Back in October of 2004, Geoff Pullum discussed a wall inscription where they had a singular definite antecedent: "This person is not ignorant. They are a prophet." Geoff wrote that
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.
But Geoff left out the single most compelling example.
In the King James Version, Deuteronomy 17:
2: If there be found among you, within any of thy gates which the LORD thy God giveth thee, man or woman, that hath wrought wickedness in the sight of the LORD thy God, in transgressing his covenant,
3: And hath gone and served other gods, and worshipped them, either the sun, or moon, or any of the host of heaven, which I have not commanded;
4: And it be told thee, and thou hast heard of it, and inquired diligently, and, behold, it be true, and the thing certain, that such abomination is wrought in Israel:
5: Then shalt thou bring forth that man or that woman, which have committed that wicked thing, unto thy gates, even that man or that woman, and shalt stone them with stones, till they die.
Many people believe that the King James Version is "God's preserved word in English", or "verbally and plenarily inspired of God", or some similar formulation. Thus the Doctrinal Statement of the Emmanuel Baptist Theological Seminary says: "We believe that the Hebrew and Greek manuscripts which underlie the King James Version (the Masoretic text of the Old Testament and the Textus Receptus of the New Testament) are the preserved words of God. Furthermore, we believe that the King James Version of the Bible is God's preserved word in English and therefore, it shall be the official and only translation of the Holy Scriptures used by this Church and all of its ministries." And the Sword of the Lord's listing of What We Believe asserts that "We believe the Bible, the Scriptures of the Old Testament and the New Testament, preserved for us in the Masoretic text (Old Testament) Textus Receptus (New Testament) and in the King James Bible, is verbally and plenarily inspired of God. It is the inspired, inerrant, infallible, and altogether authentic, accurate and authoritative Word of God, therefore the supreme and final authority in all things." (See this compilation for more examples.)
As Ben Zimmer recently observed, singular they "is old hat and hardly worth remarking on". But in defiance of authoritative scholarship and everyday usage, some pockets of stubborn prescriptivist resistance remain, and it's a comfort to know that we can count on the Sword of the Lord to help mop them up.
[Hat tip: Steg]
[Update -- Coby Lubliner writes:
The use of singular "they" in the KJV is the Jews' fault, since the original has "u-s'qaltam [and thou shalt stone them] ... va-metu [and they shall die]". More modern versions try to weasel around it. The New International Version has "and stone that person to death"; the New Living Translation uses (horrors!) the passive: "then that man or woman must be taken to the gates of the town and stoned to death"; the English Standard Version: "you shall stone that man or woman to death with stones"; the New King James Version: "shall stone to death that man or woman with stones"; theNew Life Version: "and kill the man or woman with stones"; and so on. (I used www.biblegateway.com.) Where does that "stone to death with stones" come from, anyway?
Well, it's the preserved words, like they said. Deal with it, ye prescriptivists.]
[Update #2 -- Wayne Leman has more at Better Bibles Blog.]
[Update #3 -- Adam Booth writes:
In your update, Coby Lubliner asked, "Where does that 'stone to death with stones' come from, anyway?" The answer is: Greek. I'm pretty sure (that scholars have settled that) the KJV translation of the Hebrew scriptures was done not from the Hebrew text at all, but mainly from the Greek LXX (with some support from Jerome's Latin and earlier English translations). The LXX rendering of the verse can be found here:
and has, literally, "you (sing.) stone-throw them with stones (dat.)" (and a plural third person "they shall die").
The plurals here are a little odd; the noun phrase which is meant to serve as subject for "they shall die" is an eta-coordinated noun-phrase, where eta coordinates "the man that" and "the woman that" (in a word-for-word translation, which is a perfectly natural way of saying "that man" and "that woman" in Greek). Eta can function as a coordinator (like "or") as a coordination marker (like "either") in Greek. When singular NPs are coordinated by eta to form a subject, the VP normally takes a singular verb (cf. Matt 18:8 for an example, which shows this and eta playing both its roles).
So, I don't think it's quite clear from this verse alone that the KJV translators were all that into singular 'they' themselves -- they simply translated Greek plurals into English plurals, even when those Greek plurals are a little non-standard.
The Wikipedia article on the King James Version claims that "The Old Testament of the King James Version is translated from the Masoretic Hebrew Text", though I have no idea whether that's true. In this particular case, both the Hebrew and the Greek versions seem to have the same plural pronouns as the KJV English does.
Whatever their textual sources, I prefer to think that Lancelot Andrewes and the First Westminster Company were, if not divinely inspired, at least moved by the spirit of the English language.]
[Update #4 -- more here]Posted by Mark Liberman at August 21, 2006 06:10 PM