January 08, 2008

The next president and their pronoun gender

BBC Radio 4 had an upcoming-program announcement the other day that said Madeleine Albright would be on the program talking about "the situation that will face the next president of the United States when they take office just over a year from now." Do you see what that is? It's a singular they, a form of the anaphoric pronoun they with an antecedent that is singular for verb-agreement purposes. And it's the first one that I happen to have noted with the next president of the United States as antecedent. And it occurred for two reasons. First, although the phrase is a definite NP it does not have a definite referent in the sense that we know right now who it will actually be. It is attributive, not referential, in the Donnellan terminology. But second, this is, it seems, the first moment in history when there is genuinely a non-trivial amount of doubt about whether the next president will be male or female. It is in just such tiny but intriguing (and often unnoticed) ways that the grammar of English connects with culture, history, and politics.

Just because this was the first case I noticed doesn't mean it was the first case. And it wasn't. A few weeks ago Ben Zimmer noticed an example from an American speaker, and wrote about it in this post on OUPblog. The sentence was Americans will pick the next president based on their ability to lead, and the speaker was Anthony Carbonetti, senior adviser to Rudy Giuliani: New York Times, Feb. 16, 2007.

It's happening, it's here. Uncertainty about the correct pronoun gender for the next president will be with us for (at the very most) the next ten months. The suspense will be over by some time in November, or some time in December if there are recounts and Supreme Court appeals.

And of course singular they will be with us forever, regardless of Supreme Court appeals, and in defiance of a century of prescriptivist blowhards like the Fowler brothers. Deal with it.

And if you'd like a T-shirt reading "Whoever I hate least '08 + whoever's running with them", they are on sale here.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at January 8, 2008 04:34 AM