Is singular "they" a colloquialism?
Hello Michael. You said:
Wayne, this is a bit like saying "aint" is fine in a Bible version because so many people say "aint."
I respect your opinion on this, Michael, but I respectfully disagree. There is a significant difference between usage of "aint" and singular "they." I think almost all speakers of English recognize, as you and I do, that "aint" is a colloquialism. But most users of singular "they", a large percentage, perhaps a majority, of linguists, and an increasing number of English editors recognize singular "they" as a legitimate linguistic form in standard dialects of English, not a colloquialism.
But there's a difference between standard and colloquial English.
The colloquial usage of "aint" just isn't acceptable in formal prose.
Same way with the "singular they."
For you, Michael, and a good number of English speakers, yes, but for millions of English speakers as well as many who analyze English and proofread it, no.
It's a colloquialism.
Not precisely, Michael. Note this definition of colloquialism which seems to be rather standard:
an informal word or phrase that is more common in conversation than in formal speech or writingYou are right that singular "they" is used more in speech than in writing, but it is not necessarily an informal phrase. It has been used formally in writing for many centuries as I will demonstrate with examples below.
It may not be confusing in colloquial speech (although sometimes it is), but we just don't expect it in writing.
Again, Michael, it depends on who you mean by "we." It is widely used in English writing, less so in American English writing than in British or Australian English writing, but still widely in most dialects of English writing. There are, of course, still many prescriptive English teachers and grammarians, editors, and stylists who frown on the use of singular "they" in formal writing. But just as prescriptive prohibitions against splitting infinitives and many other artificial rules passed on through generations of prescriptivists have given way to the realities of language use among most, if not all, social and educational strata.
Michael, please tell me if the following taken from English literature are colloquial:
When we see it in writing, it seems to be plural in meaning, because in standard English it is plural, and in writing we expect standard English.
... so shall they set forward, every man in his place by their standards ("their" is anaphoric to "every man")(See Comments for reason for striking out this example.)
According to the number that ye shall prepare, so shall ye do to every one according to their number.
So likewise shall my heavenly Father do also unto you, if ye from your hearts forgive not every one his brother their trespasses.
[Let] nothing [be done] through strife or vainglory; but in lowliness of mind let each esteem other better than themselves.
If a person is born of a gloomy temper ... they cannot help it.
He neuer forsaketh any creature vnlesse they before haue forsaken them selues.
Nobody can deprive us of the Church, if they would.
Whenever anyone was ill, she brewed them a drink.
Eche of theym sholde... make theymselfe redy.
A man or woman being lang absent fra thair party. (Michael, this one is from high quality literary English written in 1563; note that this has identical syntactic form to the conjunct example you cited from the TNIV)
A person can't help their birth.
Hereby one may take to themselves a lesson.
Whoever it is, I won't see them to-night.
Wha so weddes ofter þan anes, þaire childer er bastardes.
There's not a man I meet but doth salute me,
As if I were their well-acquainted friend.
She kept her head and kicked her shoes off, as everybody ought to do who falls into deep water in their clothes.
Actually, it is the case that singular "they" is syntactically (grammatically) plural regardless of whether it is used in a spoken or written standard dialect of English, or in a non-standard dialect. Singular "they" is always singular in meaning (semantics). Singular "they" is very much a part of standard dialects of English. Listen a lot, Michael. Keep reading--I know you already read a lot but keep it up and you will find more and more examples of singular "they." Listen to the news media, many of whom have been taught to speak in a standard form of media speech, which is essentially Midwest American English spoken near Kansas City and surrounding metropolitan areas.
So I say Grudem is right, and you are wrong about this "singular they" business.
And you have every right to express your opinion like that, Michael. And I have every right to debate your claim by presenting what I consider to be more compelling evidence.
One other thing you need to consider, is the fact that your examples all involve the use of "they" where the antecedent is a sematically plural noun like "everybody."
Michael, I gave only one example in the preceding post. If you are referring to examples I have listed at other times in this same discussion we have had, I cannot remember if I gave any examples other than with anaphora to "everyone." I assume that I have, because singular "they" is used in many more contexts than just with "everyone." I know that and assume I would have tried to give examples of anaphora with "nobody" and other antecedents. Your memory is likely much better than mine, however, so you may remember my only citing "everybody" antecedents in the past. If I did, then I was wrong to do so.
It is easy to slip a "they" in when this is the case.
True. It is also very natural to use singular "they" in a number of other contexts. Linguists have been discussing the variety of contexts for quite a few years. Geoffrey Pullum is one of the world's most respected linguists. He's been around a long time and is a keen observer of English language usage. He also happens to be a native speaker of the Queen's English, although he has been a professor of linguistics in the U.S. for many years. Check out the archives of his blog which have many posts on singular "they."
But the TNIV uses the "they" in places where it strikes people as being obviously ungrammatical, such as: "If a brother or sister sins, go and point out the fault, just between the two of you alone. If they listen to you ..."
Again, Michael, it depends on who you mean by "people" in that sentence. It's true of yourself. It's true of many English speakers. It's not true of many other English speakers. The TNIV example is in common usage and considered perfectly appropriate by millions of English speakers.
This just doesn't work.
It depends on who determines whether it does or not, Michael. As always, you present challenging things to think about. Obviously you care about good English usage a great deal. It is clear from your writing that you had good English teachers and likely good role-modeling of proper English from your parents. I understand exactly what you are saying. I was taught the same prescriptive grammar. I remember how guilty I felt when I finally started spliting infinitives when I wrote, even though my teachers had told me it was improper to do so. They were sincere and thought they were teaching properly, even though we now know that they were not teaching a rule othat was a true part of English syntax but a rules which had been adopted from Latin grammar where it is wrong to ever split an infinitive. For that matter, Latin infinitives, as you likely know, could not be split, not just should not, but could not. And you know why, I'm sure.