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Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Is singular "they" a colloquialism?

Michael Marlowe has a wealth of biblical resources on his website linked from our blog's right margin. I have admired the quality of his website resources as well as the quality of his English writing for many years. Michael and I have had many exchanges over the years. I have learned that whenever Michael makes a claim about the English language I need to take it seriously, because it is likely based on careful, clear thinking. Michael has commented on my preceding post, suggesting that singular "they" is a colloquialism, similar to the colloquial status of the English contraction "aint". I must take Michael's comments seriously and I have. I started to reply to Michael in the Comments section of the preceding post, but then I realized that there might be others who would appreciate the exchange between the two of us who might not check the comments to read them there. I will copy Michael's comments in italics and respond in this font style.

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.

Correct

The colloquial usage of "aint" just isn't acceptable in formal prose.

Correct

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 writing
You 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:
... 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.
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.

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.

43 Comments:

At Tue Feb 28, 11:07:00 PM, Blogger son of abraham said...

Wayne, we've been over this ground together before. But here we go again.

I started to look at your new examples. The first one was this:

... so shall they set forward, every man in his place by their standards ("their" is anaphoric to "every man")

Thanks to Google I found the source, which is Numbers 2:17 in the KJV. But when I looked at this in context I saw that "their standards" refers to the standards of the tribes. Each had its own standard.

"All that were numbered in the camp of Reuben were an hundred thousand and fifty and one thousand and four hundred and fifty, throughout their armies. And they shall set forth in the second rank. 17 Then the tabernacle of the congregation shall set forward with the camp of the Levites in the midst of the camp: as they encamp, so shall they set forward, every man in his place by their standards. 18 On the west side shall be the standard of the camp of Ephraim ..." (Numbers 2:16-18).

A look at the Hebrew confirmed this for me. The plural pronominal suffix is used because the several tribes are being referred to, and the KJV is simply a literal translation of the Hebrew here. It is not a case of "singular they."

Some of your other examples do have a "singular they," but I note that most of these seem to occur in connection with those semantically plural expressions that refer to classes of people, like "everyone, anyone, nobody" etc. The others strike me as being bad English, and it doesn't really matter to me where you got them. They are just bad English. And I will say that I am not much impressed by a short list of occurrences which are not typical of formal prose in English, even if they do seem to support your contention.

The fact is, in formal English we do not expect a "singular they." And all the linguists in the world will not convince me that it is good English. My impression of linguists is that on the whole they are preoccupied with descriptions of common speech, and they have no real interest or competence in questions of literary style. In any case, I am a native speaker of English, with a college degree in English literature, and I will judge for myself what is good English and what is not. And I say the "singular they" does not belong in a Bible version, anymore than the word "aint" belongs there. I think you would have a hard time finding a literary critic who thinks otherwise.

 
At Tue Feb 28, 11:29:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Michael, you're right on Numbers 2:17. It does not belong in the list of singular "they" examples. I got the list of KJV examples from somewhere else and I assumed that "their" referred back to "every man." I was wrong. Thanks for the help with that.

As for the other examples, they all come from well-known, highly regarded English writers, from the 1500s to the 1900s. I deliberately left off author names and references to try to keep the exercise as objective as possible. If you are interested, or anyone else is, I can supply the references.

I think we'd better leave this exchange as we have previous ones on this same topic, agreeing to disagree. I appreciate your taking the time to present your case.

1 Cor. 15:58

 
At Wed Mar 01, 06:51:00 AM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Wayne, I am not at all sure that Michael is right and you are wrong about Numbers 2:17. Perhaps their standards is some kind of ellipsis for the standard of their tribe. But surely it does not mean the standards of the tribes, as if all twelve sets of standards are in one place and every Israelite is near to them. It is clear from v.2 and the rest of the context that each tribe has its own standard in a separate place, and the members of each tribe gather around the standard of their tribe. In verse 2 the wording is literally "each against his standard" (the Hebrew masculine here having an inclusive meaning). In verse 17 the wording is literally "each against his hand to their standards". But in fact I would parse "each against his hand" as a parenthesis, meaning "each in his place", and relate "to their standards" back to the "they" of "so shall they set forward". So, it seems to me that KJV has omitted a comma after "place". So this is not a true singular "they", in either Hebrew or KJV English, but not for the reasons which Michael put forward.

 
At Wed Mar 01, 08:44:00 AM, Blogger son of abraham said...

