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Saturday, September 03, 2005

his/they generic singular pronoun poll results

Thank you to each one of you who voted in the poll which tested which English generic singular pronoun you use where the antecedent is an indefinite pronoun. The poll has been up for many weeks and now it is time to take it down. Here are the poll results:

In the sentence, "Everyone should bring _____ own lunch tomorrow," what word do you usually put in the blank space?

Selection
Votes
his 32%64
their 68%136



200 votes total

200 votes were cast. As you can see, visitors to this blog have a mixed response to the poll question. By a ratio of 2:1 respondents say the singular "they" is the pronoun they would use in the example sentence. These results support the claim that the singular "they" has been experiencing a revival of usage among English speakers. It usage dates back to the late 1200's and early 1300's and has been used by many highly respected authors over the centuries, including Shakespeare, the translators of the KJV, C.S. Lewis, and many others. The singular "they" is syntactically plural but semantically singular. As such, it parallels a number of other linguistic forms where syntax does not align exactly with semantics.

The generic singular "he" continues to be preferred by many English speakers. It is the pronoun which many of us, myself included, were taught in school was the only generic third person singular pronoun which was "proper." But, of course, what is proper is not really determined by English teachers, but, rather, by social decisions, typically made unconsciously, by a majority of speakers of a language.

Stay tuned for other language usage polls which relate to linguistic forms which are used in English Bible versions.

Categories: , ,

12 Comments:

At Sat Sep 03, 07:45:00 PM, Blogger Joe said...

Historical usage notwithstanding, if they is singular, how does one distinguish between one and more than one, especially in the plural possessive?

What is your opinion of the current trend to use prepositional phrases as subjects of sentences?

I continue to believe that subjects and predicates (not prepositional phrases and predicates) should agree in voice, mood, tense, person and number, every other letter in the words VoMiT PaN.

 
At Sat Sep 03, 08:28:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Historical usage notwithstanding, if they is singular, how does one distinguish between one and more than one, especially in the plural possessive?

Singular they is only *semantically* singular. It refers to singular referents. In English, as in other languages, one distinguishes between homophonous syntactic forms by context. Typically there is a singular indefinite antecedent that the singular they refers to, so there is no confusion with any referent of "they" which is both syntactically and semantically plural.

What is your opinion of the current trend to use prepositional phrases as subjects of sentences?

Are you thinking of objective case prepositions being used as subjects, as in:

"Me and Joe are going fishing on the weekend."

I am hearing this more and more, but my internal grammar editor still gets bothered by it, even though I truly am a descriptive linguist and I strongly object to any kind of language policing or language engineering.

... VoMiT PaN

Very funny! I guess with that kind of an acronym we can assume that language usage will come out all right, as long as we can stomach it! :-)

 
At Sun Sep 04, 06:09:00 AM, Blogger Trevor Jenkins said...

The use of singular "their" does not occur in some languages. In my target language (British Sign Language) there is only one possesive, i.e. it's the same handshape irrespective of number.

 
At Tue Sep 06, 01:57:00 PM, Blogger Trevor Jenkins said...

Been thinking about the English usage again after reviewing how exactly I'd sign this sentence in BSL. The word everyone is clearly being used in a plural context --- even if the lexeme O-N-E appears in the word. I'd sign everyone as more than one individual therefore plural. Agreement in number requires their to be used.

 
At Tue Sep 06, 04:25:00 PM, Blogger Joe said...

"A school of dolphins are making their way up the river."

As opposed to

"A school of dolphins is making its way up the river."

 
At Tue Sep 06, 05:50:00 PM, Blogger Trevor Jenkins said...

Joe, in English ;-) your second one would be correct; school is singular. But for this example in BSL it wouldn't matter at all. One would sign that a group of dolphins existed and then use a proform to indicate the movement; so maybe you'd get both the plural and the singular. ;-)

 
At Tue Sep 06, 06:07:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Joe illustrated:

"A school of dolphins are making their way up the river."

As opposed to

"A school of dolphins is making its way up the river."


Joe, this is a dialect difference. Americans tend to treat these nouns which are composed of plural individuals as singulars with singular agreement. British English speakers treat them as plurals. Both ways are correct and there is logic to both ways.

The Brits who visit this blog should say things like the following:

"The staff are going on holiday tomorrow."

"The committee are planning the Christmas party."

 
At Tue Sep 06, 06:10:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

P.S. Joe, there is also the issue of which noun in the prepositional phrase is treated as the subject for purposes of subject-verb number agreement. This happens in American English, as well as other dialects of English, I assume. I find myself sometimes treating the first noun as subject and at other times the object of the preposition as subject. That object is closest to the verb and seems to enjoy being the subject.

Such are the wonders of language and language variation.

 
At Thu Sep 08, 09:00:00 AM, Blogger Joe said...

Wayne: You look to be in your thirties or forties. I'm in my sixties and I guess that makes me old school.

All of my prepositional objects have told me they like being near the verb, but not so involved as to become the subject of the verb.

Leaving out the prepositional phrase the sentence would become "A school are making their way up the river."

Yuck! (Is that really a word?)

 
At Thu Sep 08, 09:56:00 AM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Wayne: You look to be in your thirties or forties. I'm in my sixties and I guess that makes me old school.

Thanks, Joe, I'll turn 56 in November.

All of my prepositional objects have told me they like being near the verb, but not so involved as to become the subject of the verb.

I like it when prepositional objects talk to me like that! :-)


Leaving out the prepositional phrase the sentence would become "A school are making their way up the river."

Yes, that's the logic of it. But many speakers follow the logic of using the nearest possible referent, namely "the dolphins" and that plural accounts for the plural number agreement on the verb. It's a shift in syntactic analysis.

It is similar to this question: Which of the following is "right"?

a. There is a lot of mosquitoes around right now.
b. There are a lot of mosquitoes around right now.

Yuck! (Is that really a word?)

Yep, isn't it, like, an awesome word?! :-)

Seriously, speakers of languages invent new words all the time.

I heard Mr. Chertoff, head of the U.S. Office of Homeland Security say that they needed to "dewater" the city of New Orleans. I probably would have said "drain." But he apparently is using a technical word used by the engineers.

We can still prefer to speak and write a language as we believe it should be spoken and written. But language is constantly changing around us. Some of the changes will stick, others will not.

I know how you are feeling. It would be nice if language stayed the same all the time and always followed the rules our English teachers taught us. But real language doesn't work that way. OTOH, there are many, many language rules which are still shared by most people, so everything is not totally helter-skelter.

 
At Fri Sep 09, 08:00:00 AM, Blogger Jeremy Pierce said...

My first thought was to fill in the blank with 'your'.

 
At Fri Sep 09, 08:37:00 AM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

My first thought was to fill in the blank with 'your'.

Yes, Jeremy, I think that works, also.

 

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