Singular “they”: everyone has their own opinion

FREDDIE DEBOER, a graduate student and blogger, has just summed up his class project examining the use of singular they. It will be hard going for most readers, using as it does terms like "anaphor" and "c-command" that aren't part of ordinary school and university grammar-teaching. After his technical analysis of the few cases where singular they is allowed (as in "every student aced their project"), he sums up for the lay reader:

Using "their" for singular antecedents is one that I think people need to just give up on. As I've argued, it only occurs in a very limited set of circumstances, and those circumstances [are very] unlikely to produce confusion about what is meant. We all know what is intended in such a statement, to the point that most of us don't even notice it in spoken conversation. And as we lack a satisfying alternative, the usage is likely to persist. That's not to say that you shouldn't understand what the "rule" is, if only to be able to satisfy those gatekeepers that police it. (Don't use it in your resume, don't use it in your grade school application.) But this is an example of a gate that's not worth defending anymore.

It's a nice piece of work, but it's useful to revisit the old question of singular they, and go deeper into two of Mr deBoer's arguments, one of which he makes explicitly, and one of which he waves away. [continue]

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You: a short history

TIME magazine once made its Person of the Year "You", adorning that week's issue with a reflective metallic cover. Readers like to read about how important they are. But this post is not about you. Sorry if you were misled by the headline. It's about you, the pronoun.

In yesterday's installment, about singular they, I said that they could simply be considered both singular and plural. In other words, "All parents love their children" and "Every parent loves their children" would both be correct. Anticipating exploding heads at this seeming illogic ("but they is plural!") I pointed out that you is also both singular and plural. How did that come to be? By a process of drift (including social change), which over a long time made innovative usage of you unremarkable and standard.

First of all, in Old English, you was originally not even a subject pronoun. It (in many different pronunciations and spellings) was the objective form of ye, the second-person plural pronoun. In other words, it could be a direct object, indirect object or the object of a preposition, but not a subject. From one 15th-century citation in the Oxford English dictionary: "I in you, and ye in me." It could also be used reflexively, as in "get you home" (ie, "get yourselves home".) [continue]

Tags: grammar, language, pronouns, usage

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Replies to This Discussion

Reminds me of the discussion of the difference between "Prescriptivists" and "Descriptivists" in an introductory Linguistics course. Descriptivists study the grammar that native speakers actually use, and Prescriptivists try to tell native speakers what they are doing wrong. (There might have been a slight bias toward one of them in that description.) Mr deBoer definitely appears to have taken on a Decriptivist position toward the subject...

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