December 05, 2007

They is looking for ...

Back in April, the Youth and Popular Culture desk at Language Log Plaza, managed at the time by Eric Bakovic, reported on "singular they" in Facebook.  Facebook users can leave their sex unspecified in their profiles.  If they do, other items in their profiles will be produced with the pronouns they, them, their rather than the sex-appropriate pronouns.  So (to quote Eric) we get things like

Kim Doe added "burger" to their favorite foods.

I'm not really comfortable with this (though I have no problem with singular they with indefinite antecedents), but I understand how it happens, and Language Loggers have reported on similar cases over the years.

Facebook's handling of pronouns turns out to lead to much worse problems, though, because there's no mechanism for subject-verb agreement.

This we discover from a message to ADS-L by James Harbeck yesterday, who noted that the Facebook messages about a friend of his (who had not specified sex) included

[Name] updated their profile. They is now looking for friendship, a relationship and networking.

Way over the line for me, though you can see how it came about: there's a program that pulls the sex item (called "sex", and not "gender", by the way) from the user's profile and then plugs in she/her/her, he/him/his, or they/them/their according to what it finds there.  So if someone with no sex specified checks one or more boxes in the "Looking for" item -- Friendship, Dating, A Relationship, and Networking are the choices offered -- that will be reported as

[Pronoun] is looking for ...

with the program supplying the "appropriate" pronoun, in this case they.  Result:

They is looking for ...

This is akin to those annoying reports like

You have 1 messages.

which result from a lack of number-marking rules within NPs; a number is simply inserted in a template.

[Full disclosure: I am a Facebook user, which is why I can tell you about profile items.  Among my Facebook friends are Steven Bird, Dan Jurafsky, and Ben Zimmer here at LLP, plus Michael Erard, Jesse Sheidlower, and Chris Waigl (whose names have come up on Language Log several times), a number of friends from the newsgroup soc.motss, and various current or recent students.]

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at December 5, 2007 10:33 AM