at the Des Moines Register in the mid-1970s, and that was the thinking on the Op-Ed pages. The shifts back and forth didn’t seem to bother anyone.
Well, it bothers the hell out of me. In writing, the idea is that style shouldn't get in the way of reading; things are not meant to 'jar'. But this usage is so contrived it just jumps straight out at you. It's like saying - 'Look at what a clever Politically Correct writer I am' - it's either that, or the poor subject of their article has some serious gender identification problems.
Update (August) - I wrote most of this a couple of months ago, and I see they've just rejected it again, without giving any clear reason that I could see. But they seem to be less unequivocal than before.

In praise of Singular they.

I confess I'm a big fan of Singular they. To me it is much more natural and elegant than any of the alternatives – see arguments in favour and against below. What's more, I find it totally illogical to castigate Singular they at the same time as happily using Singular you – see below. And if it's good enough for Jane Austen et al, it's good enough for me.
Look at that second exercise again. Would it really have been acceptable if I'd written he every time, instead of they? Or would it have looked better if I had written he or she or he / she? Or if I had written he and then she and then he etc?

What do the dictionaries say?

  • Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary
    He used to be considered to cover both men and women: Everyone needs to feel he is loved. This is not now acceptable. Instead, after everybody, everyone, anybody, anyone, somebody, someone, etc. one of the plural pronouns they, them, and their is often used.
  • Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary
    The indefinite they is used in all varieties of contexts and is standard ... The use of they, their, them, and themselves as pronouns of indefinite gender and indefinite number is well established in speech and writing, even in literary and formal contexts. This gives you the option of using the plural pronouns where you think they sound best, and of using the singular pronouns (as he, she, he or she, and their inflected forms) where you think they sound best.
  • The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (quoted at the Free Dictionary) notes however, that:
    ... despite the convenience of third-person plural forms as substitutes for generic he and for structurally awkward coordinate forms like his/her, many people avoid using they to refer to a singular antecedent out of respect for the traditional grammatical rule concerning pronoun agreement.
Usage notes - For those interested in these little language controversies, Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary has useful 'Usage notes', and Merriam-Webster's 'Usage discussions' are really excellent. The latter seem to derive from Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage, although in a much shortened and more easily understandable version. For many non-prescriptivists the MWDEU is the usage bible.

And what about the TEFL experts?

Let's look at two of the most popular grammar books for EFL students:
  • Somebody/someone/anybody/anyone are singular words, but we often use they/them/their after these words. Murphy - English Grammar in Use (Cambridge)
  • They, them and their are often used with a singular meaning to refer back to somebody etc. Shaw - Practical English Usage (Oxford)

What do the linguists say?

  • And anyone who makes a living by teaching English language owes it to their pupils to keep a copy in the classroom.
    Gerald Gazdar, Professor of Computational Linguistics at the University of Sussex (talking about the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language)
  • Jane Austen and all the other writers who use ‘they’ with antecedents like ‘everyone’ aren’t making mistakes, they’re using a feature of English that some grammarians have incorrectly identified as an error.
    Geoffrey Pullum - Professor of General Linguistics at the University of Edinburgh.

Singular you

It's not as though singular they is unique in breaking the agreement rule. All of us break it every time we say to a single person you are ... or you were .... We are using a plural verb form with a singular entity, but I don't remember hearing anyone say that's ungrammatical.

Arguments in favour of they as a generic pronoun.

  • It is already in general use among educated native speakers.
  • It is elegant - no he or she, he/she, (s)he, alternating he and she or even worse the various ludicrous attempts at inventing an 'epicene' pronoun such as 'e, hu and zhe, which have met with the total indifference they justly merit.
  • It has a long literary history, having often been used by such writers as Shakespeare, Thackery and Jane Austen.
  • It is natural English
  • It is supported by most non-prescriptivist reference books such as dictionaries and the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language.
  • Associated Press and Strunk and White don't like it. (For some of us, that's an argument in it's favour!)

Arguments against they as a generic pronoun.

  • A certain Anne Fisher (1719-78) thought that he should replace they as a gender-free pronoun, and some influential style guides followed suit.
  • I can't think of any other arguments against.

Silly examples of Singular they

On one website (link below) the writer warns against using Singular they on the basis of the agreement rule, then gives these examples to bolster his argument:
  • I talked to the counselor about my problem, and they gave me good advice.
  • Each girl wore their uniform.
  • As long as one keeps up with the homework, they can pass.
But even a hardened user of Singular they like me would never utter these sentences. Why? Well in the first case, I presumably know whether my counsellor (BrE) is a man or a woman and in the second the girls' gender is presumably not in doubt.
As for the third, many of us try to avoid using the indefinite personal pronoun one nowadays anyway, as it sounds old-fashioned and a little pretentious. And if we did use it, in British English at least, any further pronoun would be the same, so here we would say (if we had to) 'As long as one keeps up with the homework, one can pass.'

Final note

If some people and certain newspapers don't want to use Singular they, that's their privilege, although the result can often be both unnatural and ungainly. But for Grammarphobia and others to say that it is grammatically wrong to use a structure which is used by possibly the majority of educated speakers, which is regarded as standard by most dictionaries and linguists, and which has a long and noble literary history, is just a load of old codswallop.



  • Ex 1. - 1. they give, 2. their, 3. their, 4. them, 5. them to bring, 6. they've weighed, 7. their, 8. they go, 9. they would have said, 10. they, 11. they've got, 12. they know, 13. they're, 14. they've signed, 15. their, 16. they've earned, 17. themselves, 18. they're
  • Ex 2. - 1. they, 2. themselves, 3. their, 4. them, 5. their, 6. their, 7. themselves, 8. are they looking, 9. their, 10. their, 11. them, 12. they've looked, 13. they'd found, 14. they wouldn't have landed

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You can make a teacher copy with answers by clicking on 'Show All'. Make sure you 'Clear All' before printing student copies. Or you can print normally and the answers will appear on a separate page (Page 7). The exercises are on on Pages 1-2. I strongly recommend doing a Print Preview first. You might want to change your margins and you certainly won't want to print every page.


Baiba said...

Thanks for this much-needed lesson, I've often racked my brain how to treat 'everyone' - as he or she... Reading your posts is like revising my university grammar course!

Anonymous said...

The eternal question! There are such differing opinions on this issue. Until recently, I always thought "he or she" was the only correct option. But nobody actually says "he or she." Glad to know that the singular "they" actually has some support.

A View Of Madrid said...

They way I see it is that when you don't know the gender you have a choice of two. "Two" is plural, so use the plural pronoun.