Singular They Part II



Despite curmudgeons’ howls, the singular they has become respectable. Many editors at the recent American Copy Editors Society conference declared themselves open to the once-frowned-upon use of they with a singular antecedent.

English is an often imperfect language that makes the best of its shortcomings. We say “none are,” despite the prominent one in none, because English has no other pronoun meaning “not any.”

And although the relative pronoun who can refer only to humans, its possessive form, whose, is routinely used with animals: a dog whose collar fell off and inanimate objects: a bridge whose view is unsurpassed. Not even the strictest language purist denounces the nonhuman whose because English lacks a corresponding word that refers to creatures and things.

Similarly, as the writer Ben Zimmer notes, “English sorely lacks a gender-neutral singular third-person pronoun, and ‘they’ has for centuries been pressed into service for that purpose.”

Last week we acknowledged the historical validity of they and its variants in sentences like “It’s enough to drive anyone out of their senses.” Then a reader informed us that singular they has become a practical way of addressing or describing those in the LGBT community who prefer they to masculine or feminine pronouns.

So history and contemporary life both make a credible case for singular they. But now, with the taboo lifting, expect unintended consequences. Writers will become increasingly sloppy with pronoun-antecedent agreement. Here is a sentence from a recent article by a professional journalist: “Neither Indiana nor any other state has described their religious-rights laws as discriminatory.” Change “their” to “its.” No gender issues there; the writer simply botched it.

When an antecedent includes or implies both sexes, old-school types sometimes must resort to the clumsy phrase he or she, himself or herself, etc.: Every student has done his or her homework. Writers despise he or she, which may be barely tolerable once but becomes preposterous beyond that: Every student has done his or her homework, and he or she will be expected to discuss his or her work in class. That hopeless sentence requires a complete rewrite.

An obstinate cadre of traditionalists will always resist singular they. “The solution here,” says Theodore M. Bernstein in The Careful Writer, “is to recognize the imperfection of the language and modify the wording.” Bryan A. Garner’s Dictionary of Modern American Usage concurs. Noting that singular they “sets many literate Americans’ teeth on edge,” Garner says “the only course that does not risk damaging one’s credibility is to write around the problem.”

Even with the recent acceptance of singular they, we suggest using it sparingly, if at all. When confronted with a sentence like Every student has done their homework, you only need a moment to come up with The students have each done their homework.

 

Pop Quiz

If you have misgivings about the singular they, try rewriting these sentences culled from the print media. Our suggestions are below.

1. Everyone involved was doing what they thought was right.

2. Any parent who has enrolled their child knows what to expect.

3. Sometimes in this business, when you come across a comedy legend, they come off as jaded.

4. Even if a hacker has your password, they won’t have the code.

 

Pop Quiz Answers

1. All those involved were doing what they thought was right.

2. Any parent who has enrolled a child knows what to expect.

3. Sometimes in this business you come across a comedy legend who comes off as jaded.

4. Even a hacker who has your password won’t have the code.

Posted on Tuesday, June 9, 2015, at 4:12 pm

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14 Comments on Singular They Part II

14 responses to “Singular They Part II”

  1. Doyze says:

    I used to have some misgivings about ‘singular they’, but since I was awaken to its usage as regards following singular antecedents in the almighty Oxford dictionary, I can say my misgivings persist no more. I still cringe at its usage anyway.

  2. Paul F. says:

    Thanks for moving us along in the world of singular and plural pronouns.

    The obvious needs some attention: “You” is both singular and plural. Why not create a new word? How difficult can that be?

    • There have been attempts: “hir,” for instance. This idea has been knocking around for decades, so the answer is that it can be very difficult indeed to get these new words to catch on. It’s been tried, and it has failed miserably.

      • Paul F. says:

        Thanks for responding. The “Committee for New Words” may take up this issue. The difficulties in moving forward with a simple solution to the pronoun issue may be similar to those difficulties experienced in moving into a metric world.

        I hope you may be able to address possibilities in future GrammarBook writings.

