December 01, 2003

Postcard from Vegas, 2: syntactic data collection on the strip

For the grammarian (and that is what I am, though I am also fun enough to go to Vegas for a wild weekend), data is all around us.

Oh, all right, prescriptive pedants: data are all around us.

And in Las Vegas, right on the strip, on the way to a show, I gathered a beautiful example which definitively settled a question I had regarded as either open or possibly closed in the other direction: whether a proper name can be a fully natural antecedent of a singular they. Let me explain.

It is a familiar myth from bad usage books that sentences like Everyone does what they are told are grammatically incorrect. The claim, let me stress immediately, is absolute nonsense. The pronoun they (in its various inflectional forms: they, them, their, theirs, themselves) has been used with a singular antecedent for hundreds of years. It occurs in Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Austen, Wilde... it is natural, idiomatic, fully grammatical English for every native speaker who has not had their brain completely warped by bad usage books like Strunk & White's disgusting little atavistic compendium of falsehoods The Elements of Style.

What the bad usage books say about an example like Everyone does what they are told is that they is a plural pronoun but everyone is a singular noun phrase (notice the singular agreement on does), and you can't be both plural and singular, so it's wrong. The claim is a stupid mistake -- it depends on confusing the partially semantics system of choice for person, number, and gender on anaphoric pronouns with the mostly syntactic system of subject agreement in person and number marked on verbs. Nowhere did God say they have to line up in some simple way, and indeed they don't. The usage grouches are just flat wrong about the history and structure of English. I could go on for some time about this, but I won't, because I already did once, on Australian radio, in a talk called "Anyone who had a heart (would know their own language", and you can read the script at, or listen to the program itself by visiting

But the example I found in Vegas corrects something I said in the radio talk. I drew a distinction between referring pronouns (as in John and Mary called to ask if they can meet with you, where they just refers to John and Mary) and bound pronouns (as in No one called to ask if they can meet with you, where they is a variable bound by the quantifier no one: the sentence means "No one is an x such that x called to ask if x can meet with you"), and I ventured the claim that singular they "really is ungrammatical" with a singular name as antecedent. I pointed out that if you know someone called Chris was here and left a pen behind, then even if you don't know whether Chris is a man called Christopher or a woman call Christine, you can't say *Chris left their pen.

I still think that sentence sounds terrible. But the question arises of whether there could possibly be a singular name that in some way manages to have the sort of denotation that would allow a singular they to refer back to it. And in Las Vegas, right on the strip, I finally heard a real live native speaker say such an example, and to my ear was perfectly grammatical and natural. I got on a bus at around 6 p.m. to ride south a mile or so from up by the Stardust down to Bellagio (to see Cirque du Soleil) The traffic was a disaster. The bus moved at slower than walking pace -- this was the worst $2 I ever spent on transportation. And as the bus inched its way south toward the Mirage, a blaze of light showed up on the right, and the driver said:

If you look to the right, Treasure Island's having their show right now.

The Treasure Island hotel was running its free pirate show (men with eye patches and head scarves and swords climbing up rigging and being shot and falling off into the water nightly at 6, 8, and 10 p.m., for you to watch for free from the street). Notice the singular agreement: Treasure Island's is the colloquial reduction of Treasure Island is. But what gender is a hotel, in the sense not of a building but of an entity that can perform a show? Not clear. So the bus driver used singular they. And quite right too.

In the light of this evidence, I would now say that although *Chris left their pen still sounds dreadful for some reason (perhaps because whoever Chris is, he or she really does have a gender), nonetheless it is possible to have a singular they with a singular proper name antecedent. This is actually not excluded by what it says in The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (chapter 5, section 17.2.4, pp. 491-495, esp. p. 494), which only says cases of referential antecedents are rare. The Cambridge Grammar has it right, and the claim in my radio talk is slightly too strong. You heard it here first, and I heard the crucial evidence in real life -- or what passes for real life in Vegas.

[Note added later: Chris Culy has pointed out to me that at least one other example can be found using Google:

Profit-sharing, career training, creative child-care solutions, lactation centers and developmental opportunities add to the many ways Principal helps their employees create a healthy work/life balance." (From; underlining added.)

"Principal" is the Principal Financial Group, picked by Latina Style as one of their list of the best companies to work for if you're a Latina. (Ooh! There's another example! Their list!)

Some might unkindly suggest that this observation of Culy's means my trip to Vegas should not be a deductible expense; but I have commented on that mean-minded suggestion elsewhere.]

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at December 1, 2003 03:21 PM