To each their own
For any of you who have never heard the singular they or seen it written, it is when English speakers use the pronoun they to refer back to a grammatically singular antecedent. That antecedent often has indefinite reference, such as "anyone," or "any student," or "each student."
Linguists have been observing usage of singular they and it has been the topic of many Internet discussions and information pages. It is also a focus of heated debates about gender-inclusive language in the TNIV. Rev. Dr. Mark Roberts has blogged on singular they in the TNIV.
Singular they has a long history of usage in English speech and literature (singular they is boldfaced by me in the following examples):
ca. 1395, Chaucer, The Pardoner's Prologue: And whoso fyndeth hym out of swich blame, They wol come up...If I recall correctly (I was fairly young then!), in the mid 1800s prescriptivists began decrying usage of singular they and stated that the pronoun he should be the only generic singular used in English. But good speakers and authors have continued using singular they up to today, since it sounds like natural English to them. For many years, however, English style manuals stated that singular they should not be used, until more recently when English language professionals have recognized that singular they is used widely by a wide range of speakers and writers.
1400, Maundev: Wha so weddes ofter þan anes, þaire childer er bastardes. (My attempted translation from this Middle English to Modern English: "Whoever weds more than once, their children are bastards.")
1464, Rolls of Parliament: Inheritements, of which any of the seid persones... was seised by theym self, or joyntly with other.
1557, More, Picus Wks: Eche of them after their deseruing.
1600, Shakespeare, Much Ado About Nothing: God send every one their heart's desire!
1611, KJV, Num 15:12: According to the number that ye shall prepare, so shall ye do to every one according to their number.
1611, KJV, 2 Kings 14:12: And Judah was put to the worse before Israel; and they fled every man to their tents.
1611, KJV, Matt. 18:35: If ye from your hearts forgive not every one his brother their tresspasses.
1611, KJV, Phil. 2:3: Let nothing be done through strife or vainglory; but in lowliness of mind let each esteem other better than themselves.
1759, Chesterfield. Lett. IV. ccclv. 170: If a person is born of a gloomy temper ... they cannot help it.
1848, Thackery, Vanity Fair: A person can't help their birth.
ca. 1860, George Eliot: I shouldn't like to punish anyone, even if they'd done me wrong.
1865, Lewis Carroll, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland: If everybody minded their own business,'' the Duchess said in a hoarse growl, the world would go round a deal faster than it does.'
1874, Dasent, Half a Life II. 198: Whenever anyone was ill, she brewed them a drink."
1898, G. B. Shaw, Plays II. Candida 86: It's enough to drive anyone out of their senses.
1952, C. S. Lewis, Voyage of the Dawn Treader: She kept her head and kicked her shoes off, as everybody ought to do who falls into deep water in their clothes.
ca. 1980, Robert Burchfield (former Editor in Chief of the Oxford English dictionaries): I had to decide: Is this person being irrational or is he right? Of course, they were often right.
2000, Dr. James Dobson, Child Welfare and Parental Rights: Shaking a baby can cause brain damage that will affect them the rest of their lives.
As a descriptive linguist, I neither encourage nor discourage the use of singular they. I do, however, try to present the facts of actual language usage when some people proscribe use of singular they. Who is to say whether generic he or generic singular they is to be preferred? Who makes the rules for English languge usage? English teachers? No, not really. It is English speakers themselves who make the rules, by their own usage. There is no English academy which determines how English should be spoken or written. It is language users themselves who determine how a language is actually spoken or written, much to the chagrin of language purists such as William Safire.
English Bible translators do well to translate the Bible into English as it is spoken and written by good speakers and writers of the language. The TNIV is the only English version that I am aware of which uses the singular they. The TNIV's usage of singular they has been strongly criticized by TNIV opponents, such as Dr. Wayne Grudem, who seems to confuse grammatical plurality of singular they with its notional (semantic) singular usage. But the TNIV translators have recognized how widespread usage of singular they is today and felt it best to use that generic pronoun rather than generic he, which is falling into disuse among many, but by no means all, English speakers. Singular they has been used for many centuries by good speakers and writers, and there is nothing that should prevent its use in current English Bible versions, unless a majority of English speakers object to its usage.
For fun, I am posting a new poll to test usage of singular they among visitors to this blog. It is now the first poll in the right margin of this blog.
Categories: singular they, language usage, Wayne Grudem, Bible translation