October 21, 2004

They are a prophet

My student Nick Reynolds reports on a beautiful example of singular they found in an exchange of graffiti. Someone had scrawled this on the wall:

Vote Arnold 4 prez

— recommending a vote for Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger as President of the United States. Someone else, mindful perhaps of Schwarzenegger's ineligibility for that post, had scrawled something obscene below it about the first writer's ignorance. But a third person, mindful of how the future may resemble the world of the Terminator movies in which our governor had his greatest movie successes, added this response:

This person is not ignorant.
They are a prophet.
The machines will rule us

There are a couple of beautiful things about this particular use of the form they.

The pronoun form they is anaphorically linked in the discourse to this person. Such use of forms of they with singular antecedents is attested in English over hundreds of years, in writers as significant as Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Austen, and Wilde. The people (like the perennially clueless Strunk and White) who assert that such usage is "wrong" simply haven't done their literary homework and don't deserve our attention.

The sequence they are exhibits, of course, the syntactically correct plural verb agreement. The following phrase a prophet is a singular predicative NP complement. This is again quite correct; we see the same thing in Anyone who claims they are a prophet should make sure they have some actual predictions to their credit. In that case we use singular they because the antecedent is a quantified NP, and neither he nor she is appropriate: we intend to refer to anyone of either sex who claims to be a prophet. And to use he or she would be desperately clumsy (Anyone who claims he or she is a prophet should make sure he or she has some actual predictions to his or her credit — gack!).

A minor point of interest about Nick's example is that the antecedent (this person) is a definite NP; singular they more commonly has quantified or indefinite NP antecedents, not definite ones.

But as Nick observes, the most interesting thing about his example is that the motivation for the use of singular they does not come from either indeterminacy of sex (as with antecedents like anyone) or ignorance about the sex of the referent (as in If you have a partner, you can bring them too), because the inscription was on the wall of a men's bathroom. Given the user population of such establishments, one can be entirely confident that the first writer was a male. That means the third writer could have put He is a prophet. But the fact is that singular they is becoming completely standard, at least among younger Americans, whenever the antecedent is of a sort that could in some contexts refer to either sex. I heard a radio piece about pregnant high-schoolers in which a girl said something like I think if someone in my class was pregnant I would be sympathetic to them. In such cases it's not the inability to assign sex to the referent that drives the selection of singular they, it's the mere fact of the antecedent being quantified or headed by a noun like person that can in other contexts be used of either sex. Mere inferred sex of the referent is not sufficient to force a choice of either he or she.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at October 21, 2004 11:27 AM