January 02, 2006

Everyone at The Times agrees... No they don't

I have a one-step-forward-one-step-back story. I noticed a while ago that the second edition of The Times Guide to Grammar and Usage (ed. by Simon Jenkins; London, 1992, and now long out of print, I think), explicitly states that they with singular antecedent (the example Everybody should bring their lunch is cited) is "acceptable usage" and will often constitute a good solution to the problem that one is otherwise forced to choose between he (which says the referent is male) or she (which says the referent is female) or he or she (often much too clumsy, as anyone who thinks he or she might like to spend some of his or her time convincing himself or herself will soon find out for himself or herself).

Jenkins thus endorses the position that The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language was to take a decade later. And rightly so. It's a position that couldn't really be doubted by anyone who had devoted even a few minutes to looking at the facts of usage, be it literary (over the past 600 years) or everyday conversational. Excellent advice.

But if you read on, there is sadder news to come.

I wondered for a while if the old-fashioned handbooks that condemn singular antecedents for they realized they were contradicting The Times as well as CGEL. Even dyed-in-the-wool old-tyme prescriptivists, who might regard CGEL's descriptive stance with horror, I thought to myself, should surely be prepared to agree that The Times of London knows whereof it speaks with regard to the English language. If any newspaper in the world can be regarded as virtually definitive of good written Standard English over the past two hundred years it has to be The Times. But before telling you of my discovery in the 1992 edition, I had a look around to see what was the current version of The Times's style guide. And what I found plunged me back into depression.

Go to The Times Online Style Guide and take a look at what they have under "they" now. It is the following piece of ill-considered stupidness:

they   should always agree with the subject. Avoid sentences such as "If someone loves animals, they should protect them". Say instead "If people love animals, they should protect them"

Agree with the subject? Subjects have nothing to do with this, as you can see from an example like We told everyone they were free to leave, where they has a direct object as its antecedent. Here no sense can be made of the idea that they should "agree with the subject". The editors — Richard Dixon, Mike Murphy, and Denis O'Donoghue — don't know a subject from an antecedent, or doubtless from an artichoke, and they should be ashamed of themselves. (It is not clear what they would recommend. Probably some sort of rewording like We told all of them they were free to leave. This is no improvement.)

What Dixon, Murphy, and O'Donoghue are trying (ineptly) to say is clear enough: they have returned to the dopey position that says they must never have a morphosyntactically singular antecedent. They are back in tune with American backwardness: with Strunk & White, and their thousands of latter-day co-religionists such as Stanley Fish and the style guides of the Modern Language Association and the American Psychological Association. Why do these sources continue to damn singular antecedents for they in defiance of all the evidence of its constant use by respectable authors during at least the past six centuries? I have no idea.

But you can look the matter up for yourself: the wonderful Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage would be a very good place to start. Look at their list of literary examples, and then decide, freely and of your own will, uninfluenced by me, whether to side with The Cambridge Grammar or the atavistic loonies. (Hint: The atavistic loonies would not be a good choice.)

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at January 2, 2006 08:59 PM