I don't think my explanation excludes yours, Peter. I also felt that a comma was needed after the word "place."

One thing I would emphasize here, is that this "singular they" usage in the TNIV is out of keeping with the general policy of the version, which does not otherwise use expressions that are considered ungrammatical. The translators did not really suppose that habits of casual speech were acceptable in a Bible version. They sought to use a style of English that meets ordinary literary standards. So when we come to this "singular they" in the version, it seems quite out of place. It would not seem much out of place in a version like the Living Bible, but the general style of the language of the TNIV does not prepare us for it. It is plain to see that they have made an exception to their stylistic rule only for the sake of the "inclusive language." But if the need for gender-neutral language was such an overriding concern for them that they felt masculine pronouns must be completely eliminated, they would have been wiser to imitate the NRSV editors, who found ways to avoid the masculine pronouns without using substandard English.

 
At Wed Mar 01, 10:07:00 AM, Blogger Stephen said...

I like the use of the singular they and have used it that way for years because (imo) it solves a limitation of the English Language. However, I should note that the Usage Panel of the American Heritage Dictionary (which has been my goto resource for such questions for many years) says, "Most of the Usage Panelists reject the use of they with singular antecedents. Eighty-two percent find the sentence The typical student in the program takes about six years to complete their course work unacceptable. Thus, the writer who chooses to use they in similar contexts in writing should do so only if assured that the usage will be read as a conscious choice rather than an error." Those who see the singular use of they as not being an acceptable use of formal written english seem to be in good company and - for the moment - in the ascendancy! That being said, grammar is a fluid beast so perhaps you can influence a trend of acceptance!

Thanks for the work you do on this blog!

 
At Wed Mar 01, 10:48:00 AM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Michael mentioned "the general policy of the version [TNIV], which does not otherwise use expressions that are considered ungrammatical." Well, I am not aware that anyone uses expressions which they consider ungrammatical, except by occasional error. And some people may have different standards of what they consider grammatical for different registers of speech, writing etc. But it is clear that the TNIV team did consider singular "they" to be grammatical. Michael is free to disagree, but if so he is also disagreeing with Shakespeare, Jane Austen, CS Lewis and countless other authors of high quality literature - see this article for further details. Because these authors used singular "they", we must suppose that they considered this usage to be grammatical. And when it comes down to it, at least in a language like English for which there is no central authority, the only way of judging what is grammatical is what is actually used.

This same article also proves that rejection of generic "he" long predates the modern feminist movement, and points out some of the conditions under which singular "they" can be used, such as: "in the great majority of cases in Jane Austen's writings, singular "their" has indefinite pronouns or quantifier words as its antecedent; there are also a few cases of "a person", "any young person", and "any man" as the antecedent, but no cases of a more specific noun phrase as the antecedent (except perhaps one case of "any acquaintance" embedded in a parallel coordinate construction)." TNIV might not perfectly follow the same rules as Austen here, but then some change in the language must be allowed over 200 years.

 
At Wed Mar 01, 11:37:00 AM, Blogger son of abraham said...

Peter wrote: see this article for further details.

I find it hard to take seriously the opinions of an author who has things like this on his website.

Note especially the text on the "rubber ducky" graphic half-way down the page.

 
At Wed Mar 01, 02:09:00 PM, Blogger Suzanne McCarthy said...

Michael,

The use of 'they' with a singular antecedent was accepted by Dr. Packer as 'perfectly standard'. It was used in early legal documents and other places.

There may be some difference of opinion here, but Dr. Packer agreed with me that this has nothing to do with a translation being 'trustworthy'.

I have often thought about how a simple French sentence would be translated into English.

"On a vu qu'elles vont te donner ses chaussures."

"We see that they will give you his shoes."

There is a mismatch of person, gender(2 times) and number(2 times) in translating this simple sentence from French into English.

'On' can be translated into English as 'they', 'one' 'we' 'I' and so on. Normally linguists and translators do not attach as much significance to pronouns as the criticism of the TNIV does.

 
At Wed Mar 01, 02:37:00 PM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

I find it hard to take seriously the opinions of an author who rejects what another author says on an academic issue on the basis of their political views and how they are expressed, when these views are irrelevant to the academic issue in question. I trust that anyone who has trawled through this website has discovered that the author is a serious scholar, by noting Henry Churchyard's linguistics page which has links to his important dissertation Topics in Tiberian Biblical Hebrew Metrical Phonology and Prosodics, and to his other published papers. They will also have noted another page about singular "they", which may well be the source of Wayne's examples.

