April 26, 2007

Virginia, who said they would come

Another remarkable singular they example collected by Nick Reynolds (he also collected this beautiful case). His yoga teacher was waiting for some students to show up for an informal jujitsu class, and so far only one, Steve, had shown up, so the teacher said to Steve:

Virginia isn't here, who said they would come; Chris isn't here, who said they would come; and Devin isn't here, who said they would come.

Virginia was the only female involved, and the teacher knew that. So the use of singular they (for it is singular: the teacher was not talking about Virginia having claimed that some group of other people would come) was not motivated by any possible lack of knowledge about gender, or by the neutrality of an indefinite antecedent like anyone. The speaker (going a bit beyond my usage — I don't find the above example fully grammatical) was using the supplementary relative clause who said they would comeas the way to express the property "x said x would come" regardless of the antecedent to which it is attached — even if that antecedent is a proper name (which I personally do not find grammatical, but keep in mind this kind of case, which seems different). Interesting further evidence of the aggressive spread of singular they in modern colloquial American English (and and English in other parts of the globe too, I'm told).

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at April 26, 2007 09:57 AM