  3. David W. says:

    The students have each done their homework!?

    Awful!

    The students have all done their homework assignments.

    My reason for placing the plural “assignments” after homework is that “homework” sounds like a singular entity.

    It is rather like saying, “After completing their assignments, the students all returned to school wearing their hat.”

    In Arabic, such a thing is acceptable, nay obligatory, but in English all of the students cannot wear one hat, at least not all at once.

    I also agree with Strunk and White that one should seek an alternate to ‘do’.

    The students have all completed their homework assignments.

    BTW, I always advise my students that, when writing about generic entities – like students – to cast things into the plural.

    That would easily solve the problem of your cumbersome sentence: Every student has done his or her homework, and he or she will be expected to discuss his or her work in class

    In the plural, it becomes:

    All students have completed their assignments, and all will be expected to discuss their assignments in class.

    Even, then, I’d cull out the second instance of the noun, obliging me to change the pronouns and to eliminate one (always a good thing):

    All students have completed their assignments and will be expected to discuss them in class.

    I also tell them that if a writer must use the singular, then it is preferable that he to refer to his own sex or to bow to convention.

    For example, in linguistics, when we refer to the child language learner, by nature a single individual, we usually use the feminine when describing how she acquires her language.

    If you want to see a particularly galling and apt example of the cumbersomeness of ‘his or her’, read Fowler. If I remember correctly, it is in the entry for ‘their’.

    • We don’t always give examples that are perfectly elegant, because we are demonstrating common English problems. We used the singular “each” instead of “all” in our revision of Every student has done their homework to be consistent with “every” in the original, which is singular.

      Thank you for your thoughtful comment, and thank you for writing.

  4. ronnie says:

    the people of the world when they knew nehru’s death they were rudely shocked.

  5. Rebecca Anderson says:

    I work for a large breast cancer charity and we use the following statistic in many of our communications: “1 in 8 women will be diagnosed with breast cancer in their lifetime”. Initially, I thought that “their” should be “her” in order to match with “1”, but after doing further analysis, we’ve concluded that “their” is actually appropriate since 1 in 8 is a ratio that describes a group, comprised of many women. That said, I am still bothered by the singular/plural conflict between “their” & “lifetime”. We are considering changing our stat to read, “1 in 8 women will be diagnosed with breast cancer in their lives.”

    What are your thoughts on this revision? Thank you in advance!

    • The subject of your sentence is one. Therefore, we recommend writing “her lifetime.” Also, our Rule 1 of Writing Numbers says, “Spell out all numbers beginning a sentence.” We suggest revising your sentence to “One in eight women will be diagnosed with breast cancer in her lifetime.”

      • Rebecca Anderson says:

        Thank you for your guidance.

        We do follow your Writing Numbers rules for formal writing, but in digital communications with character limits, we are often forced to use digits over words. That said, for “1 in 8″/”One in eight”, you recommend “her lifetime”, but if we were to use a percentage (12%) rather than a ratio, would the same rule still apply? I tend to think not, but want to understand the difference. Is it because a percentage statement would include “of” which then makes it clearer that the subject is a group, rather than a person?

        Thank you again for your feedback! Our team has many conflicting opinions on this one so we’re grateful for your expert insights.

        • We cannot recommend beginning the sentence with “12%.” You should begin the sentence with words: “Twelve percent.”
          The subject of the sentence is a percentage. Words that indicate portions, like fractions and percentages, can be either singular or plural depending on the object of the preposition. The object of the preposition is women. Therefore, use the plural pronoun their. Please see Rule 6 of Subject-Verb Agreement for more information and examples.

  6. Rita says:

    Hi.

    Plse advise which of the following is correct, as pronous Either and Neither usually takes singular, but when followed by ‘of’ for interrogative constructions it can be plural..Is this a fixed rule that should always be applied ?

    What is correct/best:
    Have either of the students passed?
    Has either of the students passed?

    because it would be correct to say :
    ” Either of the students has passed.” and incorrect to say “Either of the students have passed.” ??

    Plse advise .

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