 
At Wed Mar 01, 02:45:00 PM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

I also find it hard to take seriously the opinions of an author who has on his website an extract from the works of Lenin, quoted without comment so it is hard to know whether the author is promoting Lenin's views or rejecting them, complete with a picture which is no more edifying (despite its literal theme!) than a rubber duck.

 
At Wed Mar 01, 03:31:00 PM, Blogger son of abraham said...

Nice try, Peter, but the intemperate professor's rubber ducky bears away the palm.

 
At Wed Mar 01, 04:34:00 PM, Blogger son of abraham said...

Suzanne, I'm not sure what to think about your report that Dr. Packer says the 'singular they' is 'perfectly standard.' This is not what I would have expected from him, but perhaps the state of our language is quite different in England now. I'm an American, in case you didn't know.

You are a student of both Classical and Koine Greek, right? I wanted to get your opinion about something. It seems to me that lately our beloved English language is undergoing some of the same kinds of changes that led from Classical to Koine. The simplification and loss of nuance in English literature during the past century is very noticeable. I think it's regrettable. What do think of that comparison? And do you suppose the trend in English has the same basic social causes that brought about the change in Greek? It's just a thought I had, which you may find interesting.

 
At Wed Mar 01, 05:14:00 PM, Blogger Suzanne McCarthy said...

The most significant loss, in my opinion, is the loss of "thou". For some reason no one has been able to rehabilitate it. The most significant gain is the distinction between 'man' and 'person'. This puts English on a par with languages like German and Dutch. So we have lost in comparison to German on "thou" and gained by adding "person".

This is not what I would have expected from him

The singular "they" is found is legal language of the 15th century. I understand that it was present at the very beginning of writing in the English language in the 14th century. So no loss there.

The simplification and loss of nuance in English literature during the past century is very noticeable.

I think you must be judging from novels which win those ridiculous awards and are reported in the news. And then someone turns them into an excruciating movie.

My favourite books are St. Augustines Confessions, Middlearch by Elliot and My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk, recently published. Hoever, it is a translation form Turkish so I don't know if it counts. I read lots of great modern novels. I don't know what you are refering to here.

On Koine it was a different situation, a situation where Greek was used across an empire and predominantly by people who were not Greek themselves. So there are many different reasons for its difference. As I mentioned, I was not allowed to study Koine Greek without studying Hebrew.

Anyway I am not a student of English lit in an academic sense so I can't say more than generalities.

 
At Wed Mar 01, 07:20:00 PM, Blogger son of abraham said...

Suzanne wrote: I think you must be judging from novels which win those ridiculous awards and are reported in the news.

Actually no, because my reading has been mostly nonfiction: histories, essays, religious books, scholarly writings, and so forth. I have read many "classic" novels, though. And I think I've read almost as many books from 18th and 19th centuries as I have from the 20th century. There certainly is a difference in the style. It is much simpler now than it was 200 years ago, and noticeably simpler than 100 years ago. It is as if the level of education were declining. The reading level (richness of vocabulary, length and complexity of sentences, allusions to classic literary works, amount of detail, etc.) has been going steadily down for a long time.

About the "singular they" -- the subject is beginning to bore me, because the truth is, no matter how many times you or Wayne assert that it has been frequently used, it makes no impression on me, because my wide experience of literary English tells a different story. In my reading I have not encountered it.

 
At Wed Mar 01, 07:49:00 PM, Blogger son of abraham said...

I should have said, I haven't encountered it until recently. I first noticed it after I began to read articles published in the past 5 years on the internet.

 
At Wed Mar 01, 08:25:00 PM, Blogger Suzanne McCarthy said...

In my reading I have not encountered it.

No Shakespeare, no Jane Austen. Surely you must have read those in high school.

I can't really tell if you mean that scholarly writing, which you have read, is much simpler now, or fiction, which you have not read, is much simpler now.

I can assure you that My Name is read has an excess of the following. "richness of vocabulary, length and complexity of sentences, allusions to classic literary works, amount of detail, etc." On the other hand it was not written by an American.

