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Wednesday, July 20, 2005

To each their own

I finally heard it. Last night. I've been teasingly writing "to each their own" sometimes in discussions of English singular they, but until last night I had never heard someone actually say this phrase, as part of a natural conversation.

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...

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.
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.

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.

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At Wed Jul 20, 12:38:00 PM, Blogger Kim said...

I have been home schooling for six years, and I have never had a text that makes use of the singular "they." I have always taught my children to use "he."

I had never noticed the number of authors who used the singular they. This is really interesting.

At Wed Jul 20, 01:50:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Yes, Kim, I also was taught in my schooling to only use "he." But that is a notion that comes from the school system and English books, not from actual English usage. There are a number of artificial English rules which English teachers have passed on and which are found in English grammar books, such as not splitting infinitives, which comes from patterning English grammar after Latin grammar where it is impossible to split an infinitive.

As I said in my post, I am not advocating usage of singular they. I am only trying to be fair and point out how widespread its usage has been among good English speakers and writers for many centuries.

Now, the fact that English, like every other language changes, does not mean that we automatically teach every language fad that comes along to our children. Some are short lived. Others are impolite or too vulgar to teach to our children. But some forms do hold on and eventually language change takes place. I am guess that your homeschooling books do not recommend that your children say "thee," "thou," and "ye," yet those were the pronouns used for second person before and at the time the King James Version was written. Then some people started shifting to use the pronoun "you" for both singular and plural second person. I am sure that some English teachers were upset. But the change took place anyway.

We do not know whether or not generic "he" will eventually be displaced by some other generic pronoun such as "they." All we know is that both generic pronouns are in use today. And we also know that on some achievement tests, our children need to know the usage of generic "he." You are right to tell it to them so they will achieve well on those tests.

No one, hopefully, will ever require you to change from using "he" to "they" as the English singular generic pronoun. But it is good for you and your children to understand it if you all hear it.

I appreciate your comment. It is a fair one and needs to be treated properly within the education systems that we choose for our children

At Wed Jul 20, 04:53:00 PM, Blogger Aslan_kin said...

I remember in school in the 1980's, using the third-person generic they in everyday conversation. One example: In school, we would pass tests back or up one desk in our row in order to grade them. If we had a question about a particular test, we would often say "they wrote such-and-such." I think the reasoning behind this was first to be generic, and to not be too specific about the person who we were grading. While we were not corrected by the teacher, I don't remember that being taught as a part of English grammar, either.

At Wed Jul 20, 06:12:00 PM, Anonymous Rich Shields said...

Having been educated in the 1950's and 1960's, "singular they" sounds awkward, unnatural to my ear, no matter what they say. My Pulskamp (freshman, ahhh fresh person English teacher) would turn over in his, not their, grave. In fact, every one of my teachers would turnover in .... grave, ahhhh, wait, his or her respective grave. LOL

It appears that the singular "they" is occasionally showing up, but I find myself definitely attuned to something unusual about its use.

Just some ramblings from an old(er) codger.

At Wed Jul 20, 09:10:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

"While we were not corrected by the teacher, I don't remember that being taught as a part of English grammar, either."

I'm somewhat surprised that you were not corrected by your teacher. They :-) must have been quite open-minded about English grammar. The English grammar component of the educational system has strongly opposed use of singular they for a long time. It was no conspiracy. It was just a tradition handed down for generations, where teachers were taught that generic "he" was "proper" English. We usually believe what we are taught.

I am not at all surprised that you were never taught about singular they. I was not told it was "wrong" to use; I simply was never told about it being a generic English pronoun with a long history of usage. I don't think any teaching about singular they has been part of English grammar classes until perhaps very recently, under the influence of the feminist movement (I used this as a descriptive, not pejorative label), as people have tried to find ways to speak generically without the exclusive sound that generic "he" has come to have to many of today's generations.

At Thu Jul 21, 05:12:00 AM, Anonymous Matthew said...

Hi, I'm new.

It's interesting that in all of your earliest references, the subject is "every one". The antecedent or referent is "one", so singular pronoun is prescribed. However, in many people's thinking, the referent seems to switch to "everyone", something semantically plural if syntactically singular.

So, in my personal dialect,[where italics means i don't like the form]
1. Everyone went to his house.
2. Everyone went to their house.

3. One who loves their job will be successful.
4. One who loves his job will be successful.

It's not a hard and fast rule. I use singular "they" interchangeably with "he" sometimes. Othertimes, their is a semantic distinction

7. Someone loves his mother.
To me, (7) can only mean some male loves his mother. But...

8. Someone loves their mother.
(8) can only mean I don't know the gender of the lover, or else I am purposefully suppressing the information.

There's more going on here, I would like to post when I have more time.

PS When writing, I'm more conscious of the gender inclusive issue. I like "S/he", but there is no equivalent in the accusative / object form. Some of my forums use "em". Which is fun and cool and nifty, but probably won't take off in spoken English or in Bibles (especially because people like me don't really distinguish between "em" and "im" in our speech).

At Thu Jul 21, 12:34:00 PM, Blogger Kim said...

Thanks for writing on this issue, Wayne. I love learning about language and how it changes. Language really is a living thing.


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