January 05, 2006

Shakespeare used they with singular antecedents so there

Not happy that I cite Sean Lennon as a source of evidence concerning the way they can be used in modern English? Feeling that only something 400 years older would really convince you that it's OK. Has Coby Lubliner got news for you! Coby writes from Berkeley to point out the following lines from Shakespeare's A Comedy of Errors, Act IV, Scene 3:

There's not a man I meet but doth salute me
As if I were their well-acquainted friend

It's not just a case of they with singular antecedent; like Lennon's example, it uses they despite the fact that the sex of the antecedent's referent (male) is known! And there's more.

Marilyn Martin writes from Cornell to say that she's O.K. with normally, but this example was a bit more than she could take ("somehow bothers me", she wrote):

UK scientists have identified the part of the brain that determines whether a person perceives themselves as fat. (BBC News, Tuesday, 29 November 2005, 11:52 GMT)

What she doesn't like, I'm quite sure, is that the reflexive form themselves is morphologically marked as plural (self / selves), yet still it is used with singular antecedent. Don't flinch, Marilyn! Look at this example of Shakespeare's (from the poem The Rape of Lucrece):

Now leaden slumber with life's strength doth fight;
And every one to rest themselves betake,
Save thieves, and cares, and troubled minds, that wake.

So even the reflexive form of the pronoun lexeme they is used in Shakespeare with a singular antecedent (every one, spelled everyone in modern English).

[Added later: I would have to agree with you if you said that the above example is quite difficult to parse. It is indeed. Having direct objects before subjects is never helpful for those of us speaking SVO languages, but that's what Tudor English poetry is like. After some discussion with Marilyn Martin and Mark Liberman, I think I am satisfied that leaden slumber is understood as the subject of betake, and every one is its object. The reason betake doesn't have a final -s is not that it's agreeing with a plural subject (its subject is leaden slumber, singular), but rather that it is understood as doth betake with the doth omitted: it is not a present-tense verb, finite; it's in what The Cambridge Grammar calls the "plain form", as required by doth. So, in other words, the sense of the passage is roughly as follows (I change "doth fight" to "fights" in accord with contemporary English syntax, and simply murder the poeticality): "Now leaden slumber fights with life's strength; and takes everyone off to rest themselves, except for thieves, and worries, and troubled minds, which remain awake." The relevant point is unchanged by this clarification: the antecedent of themselves is the singular noun phrase every one. That's the current thinking in the halls of 1 Language Log Plaza, anyway. I did warn you that it was difficult.]

By all means, avoid using they with singular antecedents in your own writing and speaking if you feel you cannot bear it. Language Log is not here to tell you how to write or speak. But don't try to tell us that it's grammatically incorrect. Because when a construction is clearly present several times in Shakespeare's rightly admired plays and poems, and occurs in the carefully prepared published work of just about all major writers down the centuries, and is systematically present in the unreflecting conversational usage of just about everyone including Sean Lennon, then the claim that it is ungrammatical begins to look utterly unsustainable to us here at Language Log Plaza. This use of they isn't ungrammatical, it isn't a mistake, it's a feature of ordinary English syntax that for some reason attracts the ire of particularly puristic pusillanimous pontificators, and we don't buy what they're selling.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at January 5, 2006 11:43 AM