 
At Wed Mar 01, 10:03:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Michael, here are just a few of many citations from English literature since the 1400s that contain singular "they." I am not qualified to decide if they are "standard English" or not, nor do I wish to spend time debating their status. I simply offer them to you to consider:

from Chaucer's "The Pardoner's Prologue", url:

http://etext.lib.virginia.edu/etcbin/toccer-old?id=Cha2Can&images=images/modeng&data=/lv1/Archive/mideng-parsed&tag=public&part=31&division=div1

Line 385:

"And whoso fyndeth hym out of swich blame,"

From Sir Amadace, by Camden, ca 1420, try url:

http://www.lib.rochester.edu/Camelot/teams/Amad1.htm

Look for line 594:

"Iche mon in thayre degre,"

In Shakespeare's poem "The Rape of Lucrece" at url:

http://www.shakespeare-literature.com/The_Rape_of_Lucrece/0.html

you can find the line:

"And every one to rest themselves betake,"

From Shakespeare's "A Comedy of Errors". Try url:

http://www.online-literature.com/shakespeare/errors/9/

The first two lines are:

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



"Vanity Fair," by Thackeray, url:

http://www.gutenberg.org/dirs/etext96/vfair12h.htm

Search for "A person can’t help their birth". It's part of a quote so perhaps you would consider that a colloquialism.

From C.S. Lewis, "The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, chapter 1:

"She kept her head and kicked her shoes off, as everybody ought to do who falls into deep water in their clothes."

From url:

http://www.quotationspage.com/quote/4514.html

Note the quote from Oscar Wilde near the top of the page:

"Experience is the name everyone gives to their mistakes."

Suzanne has mentioned Jane Austen. You can d/l a number of her works from url:

http://etext.library.adelaide.edu.au/a/austen/jane/

Her writings have a very large number of instances of singular "they." For instance, search in "Pride and Prejudice" for:

"Each felt for the other, and of course for themselves"

 
At Thu Mar 02, 02:44:00 AM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

OK, Michael, I won't defend the rubber ducky, but can't you allow an author an occasional bit of fun? As for your woman building Leningrad (the caption means: "We defended Leningrad, we will restore it", and so the poster is probably from after WWII rather than c.1920), although the style is not my preference I consider it a good picture of how the church today needs not just defending but also restoring, and of how women need to work together with men on the vital task of restoring and rebuilding the church.

As for the extract from Lenin itself, this seems to me a thoroughly admirable piece of writing, except for the role of the Communist Party and "Only communism can do it" - although it seems that the American version of "Bourgeois society" has indeed been unable to. Well, go ahead, Michael, ignore anything else I say because I have not unequivocally condemned Communism.

 
At Thu Mar 02, 03:02:00 AM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

On the subject of women building Leningrad, see this picture of men and women doing heavy work together in Leningrad. It was taken by my father in 1936, on what I think was an official UK government visit. I saw rather similar sights in the city, renamed St Petersburg, in the 1990s, only the clothes had changed.

 
At Thu Mar 02, 07:09:00 AM, Blogger Suzanne McCarthy said...

Okay, I see my spelling error. My Name is Red.(not read) Is there a special name for the kind of mistake that I often make of spelling a word as it sounds?

 
At Thu Mar 02, 08:07:00 AM, Blogger son of abraham said...

Wayne Leman said...
Michael, here are just a few of many citations from English literature since the 1400s that contain singular "they" ...

Wayne, I'll point out that your first example from Shakespeare comes after the expression "every one," which often has a sematically plural sense to it, so this does not demonstrate that Shakespeare used "themselves" as if it were semantically singular. And in your second example from Shakespeare, "There's not a man I meet but doth salute me / As if I were their well-acquainted friend," the "their" in that second line should not be understood as singular in sense, because here the speaker (Antipholus of Syracuse) is referring to all the friendly men of Ephesus he has met. He is referring to a group of people, each of whom have greeted him. These are not examples of a singular sense being attached to the plural pronoun. But more importantly, my main objection to this "proof text" approach to the lingusitic question is that it involves a fallacy: you think you can demonstrate (or at least suggest) something about a rule of twentieth-century standard English by quoting a handful of sentences culled from here and there, and from different periods, as if they could indicate something about a general rule of usage. And as a linguist I'm sure you must know that this approach has no validity. If I wanted to give much more time to this question, it would be easy for me to show that writers have as a rule avoided any use of "they/their" with singular antecedents. Typically we see expressions like "to each his own" in English literature, until recently, because there were no reservations about using masculine pronouns. There just wasn't any reason to be using a "singular they," and so we don't see it in formal prose. That usage has ordinarily been considered a substandard manner of speech. That's the way it's been for centuries in English, and the little list of counter-examples you have there does not disprove the ordinary rule of standard usage.

