August 31, 2012

Words of the Month - They Singular

        English is my all-time favorite language, but the sad truth is, it's got a problem.  It is painfully lacking in a good gender-neutral third person singular pronoun.  We've got it, but we can't use that when referring to people because it is only supposed to refer to things or the occasional animal, and sounds rude and demeaning applied to humans.  Some people try to tell us that he can include both male and female, but speakers have never really believed that.  The use of he to apply to a person of unknown or generic gender was not advocated in grammars until the nineteenth century and was seldom used colloquially.  Then there's he and she and he/she and s/he and other constructions that get points for inclusivity but are awkward and unsatisfactory for anything but legalese.  So what's a poor speaker of English to do?
Everyone should love their neighbor!
        Well, the speakers have spoken and, like it or not, the solution is here: they singular.  Now, one might get the impression from listening to grammarians that this they singular usage is a modern butchery of our fair tongue, and yet more evidence of the language going down the tubes.  You'll hear some complain that it's a product of all this ridiculous political correctness the feminists have foisted upon us.  But both those charges are untrue.  For my senior essay in linguistics in college I studied the use of they singular (as well as a number of other grammatical constructions) through time, and here's what I discovered…
        First of all, use of they with such singular general nouns as each, anyone, everyone, etc., has been part of the English language since at least the fifteenth century.  (Caxton wrote, around 1489, "Each of them should… make themself ready.")  It has been used by writers from Shakespeare to Jane Austen and up through the present.  I studied its use in personal letters and diaries dating from 1526 to 1937 and found it in steady and constant use throughout that period.  Indeed, in my data sample they was always the pronoun used with antecedents such as "everyman," "each," "everyone," "anyone," "one," "every Relation," "every mortal," and so on.  So it isn't modern, it isn't a product of feminism, and it isn't a sign of immanent degeneration.  It is simply an aspect of the grammar of the English language that "singular" nouns denoting unspecified members of a general group may be used with the "plural" pronoun.
        But the usage was not all I studied.  I compared colloquial usage of they singular with its assessment in prescriptive grammars, and I found some very interesting things.  English grammar was not taught in English schools until 1650, and for they singular I have examples from grammars from 1654 through 1990.  The first grammar didn't even mention the construction to make a judgement on it, but the author's own writing included examples of generic singular (eg. everyone) used once with he, and four times with they.  In 1712 a grammarian stated that "the common gender is he or she" but in his own writing invariably used they.  A grammar written in 1795 railed against "any one… they" but still contained that exact usage in its own text…  You get the idea.  Grammarians' arbitrary notions of logic and propriety told them to condemn they singular, but their own internal native-born rules of grammar told them that they singular was just fine, as it had been for centuries before them.
        There are many different directions I could go further with this topic...
- how English has already once turned a plural pronoun singular (you)
- how it was the Victorians who really pushed he as "including" females as well as males
- how they is now sometimes used even in cases where the gender of the antecedent is known, as in "Every bride should enjoy their wedding day"
- how there have never been any particular qualifications considered necessary to be a grammar-writer
                … but I think this post is already long enough for now!

[Pictures: Intertwined, rubber block print by AEGN, 2003.]

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