August 09, 2003

"All lockers must be emptied of its contents."

Plural pronouns with nominally singular antecedents like "everyone" have been a major battlefield in the grammar wars. "Everyone loves their mother": right or wrong?

My gym just fired the opening gun in a new skirmish, by posting dozens of signs reading "All lockers must be emptied of its contents by August 22 at 5:00 p.m."

Someone has learned, from the "singular their" fuss, a lesson that no one wanted to teach: Universally quantified ancedents should get singular pronouns. Or something like that.

This is clearly a case of hypercorrection. However, it's not clear which side has gained: the prescriptivists can claim (correctly?) that even their opponents surely agree that THIS is a mistake; the anti-prescriptivists can counter that pedantry is the root cause of the error.

It's interesting that everyone, prescriptivists and anti-prescriptivists alike, seems to think that hypercorrection is wrong, morally as well as logically. For the prescriptivists, any form that deviates from a postulated universal standard is wrong.. For (at least some of) their opponents, use makes right, as long as you conform to your own group's norms -- but it's a sin to imitate the norms of a more prestigious group, if you get it wrong. On this point, the prescriptivists seem to me to be fairer and more democratic in their attitudes, even if their particular prescriptions are often foolish.

Posted by Mark Liberman at August 9, 2003 07:58 AM