 
At Thu Mar 02, 08:17:00 AM, Blogger son of abraham said...

Peter wrote: As for the extract from Lenin itself, this seems to me a thoroughly admirable piece of writing ...

You correctly perceive that my reason for posting the Lenin extract was to show the relationship of modern feminist ideology with Marxism. But I don't understand why you find this deplorable, or why you think it's comparable to the splenetic rantings I pointed out on the other website.

 
At Thu Mar 02, 08:42:00 AM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Michael, I don't see the Lenin extract as deplorable, only as inconsistent with you apparent position that you "find it hard to take seriously the opinions of an author" on whose website you found political expressions which you disagree with. If in fact your objection was not to the politics but to the rubber ducky, my reply would be that you need to get a sense of humour. In fact that seems something singularly lacking in this whole debate. Let's lighten up a bit!

 
At Thu Mar 02, 11:34:00 AM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Michael, I'm not sure that you understand the range of usage of singular "they." Perhaps the problem is with the label singular "they" which can be misleading. Perhaps generic "they" would be a better label.

For an explanation of this language form, see url:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Singular_they

The examples I gave you were, as I said, just a few of many from English literature. There are many more. I am not at all suggesting that generic "he" has not been used, or has been used equally or with the same literary status. I suspect that generic "he" has used more widely than generic "they." The point is that both have centuries old usage in English. The fact that some of the best English authors have used generic "they" in their writings demonstrates something about its linguistic status.

Generic "they" is used in linguistic contexts more than just to refer to semantically plural antecedents such as "everyone." There are many discussions on the Internet about the wide range of usage of so-called singular "they." I am too busy with my work right now to find the references, but if you are interested and have time, you can find them.

 
At Thu Mar 02, 12:04:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Michael, try this url which includes a comment that singular "they" may, indeed, be more commonly used in British English than American:

http://www.worldwidewords.org/qa/qa-the2.htm

 
At Thu Mar 02, 01:21:00 PM, Blogger son of abraham said...

Wayne wrote: The examples I gave you were, as I said, just a few of many from English literature. There are many more.

Wayne, I'm not impressed with your examples. If these are the clearest examples you can find, why is it so easy for me to knock them down? I keep finding that when the context is examined there is no good reason to say that the plural pronoun is semantically singular. Rather, I see in your examples that the author is moving from a singular form to a plural sense or referent. What you really need to find is something like this: "A student who keeps using pronouns incorrectly came to my office yesterday, and I told them they were going to flunk English." That is a true and unambiguous example of "them" used with a singular sense. I don't deny that things like this are said in casual conversation sometimes, when the speaker wants to keep the gender of the referent indefinite, but you will not find it in formal prose. Our feeling for proper English does not allow it, and we associate it with lazy informal speech. And this is why writers fall into grammatical or stylistic embarrassments whenever they try to avoid the "generic he." Standard English does not have gender-neutral pronouns in the singular. Now, you might wish that we did, and you might propose that a "singular they" be used for that purpose now, but you can't claim that such a usage of the plural pronoun has always been standard, and that we never did have any need for the "generic he" in good writing. That just isn't true.

 
At Thu Mar 02, 01:56:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Michael responded:

Wayne, I'm not impressed with your examples. If these are the clearest examples

Michael, you're working with a straw man. No one, including myself, ever suggested those to be clearest examples. Please reread what I wrote to you.

you can find, why is it so easy for me to knock them down?

I suspect partly because you do not seem to understand the range of usages of the generic "they." Please follow up with the comments I gave you last time, including Internet links, as well as do the research on the Internet. I wish I had the time to do that research for you right now, but I don't. I have a heavy work load right now.

I keep finding that when the context is examined there is no good reason to say that the plural pronoun is semantically singular. Rather, I see in your examples that the author is moving from a singular form to a plural sense or referent. What you really need to find is something like this: "A student who keeps using pronouns incorrectly came to my office yesterday, and I told them they were going to flunk English." That is a true and unambiguous example of "them" used with a singular sense.

And your last example is precisely one which linguists have been finding lately. That's why I have been encouraging you to think about the wider range of usage.

I'm sorry I don't have more time for this now, Michael. If I did, I would follow up with the kinds of examples you want. I need to get a good amount more work done this aft. If I happen across more exx. of the kind that you want, I'll come back here and post them, but I can't spend much time on this right now. Later, yes, just not right now.

