Someone Doesn’t Know What They’re Talking About

In a recent review of Liberty’s Blueprint: How Madison and Hamilton Wrote the Federalist Papers, Defined the Constitution, and Made Democracy Safe for the World, Mark D. McGarvie praises the author, Michael I. Meyerson, for his

“considerable insight into the intellectual and political history of the constitutional era…”

and for providing

“a good account of how Hamilton conceived of the project of writing the Federalist Papers.”

But he faults Liberty’s Blueprint for:

“…a few grammatical errors, such as the use of plural pronouns with singular noun referents on pages 21 (“their”–”each member”) and 27 (“their”–”army”). It is hard to correct students’ errors when assigned texts include examples of the same mistakes.”

Presumably, in addition to Liberty’s Blueprint, McGarvie would dismiss the following works for their use of plural pronouns with singular noun referents, since it is hard, too, to correct students’ errors when these following works of literature include examples of the same mistakes:

Shakespeare:

“There’s not a man I meet but doth salute me
As if I were their well-acquainted friend…”

“Now leaden slumber with life’s strength doth fight;
And every one to rest themselves betake,
Save thieves, and cares, and troubled minds, that wake.” (LL)

Jane Austen:

“Perhaps, then, you would bestow it as a reward on that person who wrote the ablest defence of your favourite maxim, that no one can ever be in love more than once in their life — your opinion on that point is unchanged, I presume?”

George Eliot:

“I shouldn’t like to punish anyone, even if they‘d done me wrong.”

Walt Whitman:

“…everyone shall delight us, and we them.”

J. D. Salinger (from The Catcher in the Rye):

“He’s one of those guys who’s always patting themself on the back.”

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.”

C. S. Lewis:

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

Oscar Wilde:

“Experience is the name everyone gives to their mistakes.”

And, of course, an example that McGarvie, a legal scholar, has no doubt encountered in the Articles of the Confederation:

Each house shall keep a journal of its proceedings, and from time to time publish the same, excepting such parts as may in their judgment require secrecy…” (The Federalist, 1888, p. 563)

(more)

This usage is common in everyday language, too, such as:

Somebody gave me directions, but they didn’t tell me where to go.”

Each person has the right to eat their pancakes.”

In fact, as Geoffrey K. Pullum points out, singular they is often clearer and preferable. For instance, the following sentences would be rendered more unclear if we followed McGarvie’s rule:

“Any employee who wants their office repainted…”

“Every writer has their own style…”

“If either your father or your mother breaks their hip…”

If we were to follow McGarvie’s usage guidelines for singular they (and the advice of most style manuals), we would find ourselves saying

“Any employee who wants his or her office repainted…”

“Every writer has his or her own style…”

“If either your father or your mother breaks his or her hip…”

McGarvie’s made-up grammar rule renders these sentences more cumbersome, and would require three or four sentences of caveats that would follow the last sentence. (“Which parent?” “Why’d your mom break your dad’s hip?” etc.) If the point of McGarvie’s rule, and the style guides from which it came, is to promote clear communication, then it fails. The rules of grammar are not found in style guides, usage manuals, or even your English classes. They are found in your brain. And they’ve been there since before your first day of school, before the first time your parents corrected your usage, and practically before you even uttered a single word.

In fact, you probably read the title of the post and didn’t even notice the singular they.

The problem, as should be plainly evident, isn’t with singular they. It’s with McGarvie’s definition of “grammatical mistake.” If every speaker of English uses singular they, and if the English language’s greatest literary figures have been using singular they for hundreds of years, and if singular they is found in one of the documents to which Mark D. McGarvie himself owes his profession, then what, exactly, makes singular they a grammatical error, poised to corrupt the linguistic and literary well-being of his students?

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17 thoughts on “Someone Doesn’t Know What They’re Talking About

  1. I like your last paragraph. It reminds of a completely different but in some ways similar argument from a group of “experts” a few years ago during the 2005 Major League Baseball season. A company called Baseball Prospectus has all kinds of genius mathematics people who analyze baseball statistics to the extreme to try to predict future statistics, game outcomes, and standings, and they are really cocky about how good they think their mathematical models are. In late September that year, the White Sox clinched the American League Central Division after they won a game in Detroit. However, on Baseball Prospectus’ website, they showed that the White Sox had only a 97% chance of winning the division even though THEY HAD ALREADY CLINCHED WINNING THE DIVISION. People called them out on it and said it was ridiculous, and their excuse was that they didn’t like the official tiebreaker rule that Major League Baseball uses, so they didn’t include it in their prediction model–they were saying that their model was more correct than the actual rule just because they didn’t like the official rule. They wouldn’t admit that their model was wrong, because they are way too smart to be wrong.

  2. Somewhere, back in the days of web 1.0, a guy had a site on which he advocated a new singular, gender-neutral pronoun, “tey.” It was quite amusing, but it seems to have disappeared. I think he was also the one who had taken Alanis Morissette’s “Ironic” apart, line by line, revealing how little Alanis understands the concept of irony.

  3. “Singular they” is an oxymoron. Call me a grammar fascist, but that closes the case for me. Even if it becomes routinely accepted, “Every writer has their own style” will never look right to me, and I will continue to avoid such usage.

