December 02, 2006

Singular "their": public health edition

Yesterday, as the poisoning of former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko began to broaden into a wider radiation scare, Great Britain's Health Protection Agency released the following statement:

The Health Protection Agency is continuing to provide expert advice on the public health issues surrounding the death of Mr Alexander Litvinenko.
The Health Protection Agency can also confirm it was informed this morning that tests have established that a further person who was in direct and very close contact with Mr Litvinenko has a significant quantity of the radioactive isotope Polonium-210 (Po-210) in their body.
This person is now to be investigated further in hospital.

For whatever reason, the HPA felt the need to conceal the identity of the "further person," even though British news organizations such as Reuters and the Guardian swiftly revealed that it was Mario Scaramella, an Italian security expert who met with Litvinenko the day he was poisoned. Even the gender of the person could not be disclosed, which led to a spot of trouble in choosing a possessive pronoun to modify "body." The writer of the statement decided to go with "their" instead of the wordier "his or her." It's an age-old solution to the lack of an epicene pronoun in English (and a Language Log chestnut, most recently discussed here).

Charlie Clingen spotted this usage in a Reuters report, commenting:

It still seems a little strange to me to find "one person" referred to by "their" in the same sentence, but I guess I'd better get used to it. In fact, I find myself doing the same thing more and more frequently these days. It seems to be the most pragmatic solution to the "gender camouflaging" problem, although in many situations it can be a transparent deception.

The gender camouflaging in the HPA's statement is, to my mind's ear, not entirely successful. Let's compare it with another recent official announcement with singular "their," from the (U.S.) Transportation Security Administration (discussed here and here):

We encourage everyone to pack gel-filled bras in their checked baggage.

In the TSA case, "their" refers back to the antecedent "everyone," a more comfortable fit since "everyone" is an indefinite quantifier, as opposed to the concrete (albeit concealed) individual specified by the HPA as "a further person." Furthermore, in the TSA announcement "their" modifies "(checked) baggage," a mass noun that does not indicate the number of the possessor (i.e., one person or many people could possess checked baggage). The HPA statement, on the other hand, has "their" modifying singular "body," which could only belong to a single person. So the TSA's use of singular "their" floats by rather unobtrusively (with commenters instead focusing disingenuously on the idea that everyone needs to pack gel-filled bras), while the HPA's usage is more conspicuous. Perhaps British public health officials could get together with American airline security to draw up some guidelines on gender camouflaging... but somehow I think they all have more pressing concerns at the moment.

(For a discussion of conditions on singular "their" in the context of Jane Austen's writing, see Henry Churchyard's informative page.)

[Update, 12/3/06: Readers have been emailing with some differing viewpoints. First, from Adrienne York:

I find I disagree with your contention that the HPA's use of singular their rings false while the TSA's use is appropriate. After all, the HPA's article was written to emphasize that they were not identifying Mr. Litvinenko's contact in any possible way, so the singular their obscuring gender makes sense.
On the other hand, it is reasonable to assume that anyone carrying a gel-filled bra is female, and so singular their, in order to obscure gender, strikes me as a case of overcorrection for gender neutrality.
My understanding of the use of singular they is not that it leaves unmarked the numbers to which it is referring, but the gender. If it is obscuring the numbers of people to whom one is referring, then it isn't really singular, is it? It's a standard issue plural they, and shouldn't one use a plural verb to refer to it?

My point above wasn't that the usage of "their" obscures a singular vs. plural distinction, but rather that "their" works better as a singular gender-neutral pronoun when the number of the antecedent isn't entirely explicit. So when the antecedent is an indefinite quantifier like "everyone," there is no conspicuous mismatch with the anaphoric use of "their." In the TSA example, one could even construe "everyone" as a plural quantifier if one were so inclined, agreeing with a plural reading of "their." In the HPA example, on the other hand, there's no getting around the fact that we're talking about a single known person, with a singular body contaminated by Polonium-210. In my native-speaker judgment (about which I make no claims of generalizability), "their" fits more comfortably with a singular antecedent when the semantic and syntactic context do not foreground the singularness of the referent. But as Henry Churchyard notes in connection to singular "their" as used by Jane Austen, we're talking about a gradient of acceptability, with the least acceptable end of the continuum occurring when singular "their" refers to "a strongly-individualized single person about whom there is some specific information."

Next, John Atkinson writes:

Maybe things are different in your dialect, mate, but for me "their" is just fine in this sentence, whether the antecedent is male, female, or epicene. That is, if they'd said

The Health Protection Agency can also confirm it was informed this morning that tests have established that a young woman who was in direct and very close contact with Mr Litvinenko has a significant quantity of the radioactive isotope Polonium-210 (Po-210) in their body.
that would have sounded just fine too. And this is certainly not a new development here.
Is it perhaps an American idiosyncrasy, that it's ungrammatical for a speaker to use "their" when the gender is known? How weird!

Explicit knowledge of gender helps to individualize and concretize the person in question, which makes singular "their" slightly less palatable — again, in my non-generalizable judgment. But contemporary American speakers are not particularly choosy in this regard, as noted in Geoffrey Pullum's post, "Singular they with known sex" (1/3/06).

And finally John Cowan writes:

I think what counts is not the indefiniteness of the quantifier, but the indefiniteness of the determiner in general. "A person feels bad when they ...", e.g.

Indeed — quantifiers like "anyone" and "everyone" are not the only type of indefinite determiner that works well with singular "their," but they're a particularly common type. And there's no question about the quantifiers' indefiniteness, as opposed to "a person," where there could be an ambiguity in construing whether the referent is a particular specified person or not.]

Posted by Benjamin Zimmer at December 2, 2006 09:32 PM