You're thinking clearly and well about all this and asking the right questions. The answers are out there. I just don't have them at the tip of my, uh, fingers. I have read them, but, alas, my long term memory is getting shorter and shorter and I have little left of my short term memory. That's not entirely in jest. I think I have inherited some of my mother's genes and she has some kind of dementia. Of course, maybe that's been my issue in yours and my exchanges all these years!! :-)

Gotta get back to work. I'll post more if I come across something.

 
At Thu Mar 02, 02:00:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Michael, my memory just yielded this one which is common:

Knock on the door.

Abe: Someone's knocking on the door.

Bill: I wonder who they are.

Stay tuned; memory cells are amazing as storage. Sometimes they open their contents as unexpected times.

 
At Thu Mar 02, 02:49:00 PM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Michael, you may be correct in your claim that singular "they" is more acceptable where the referent is indefinite and less acceptable where the referent is a specific individual. But originally you criticised TNIV for using singular "they" in unacceptable ways. You wrote, in a comment on another posting, "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 ..." This just doesn't work." But this is an example of singular "they" with an indefinite referent "a brother or sister", and, to use your words, "there is no good reason to say that the plural pronoun is semantically singular". At least it is no more certainly semantically singular than referents for singular "they" such as "every one", "a person" and "a man or woman" found in Wayne's examples from standard literature.

It seems that you have conceded that what Wayne is calling singular "they" is acceptable, at least marginally, when "there is no good reason to say that the plural pronoun is semantically singular... the author is moving from a singular form to a plural sense or referent". But the example which you quoted from TNIV is just such a case. Does TNIV actually uses singular "they" where these conditions are not met, where the referent is definite and certainly singular? I would be interested to see any such examples. But unless you can produce some, I think you should withdraw your claim that TNIV uses singular "they" in ways which are not, as Wayne has demonstrated, in regular use in good quality English literature.

 
At Thu Mar 02, 03:02:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Here's another example that shows the complexity of contexts in which singular "they" is used:

http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/002742.html

 
At Thu Mar 02, 03:09:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Re: Australian English usage:

http://www.editorscanberra.org/they.htm

My own West Coast American English aligns very closely with the Australian exx. Of course, the West Coast of the U.S. is much closer to Australia than the N.E. of the U.S., right mate?!

:-)

 
At Thu Mar 02, 03:15:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

This one's good for me:

Mary: It's either UPS or FedEx at the door.

John: I wonder what they've brought.

 
At Thu Mar 02, 03:39:00 PM, Blogger son of abraham said...

Peter wrote: It seems that you have conceded that what Wayne is calling singular "they" is acceptable, at least marginally ...

You've misunderstood me, Peter. I maintain that there is no "singular they" in Standard English. It has attestation in common speech, but it is substandard English, and it does not belong in a Bible version.

 
At Thu Mar 02, 04:10:00 PM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Wayne, thanks for the further examples. The usage note from the 1987 dictionary published by Random House, "the world's largest English-language general trade book publisher" and so certainly not specifically Australian, clarifies the position that we have already come to: "Usage. Long before the use of generic HE was condemned as sexist, the pronouns, THEY, and THEM were used in educated speech and in all but the most formal writing to refer to indefinite pronouns and to singular nouns of general personal reference probably because such nouns are often not felt to be exclusively singular. Such use is not a recent development, nor is it a mark of ignorance."

Michael, I am aware that you are not agreeing that the examples Wayne quoted are in fact truly singular "they". That is why I wrote of "what Wayne is calling singular "they"". But then, if in your opinion there is no true singular "they" in for example "A man or woman being lang absent fra thair party" (one of Wayne's original examples), then there is also no true singular "they" in your TNIV example "If a brother or sister sins, ... If they listen to you ..." And if there is no true singular "they" in that verse, is there in fact any singular "they" in TNIV at all? If not, I repeat that you should withdraw your criticism.

 
At Thu Mar 02, 04:28:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Michael responded:

You've misunderstood me, Peter. I maintain that there is no "singular they" in Standard English. It has attestation in common speech, but it is substandard English, and it does not belong in a Bible version.

Michael, do I understand you to be saying that singular "they" is substandard English, even though it is found in the writings of some of the most respected English writers? I just want to be clear what your claim is. Is it your opinion, then, that when any English writer, regardless of their literary status, uses the singular "they", it is a substandard usage?

