October 12, 2005

Singular they and plural he/she/it

A recent National Journal article by Murray Waas exhibits, in one paragraph, a singular they and a plural he:

But the senior Justice official added that even in the absence of hard evidence of an obstruction, "a prosecutor is going to want to know why a subject of (the) investigation did not want a witness to co-operate, and why they would allow someone to linger in jail for more than eighty days, unless they had something to hide. That is going to lead many prosecutors to redouble his efforts."

Singular they, as we've repeated at tiresome length, has been sanctioned for centuries by the usage of esteemed writers, though it's deprecated by some. Plural uses of singular pronouns are rarer, and seem to be genuine mistakes, perhaps caused by hypercorrection in the face of confusion about which pronoun to use in reference to generic or universally-quantified antecedents whether singular or plural. I mentioned another example of this kind in one of the first Language Log posts:

All lockers must be emptied of its contents by August 22 at 5:00 p.m.

I don't see any easy way to search for examples of this phenomenon.

Note, by the way, that there is nothing necessarily illogical about using singular pronouns in such cases. The most obvious difference between singular they and plural he/she/it is that the first is commonly used while the second seems to be extremely rare. However, I don't know of any frequency estimates for either one.

[Steve at Language Hat points out by email that

I wonder if the sentence you quote started out as "That is going to lead many a prosecutor to redouble his efforts." I can easily imagine some copyeditor thinking "many a" was archaic or something and changing it to "many" + plural, without reflecting that this required a corresponding change in the subsequent pronoun. This kind of thing happens all the time. I find it difficult to believe the sentence was written as it stands; plural "he" is just too weird.

The same thought had occurred to me, but I thought I'd give the poor copy editors a break for a change.

Also, this is in a quote from an anonymous source, so the fault might be in Waas' original notetaking. However, one thing I've learned over the past couple of years, from correspondence with readers of this blog, is that a phrase that is "just too weird" for me is sometimes suprisingly unproblematic for others. ]

Posted by Mark Liberman at October 12, 2005 08:56 AM