January 03, 2006

Singular they with known sex

Sean Lennon (the singer/songwriter son of John Lennon and Yoko Ono), who is 30, would like to have a new girlfriend, and for some reason talked to the people at the Page Six department of the New York Post about it and "playfully pleaded with The Post to find him a girlfriend for the new year", his relationship with Bijou Phillips having broken up a while ago (in 2003, I'm told, though you wouldn't know that from the Post, which has a big picture of them together as if this were recent news). The Post publishes some self-descriptions sent in by young women who thought they might suit his needs ("I lead a full life and would like to share it with someone," says Betsy Head, 27). The linguistic angle (this is Language Log) is that what he is reported as having said to the Post about those needs provides a nice example of the way singular they is going in the speech of younger people (and 30 counts as young in this context). Said Sean (Thursday, December 29, 2005 , page 9):

Any girl who is interested must simply be born female and between the ages of 18 and 45. They must have an IQ above 130 and they must be honest.

The antecedent of they, both occurrences, is any girl who is interested, a singular noun phrase. Yet because of the head noun girl we know that semantically the quantifier that noun phrase denotes ranges only over female humans. Thus the sex of the 18 to 45-year old honest person with the 130+ IQ that Sean hopes to find is fixed by his stipulation. Yet he still says they.

Notice that the verb phrase must have an IQ above 130 clearly needs a singular subject (each girl has one IQ; he could have said "They must have IQs above 130" if he was talking about the whole group of hopeful applicants). Clearly, in the speech of Sean Lennon, they not only can have a morphosyntactically (and semantically) singular antecedent, but it can do so even if the gender of the referent is known, and syntactically overt, as with any girl.

The context that most favors they with singular antecedents, I think, is where it roughly corresponds to what logicians call a bound variable. Lennon's two sentences above convey a meaning something like:

"For any girl X such that X is interested, X must be born female and X must be at least 18 years old and X must be not more than 45 years old and X must have an IQ above 130 and X must be honest."

The use of they is, to put it informally, a reminder that the pronoun is not referring to any one person. Gender reflects the sex of the person referred to in English, and it is evident that Sean Lennon feels that with no definite reference for the pronoun, they is more appropriate than she.

It's tricky to talk about this with care. The traditional simplistic line is just the pronoun they is plural and that's all there is to it; but that won't do. The uses of they in the quote above do not really refer to any particular person or persons. Nor does the noun phrase any girl. But any girl expresses a quantifier, and the quantifier binds variables semantically, and the pronoun they realizes the bound variables syntactically. The number agreement facts show that they is morphosyntactically plural. But the anaphora facts show that it can take an antecedent that is morphosyntactically singular (as The Times style guide once agreed but then it changed its mind back again to the old-fashioned view that says there's something wrong with that).

Semantically, in some uses they is semantically "plural" in the sense that it refers to a group. But in the use illustrated here it is not semantically "plural"; it corresponds to a bound variable, and the semantic notions of singular and plural reference don't really apply to it. The semantic notion of sex reference doesn't really apply either. The fact that Lennon stipulates a range for the variables that includes only humans born of the female sex apparently is not quite enough for him to use she, though of course he would use that pronoun in a context where a specific human such as Bijou Phillips was being referred to. (The Post's picture has her in a tight red dress, and she is very clearly female. Trust me. At Language Log we do fact-checking on this sort of thing.)

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at January 3, 2006 06:13 PM