If these are your claims, then it is clear what your opinion is. In that case, once you have dismissed a linguistic form by definition, I don't think there is any data that will be relevant for you in the debate. And, I would suggest, that this kind of a position pretty much declares that any kind of language change is substandard, including the change in negative word order during the Elizabethan period. Example, pre-Elizabethan "Think not that I have come to destroy the law."

Elizabethan and post-Elizabethan:

"Do not think that I have come to destroy the law."

The first was the standard until enough people chose to use the second word order and it then became the standard, which is what, I suspect, you use as your word order for negative constructions today.

I assume that you have some forms of pronunciation or syntax or lexical rules which are unique to your ideolect, just as most other people have. Is it a skillet or a frying pan that is used in your house? Do you bring home groceries in a sack or a bag?

Who determines precisely what is "standard English"? Are there not different standard dialects of English, each recognized by their speakers as being of some kind of standard variety, each of which has some variation within it. Some standard dialects are Received Pronunciation (RP) British English, Australian English, New Zealand English, Canadian English, American English (which includes several subdialects), etc. There are accomplished authors who write within each of these dialects and within different historical periods of each dialect. They each write in a form of standard English. But a Bible translation written in American English is typically Anglicized for British audiences. Which form is substandard, the American or British? Or can there be more than one standard form?

And how do you determine what is standard and substandard English? What heuristics are used to make that determination?

 
At Thu Mar 02, 07:19:00 PM, Blogger son of abraham said...

Peter wrote: But then, if in your opinion there is no true singular "they" in for example "A man or woman being lang absent fra thair party" (one of Wayne's original examples) ...

Why are you bringing such antique specimens as "being lang absent fra thair party" to this discussion? I haven't said anything about this example so far because I haven't examined the context, and I don't even know if it's authentic. Also, it seems to be Scottish, and pre-Elizabethan. How can a sentence like this be considered pertinent to questions about modern standards of English usage? I don't see how you can base an argument on such examples. It really has nothing to do with the question at hand.

I reject your suggestion that I should withdraw my criticism of the TNIV.

This is getting silly.

 
At Thu Mar 02, 09:33:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

It really has nothing to do with the question at hand.

Michael, please remind us what the question at hand is. I've tried very hard to address your concerns. I've spent several hours doing research and then you are dismissive about what I offer to you. Have you even read what I have offered, more than perhaps the first example? It feels to me that you keep changing the grounds for the discussion, so I'm confused as to what the question is that you wish to address. If you can state it again, please we can deal with it, if we haven't yet. I thought I had, however, in each of my responses.

This is getting silly.

And none of us want that.

What is the question if it can't be answered from English literature as I've tried to do, based on your stating how important English literature was to this issue?

 
At Thu Mar 02, 09:35:00 PM, Blogger son of abraham said...

Wayne wrote: Michael, do I understand you to be saying that singular "they" is substandard English, even though it is found in the writings of some of the most respected English writers?

Wayne, you haven't established your premise here. You have not shown that "they" is used with a singular sense in the most respected English writers. And I must say that your method is very faulty, if you are trying to establish something about Standard English with this highly tendentious "proof text" approach, in which you ignore the massively preponderating evidence against you, and in which you also ignore the opinions of critics who have spoken on this issue. Does it mean nothing to you that the Usage Panel of the American Heritage Dictionary overwhelmingly rejected the "singular they"?

Peter has said that I do not have a sense of humor. But I do smile a bit when you try to suggest that my position on the "singular they" is unusual or uninformed. It's funny, in an ironic way.

Concerning "Standard English," in answer to your questions, I will only say that in every civilized country there is a prestige variety of the language, which is used as the standard for formal prose. It is not hard to identify and describe it--we have grammars that describe it thoroughly. In addition to that, there are various usages associated with special groups and subcultures, which may depart more or less from the prestige variety, or add details to it. But there are standards everywhere, and these standards are valuable for maintaining a stable community of language. Linguistic change or divergence may bring advantages, but it comes with a price. One of the costs involved in linguistic change is that it alienates people from the great literature of the past. And our English literary heritage is very valuable. It is worth far more than any advantages I can see coming from gender-neutralism. If we come to a point when English-speaking people cannot even read works written before 1970 without puzzling over such common usages as the generic "he" and the word "man," that would be a very sad development. Feminists would love to see that happen, of course, and so they are trying to make it happen with their gender-neutral prescriptivism. But look at what we will lose. Think about it, before you continue down the road on the PC bandwagon.

