August 02, 2006

Did Winston Churchill Use Singular "They"?

I was catching up on pop reading this morning -- specifically the July 31 edition of The Missoulian -- and in Dear Abby's column I found this quotation attributed to Winston Churchill, which Dear Abby offered as part of her answer to an advice seeker:

To each there comes in their lifetime a special moment when they are figuratively tapped on the shoulder and offered the chance to do a very special thing, unique to them and fitted to their talents. What a tragedy if that moment finds them unprepared or unqualified for that which could have been their finest hour.

The sentiment expressed here sounds awfully sappy for Churchill, though for all I know he lapsed into sappiness occasionally (I'm not a serious student of his writings). But it would surprise me if this master of English prose really used all those plural pronouns (their, they, them) with a singular referent (each [person]): Churchill died in 1965, before the feminist movement that helped make the generic use of he unpopular; and even people in my generation wouldn't use "singular they" in formal prose or speech. Well, O.K., pedantic people like me don't use it; normal people in my generation probably do. (If you wanted to use "generic he" in the quotation, you'd replace the plural pronouns with his, he, him and change the plural verb are to singular is.)

So my question was, did Churchill really write this? As usual, I turned to Google for help. The quotation got 27 hits. Most were different newspapers with the same Dear Abby column, but a few were religious and other sites that featured the quotation. Most of them attributed the quotation to Churchill, but without giving a specific source; one site did mention "elaborating on Churchill's words", and that "elaboration" may be the ultimate source of the whole quotation. The end of the quotation had already made me suspect that someone who is not an eminent prose stylist had lifted it from one of Churchill's greatest speeches and used it as the punch line of a passage that never came from Churchill's pen. The closing sentence of Churchill's famous speech of 18 June 1940, at a dark period of World War II, goes like this:

Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties and so bear ourselves that if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, `This was their finest hour'.
So it is likely that Dear Abby is unfairly maligning Churchill in attributing to him the prose and the sentiment in her column.

The vigorous spread of "singular they" usage is interesting in its own right. It's not new, even in Standard English -- see Geoff Pullum's post on Shakespeare (link below) -- but its use in formal prose has expanded greatly in the past twenty or thirty years. Even though I will (I think) never adopt it myself in formal contexts, it's an excellent solution to the problem of generic usage, now that many or most of us find "generic he" unacceptable. Often you can rewrite a passage with plural referents so that the non-gender-specific plural pronouns are grammatical even in the stuffiest formal Standard English (as in "To all people there comes in their lifetime..." or, possibly better, "To all of us there comes in our lifetime..."); but sometimes the plural makes for awkward prose. When I have to use singular pronouns, for instance in giving word meanings in the Montana Salish dictionary I'm compiling, I sometimes use s/he, but that's not pretty, especially if the gloss has a possessive in it (as in "s/he hit people with his/her fists"). So I look forward to the not very distant future in which "singular they" will be universally accepted as Standard English in both speech and writing. In the meantime, I will probably continue to impose what I perceive as the still-current standard on undergraduates, though with a twinge of conscience. I console myself with the fact that I stopped correcting, or rather "correcting", split infinitives about twenty years ago.

P.S. Maybe I should add a hedge to one assertion up there: do pedants out there object to "their lifetime"? If so, I'm prepared to duke it out in favor of "lifetime" over "lifetimes" in that sentence.

P.P.S. And I can't resist adding two examples from Lucy Thomason's file of weird pronoun usage. The first is a quotation she got from Ives Goddard, who heard it on a news program: The President and the National Security Advisor should be able to express his or her views frankly. And the second is from Jasper Fforde's hilarious book The Eyre affair: a novel: One of the group had their hand up and was determined to have his say. Examples like these seem to me to provide conclusive evidence that the pitfalls of proper pronoun usage are causing many self-conscious users of Standard English to lose their grip entirely. Not Language Loggers, of course; we're above pronominal insecurity. We just say what we want and declare them to be correct.

P.P.P.S. Pronoun usage is hardly a new topic on Language Log. We love to argue about it in Language Log Plaza. See especially the following earlier posts on the general topic:

Shakespeare Used They with Singular Antecedents So There

Singular They with Known Sex

Singular They and Plural He/She/It

Collective Nouns with Singular Verbs and Plural Pronouns

They Are a Prophet

All Lockers Must Be Emptied of Its Contents

Posted by Sally Thomason at August 2, 2006 02:25 PM