December 02, 2007

Death claims singular them

David Morgan-Mar's Irregular Webcomic! takes on "singular they" as the character Death rages at his incompetent minions, who keep doing things that cause the dead to be sent back to life:

(Hat tip to Bruce Webster.)

We've been posting about singular they since the earliest days of Language Log.  Here's a summary statement by Mark Liberman from last year:

The argument was settled long ago: singular they has routinely been used throughout the history of English, by all the best writers, until certain subcases were artificially turned into "errors" by self-appointed experts. Successively less discriminating pseudo-authorities then generalized the proscription in successively sillier ways, although they have largely been ignored by the users of the language.

Endless numbers of commentators have noted the usefulness of they (and its forms them, their, and themselves) in situations where the sex of a singular referent is not determinable, known, or relevant, as in Death's use of them to refer to the next person who dies.  Morgan-Mar addresses the issue directly:

The only thing wrong with using "they" as a singular third person pronoun is that some people consider it to be poor grammar. Compared to all the other issues with the alternatives, why is there even still a question about this?

The good thing is that common English usage seems to be heading in the direction towards full acceptance of "they" as a singular neutral pronoun. Lots of people use it this way already. More will do so over the next few decades. Everyone understands it. The trend is already here. Eventually the current generation of grammar prescriptivists will die out and we'll finally have the solution we can all live with.

It's not often that comic strips come with expositions on questions of usage.

Morgan-Mar asks why there is still an issue with singular they.  There are two standard objections to it, neither of them cogent:

"Logic": they with a singular antecedent is grammatically incorrect, because it's "illogical" for a plural pronoun to have a singular antecedent.

"Political correctness": singular they is being used only to avoid giving offense to women (as a replacement for the "grammatically correct" pronoun he); it represents an excess of feminist political correctness.

These objections are combined in a rant by Anatoly Liberman in the spring 2006 issue of Verbatim.  On p. 27:

We want to speak in fully inoffensive gender-neutral sentences, but neutering English is hard.  In the old days, no one objected to instructions like: "Every applicant should indicate his preference by checking one of the boxes."

On the next page Anatoly Liberman notes that

The plural is an ideal device for neutering, since English does not distinguish genders in the plural: "Applicants should indicate their preference by checking one of the boxes ..."

... The trouble starts when English is murdered in cold blood for the sake of a lofty idea.  "When a student comes to see me, I always answer their question," a proud counselor says.  This horror has been sanctioned by teachers, some editors, and by just about everyone who is responsible for the norms of modern American English.

PC and the "correct" he first.  If Anatoly Liberman had looked at the literature on gender-neutral pronouns (instead of just retailing his own beliefs, impressions, and prejudices), he would have discovered that (as Mark Liberman noted) singular they has a history dating back many centuries before feminism; that the choice of he as the "correct" pronoun was prescribed by grammarians only in the 18th century (and has been an uncomfortable choice for a great many speakers and writers); and that people looking for ungendered schemes of reference seized on an existing variant that fit the bill nicely, rather than inventing a new variant for their purposes.  MWDEU has a nice, reasonably compact account of this history in its entry on they, their, them, and it's entirely at variance with Anatoly Liberman's imagined history.

[Though Anatoly Liberman is a distinguished etymological scholar, he behaves like any uninformed but opinionated person when he wanders out of his specialty.  So instead of a linguist's scholarly reflections on the use of the plural, we get the sort of angry unloading of peeves about language that you can find on blogs by non-linguists all over the net.]

Now, the issue of grammaticality and "logic".  This is a bit more subtle.  There are two places where the reasoning goes off the rails. 

First, there's an unexamined identification of grammatical categories with meaning (something I've complained about in various contexts here on Language Log).  Singular and plural are just labels for grammatical categories, which could in principle be called, say, #1 and #2Singular and plural are not at all bad labels, since expressions in the former category mostly have the semantics of singularity or individuality, while expressions in the latter category mostly have the semantics of multiplicity or numerosity.  But the fit between categories and meaning is almost never perfect; a particular category can easily have conventionalized uses with non-default semantics.  There's nothing "illogical" about a grammatical system in which plural pronouns can sometimes refer to individuals.

Second, there are supressed premises here about the nature of "agreement": (a) that all types of "agreement" work according to the same principles; and (b) that these principles require identical GRAMMATICAL CATEGORIES for pairs of expressions.  The first premise involves a kind of word magic: because the same label has been used for various phenomena, the phenomena are the same.  The second premise is a hypothesis about the way these phenomena work in English (and possibly other languages).  Neither premise is justified.

English has (at least) four types of "agreement" involving number:  NP-internal agreement, as in this dog vs. these dogs; subject-verb agreement, as in My dog bites vs. My dogs bite; subject-predicative agreement, as in Sandy could be a spy vs. Kim and Sandy could be spies; and anaphor-antecedent agreement, as in Mary thinks she is brilliant vs. Mary and Norma think they are brilliant.  There is plenty of literature about these different sorts of concordance between expressions, and about subtypes of each.  Nothing guarantees that the same principles will be at work in all these contexts; the extent to which they share some characteristics is an empirical question, to be answered by examining actual practice.  The short answer to this question is that somewhat different principles apply in different contexts.

Finally, these principles do not always turn on grammatical categories alone, but sometimes refer to semantics.  Again, there is plenty of literature here, having, for example, to do with circumstances in which "grammatical" agreement and "notional" agreement are in conflict; the conflicts are resolved in different ways in different cases.  For "singular they", generic uses of they are, by convention, linkable to singular antecedents, so that such uses of they are notionally singular but grammatically plural.  As a result, generic uses of they as a subject require plural verbs (Each child in the class will think they are the best in the class), though their singular antecedents require singular verbs (Each child in the class thinks they will the only one to succeed).  In any case, the grammar of the language can't be deduced from an appeal to "logic", but must be discovered by examining practice.

A further complication -- here as everywhere -- is that different people have somewhat different systems.  There's a lot of variation, even within speakers of standard English, so that we can't actually talk about "the grammar of the language" in the abstract, but must note who uses which system on which occasions and for which purposes.  That's true for everything in language, but it's especially worth noting in a domain where there's been so much contention about how "the language" works.

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at December 2, 2007 03:14 PM