Here ends my contribution to this thread. As usual, we have worn out the subject, we can't agree, and I must go. But I ask God to bless you and Peter and Suzanne anyway. Glory to His name.

Michael

 
At Fri Mar 03, 02:08:00 AM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Michael, you have missed my point yet again. You wrote, way back in this thread, "Wayne, I'm not impressed with your examples. If these are the clearest examples you can find, why is it so easy for me to knock them down?" I quoted back to you one of Wayne's examples. You now seem to deny that this is a weak example and are retreating instead to it being "pre-Elizabethan" and therefore non-standard. In fact it is not pre-Elizabethan (by just five years) for it dates from 1563. But if you would prefer a more standard example of possibly singular they with an indefinite noun referent, try:
"If a person is born of a gloomy temper ... they cannot help it. from Chesterfield, 1759,
or
"A person can't help their birth." from Thackeray, 1848
(examples taken from this page, but then of course you may not accept these examples because they are on the same website as a rubber ducky).
Then there is Shakespeare's
"There's not a man I meet but doth salute me,
As if I were their well-acquainted friend.
",
and this from Doris Lessing:
"And how easy the way a man or woman would come in here, glance around, find smiles and pleasant looks waiting for them, then wave and sit down by themselves."
All of this proves that in standard English and even in high quality literature (although perhaps not in "the most formal writing") the referent for "they" (whether or not we call this singular "they") can be an indefinite singular noun, or a pair of indefinite singular nouns conjoined by "or", as well as a grammatically singular indefinite pronoun like "anyone". The 1987 Random House dictionary extract quoted above (from here) confirms this.

And this is how TNIV uses "they" in Matthew 18:15-17, the only example of this usage which you have criticised. I have therefore demonstrated that in these verses TNIV is following the accepted practice of standard English. Michael, unless you can find another example to prove your point better, if you want to retain any credibility you should withdraw your accusation that TNIV is using sub-standard English.

I was also fascinated by this example (from the same list) from Thomas More, 1533, although arguably irrelevant as pre-Elizabethan: "Neyther Tyndale there nor thys precher... hath by theyr maner of expounyng... wonne them self mych wurshyp." - and not just because the subject matter is in itself relevant to Bible translation. I doubt if More was referring to a woman preacher, so it seems (without seeing more context) that he was using singular "they" with an indefinite choise between two different definite male referents. He was not thinking of "they" as plural because he wrote "them self" not "themselves".

 
At Fri Mar 03, 02:48:00 AM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Some more literary examples of "singular" "they" with indefinite noun referents, taken from here:

Little did I think ... to make a ... complaint against a person very dear to you, but don't let them be so proud ... not to care how they affront everybody else Samuel Richardson

But how can you talk with a person if they always say the same thing Lewis Carroll

Some people say that if you are very fond of a person you always think them handsome Henry Jones

I know when I like a person directly I see them Virginia Woolf

How do these differ structurally from the following?

If a brother or sister sins, ... If they listen to you ... Matthew 18:15 TNIV

 
At Fri Mar 03, 02:54:00 AM, Blogger Suzanne McCarthy said...

I just bought a TNIV today and the font is definitely not substandard. But I can't find the name of the font anywhere. Anyone know?

 
At Fri Mar 03, 03:02:00 AM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

I noticed an interesting point in the Samuel Richardson quote in my previous comment. From the limited context given, it seems that the author in fact had one specific person in mind but was not naming them (there I go!) for reasons of politeness. So this "they" is definitely singular. It may have been used partly to avoid even specifying male or female. It is as if I wrote on this blog "I am getting frustrated with a certain person who makes comments here but doesn't seem prepared to consider the evidence against their position". If I were to write this, it would be with one person in mind, and both they and I would know who it is and whether they are male or female. But both to Richardson and to me a singular "they" seems appropriate in such a context.

 
At Mon Mar 06, 02:26:00 PM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

When I actually got to the end of his counter-arguments and presented him with irrefutable proof on this issue, Michael wrote "Here ends my contribution to this thread. As usual, we have worn out the subject, we can't agree, and I must go. But I ask God to bless you and Peter and Suzanne anyway. Glory to His name." In other words, rather than admit that he is wrong he simply walked away from the argument. That's not the first time he has done that. I made further points and have given him a few days to respond, but he has not done so. So I must conclude that he has conceded his point by default. But I do appreciate his blessing. May God bless him too.

 

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