Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Someone asked me about 'singular they,' and this is what I told them

If you are a native speaker of English, it's very likely that nothing in the title of this post struck you as unusual -- and yet, it contained a form that many English teachers would wholeheartedly denounce. This form is known as 'singular they,' and although it's a linguistic feature that many English speakers employ conversationally, it is often attacked as incorrect, particularly when it shows up in writing. Essentially, singular they refers to the use of the plural pronoun “they” (as well as “them” and “their”) to refer to a single person. It’s controversial because some people think these words should only ever be used to refer to more than one individual.

So, is it truly unacceptable? As usual, I have a short answer and a long answer to this question. The short answer is of course not, because language doesn’t work that way. As I've discussed in other posts on this blog, no linguistic form is inherently unacceptable. Anything that a speaker intentionally produces is grammatical for them, and successfully serves the primary purpose of language: to communicate ideas with other people.

For the long answer, we'll need to look at the many, many reasons why singular they is a regular -- and useful! -- part of the standard English language.

First of all: even calling this pronoun use ‘singular’ is overlooking the fact that the pronoun is still grammatically plural. This can be seen in the verb agreement in the following standard English sentences:

1. Bill left his bag on the table, and I hope he comes back for it.

2. Some students left their bags on the table, and I hope they come back for them.

3. Some student left their bag on the table, and I hope they come back for it.

The ‘singular they’ in Sentence 3 is grammatically plural, because it is the subject of the verb "come" and that verb is inflected for a plural subject. If "they" in Sentence 3 were grammatically singular, that verb would be in the singular agreement form "comes" as in Sentence 1. So using a ‘singular they’ is not violating any grammatical rules of subject-verb agreement in standard English, and it is not changing the pronoun from a singular paradigm to a plural one. All that has changed is the referent of the pronoun.

So, is there a problem with plural-marked noun phrases having singular referents? Let's take a look at the subjects in the following standard English sentences, each of which refers to a single entity but is grammatically plural (as can be seen by the verb agreement):

4. My glasses are on the nightstand.

5. These scissors are sharp!

Standard English also has some plural-marked nouns with singular referents that are grammatically singular:

6. Checkers is my favorite game.

7. Measles is a terrible disease.

And plenty of singular-marked nouns with plural referents:

8. The army has defeated the enemy.

9. This band sounds awesome.

Not only that, but there’s variation across countries. The subjects in the above two sentences were grammatically singular, but the following sentences, which are regular in some dialects of British English, have singular-marked nouns with plural referents that are grammatically plural:

10. The gang are protecting their turf.

11. The committee meet once a week.

The conclusion of all this is simple. There may be a tendency in standard English for referent, form, and grammatical agreement to match one another in number, but there are plenty of cases where this is not true. One can hardly object to the plural pronoun "they" referring to a singular individual without also objecting to the above instances.

Second, singular they is highly useful. The other third-person singular pronouns in standard English require their speaker to make a comment about the gender of the referent, identifying that person as either masculine or feminine. And although it might not seem obvious at first, there may be many reasons why a speaker would not wish to do so. For example, the speaker may not consider the person’s gender relevant to the present discussion, or they may know that the person does not self-identify within the traditional male-female gender binary (and may thus be uncomfortable being labeled as "he" or "she"). When I find singular they most useful, however, is when the referent’s gender is simply unknown. Consider again the following sentence:

3. Some student left their bag on the table, and I hope they come back for it.

In this case, the speaker does not know who left the bag on the table. If we couldn’t use singular they as I have done above, we would have to refer to this person in one of the following ways:

12. Some student left his bag on the table, and I hope he comes back for it.

13. Some student left her bag on the table, and I hope she comes back for it.

14. Some student left his or her bag on the table, and I hope he or she comes back for it.

15. Some student left that student’s bag on the table, and I hope that student comes back for it.

Sentence 12 and 13 assert a gender that is not actually known to the speaker, and may thus be inaccurate. There is also an argument that that sort of sexist language — that is, treating people of an unspecified gender as a certain gender by default — encourages sexist thinking, and we probably want to avoid that when we can. Sentences 14 and 15 are less inaccurate as well as less sexist, but far more cumbersome to say or write than the elegant singular they.

Finally, I’ll bring my argument in favor of singular they back around to usage. Many, many speakers of English utilize this feature in their spoken and written language. If we want to be good scientists, we need to adopt an objective, descriptivist approach to language, and view it as it is actually spoken rather than as we might want it to be. Singular they is out there in the language — and it has been for quite some time. I’d invite you, in closing, to consider one last example sentence. This one was written in 1595 by a Mr. William Shakespeare, in his play Romeo and Juliet:

16. Arise; one knocks. / ...Hark, how they knock!

Juliet doesn’t know the identity of the person on the other side of her door, and thus she doesn’t know the gender either. Her solution is the same one that many speakers would adopt today: she uses the grammatically plural pronoun "they" to refer to a single individual.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Hippie Responses

First of all, I want to give a big shout-out and thank-you to fellow linguist Jodie Martin for her wonderful slide show, "So you know a linguist." This short presentation has been passed around a lot on the internet lately, and it does a great job of introducing the field of linguistics to people who might not know much about it. It also makes two points that I especially love: that most linguists would not identify as "grammar nazis" and that we should instead be thought of as language hippies. You can guess why I liked that part!

And it's true: we are scientists of language, but we are also its most fervent admirers: the ones who, as Jodie says, "get REALLY excited over an aspirated p, or the history of a word, or using 'Dude' as a gender-neutral greeting." That's why we don't judge forms that aren't in line with the standard. From our perspective, that unusualness just makes them cooler! Jodie's slides make this point quite clearly and humorously, while also sharing a little bit more detail about some of the particular cool things that we study.

Speaking of responses, I also wanted to share the following image, which I originally made for use on Tumblr. (I'll try to be better about keeping this site updated, but I've been doing a lot of my language blogging on Tumblr in recent months. It enables a much more immediate and back-and-forth conversational style than the comment space on a traditional blog like this one. Whether you have an account with Tumblr or not, you can follow me there at Keep in mind that I don't always blog about language, though!) Here's the image, designed to look like a notification from the old Microsoft Word Assistant, Clippy the Paperclip:

I think this image speaks for itself, but I made it to respond to the many, many people who criticize someone else's nonstandard language, only to use one or more forms in that criticism that are nonstandard themselves. Of course, I think language criticism is baseless even when it's formed entirely in the standard, but I've been astonished lately at how often I've been seeing sentiments like this one: "Any college graduate who doesn't know proper English should forfeit their degree." If you didn't spot it, that sentence uses the word "their" as a singular pronoun (agreeing with the earlier singular noun phrase "any college graduate"), which is severely frowned upon in academic English. Such instances are ironic, but it is my hope that they can also be teaching moments. If people can come to understand that their own language is never incorrect, I believe that's the first step to realizing the same thing must be true of everyone else's as well.

If you feel as I do, welcome (back) aboard the language hippie train! Go forth to tolerate and embrace linguistic variability, and feel free to use the Clippy image for your own potential teaching moments whenever you see a call for them.