    It’s such an easy problem to avoid without having to resort to the “singular they.” Use plural nouns (“All writers have their own style) or change a few words (“If one of your parents breaks a hip…”).

    That said, I agree that it’s ridiculous to mention minor, isolated grammatical errors in a book review, and I also agree that language is a living organism. I may even stop red-penning the misuse :) of the singular they if it one day becomes as ubiquitous as, for example, the singular “data.”

  4. The singular “they”, I think, sees more usage today because of cultural sexual equality. In the past, it was appropriate to refer to an unidentified singular person as “he” or “him”, and also possible to use the awkward “one”. Only in the case where the subject or object could be identified absolutely as female was one allowed to use “she” or “her”. In order to overcome paternalistic tendencies in language, the use of “he or she” was encouraged.

    I agree, though, that for clarity, the singular “they” seems more appropriate.

    props to the “blog” of UQM.

  5. Wow. And I thought I was picky about grammar. I agree that the singular “they” is standard usage.

    The problem is that the English language doesn’t have an acceptable alternative, since referring to people as “it” is considered quite rude, and using “one” just sounds pretentious most of the time. We no longer default to the masculine in times of uncertainty, so making gender-neutral statements has resulted in this adaptation. We use the same second person pronoun (you) no matter the number. How is this all that different?

  6. I’ve been waiting for a good analysis of this issue and was glad to find it here. Singular “they” is a new shibboleth, allowing people who have a good grasp of grammar (and who like to assume that they are therefore highly educated or intelligent–sometimes true and sometimes not) to identify people who are not. I catch these “errors” most of the time (knowing my editor will if I do not) and correct them, all the while anticipating the inevitable day when we all officially agree that this grammatical issue is a waste of our brainpower and the singular they is widely accepted in popular usage, including university professors, and taught as correct in grammar books.

    However, in examples of great writers who use the singular they, it’s a mistake to include sentences from a work like “Catcher in the Rye” because Salinger is conscientiously speaking in the voice of Holden Caulfield and takes on that character’s grammar, which I presume is not Salinger’s voice. (One might say the same of the Shakespearian passages, but I think that’s going a bit far.)

  7. This is great. I’ve often struggled with this issue in writing, but I have fallen on the side of using the word “their” as a “singular noun referent.” And I can honestly say that is the first time I have used the word referent.

    For me, when being absolutely correct means sacrificing practicality or aesthetics, then the rule itself is at fault. As others have noted, language evolves. This is a bad rule: English lacks a non-gender-specific singular pronoun. Using “his or her” is annoying, ugly, and makes for hard reading.

    We’ve come to accept “their” as that missing word. It works, it’s readable, and everyone is already doing it — and has been for hundreds of years as you pointed out. So I say, stop fighting it just because nobody has yet had the guts to update Strunk and White.

    My favorite grammatical error: “To boldly go where no man has gone before.” It just wouldn’t be the same without the split infinitive.

  8. After reading this I did some web surfing on the matter and found two interesting things.

    1) In 1998 the editors of the Oxford English Dictionary decided splitting infinitives was acceptable: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/150458.stm

    2) The definition of “their” on dictionary.com includes this definition:

    (used after an indefinite singular antecedent in place of the definite masculine form his or the definite feminine form her): Someone left their book on the table. Did everyone bring their lunch?”

    So it seems that at least in some fairly authoritative sources, this usage has evolved into legitimacy.

  9. Well, here’s a problem. While I don’t consider myself a sensitive grammarian, this was linked to me, and I shall opine on it.

    First, I have to agree that this Mr. McGarvie’s criticism seems unfounded and poor. He fails to take into consideration the ‘flow’ of language of shifts in acceptability.

    On the other hand, while the argument is valid, your choice of example might be considered poor—it comes very close to arguing the consequent. Instead I would point out, as it was above, that third person pronouns are ambiguous (much like implicitly singular indirect pronouns?) and that the referents and objects of possession are unclear. Further, I would qualify that, although I haven’t read the text, and the quote may be out of context, it would be perfectly understandable, if not rigorously technically correct, for a multitude to have control or possess a single army.

    Also, Jamie: I believe there is a famous quotation attributed to Winston Churchill regarding the splitting of infinitives and their place in language.

  10. Will it Work,

    Perhaps you are thinking of this statement which isn’t really about infinitives:

    Ending a sentence with a preposition is something up with which I will not put.

  11. In high school (only 3 years ago) I was taught to use “his” for non-gender specific singular pronouns. This appears natural to me, and I’ve used it since. Perhaps I am alone, but “their” comes off as extremely clunky and such an egregious error that I’d almost want to use “his or her” over it. In this day and age, however, I doubt any reputable grammarian would publicly condone such a practice, no matter how natural it sounds to him.

  12. It all depends on which grammarians you consult. There are the old-fashioned purists who believe there comes a point when a language is settled on and the “official” rules can never be changed. Then there are those who believe languages are always living and the “rules” have to be reconsidered based on actual usage.

    This particular debate is silly because, as the examples cited above show, there has been agreement for centuries among virtually all of the great writers, that the only non-awkward solution to the problem is to use the third person plural. This practice long predates feminism and has been used by authors that can hardly be called feminism-friendly.

  13. I’m sad to have missed stumbling by this sooner (I meandered over from the “blog” of “unnecessary” quotations), but maybe the blog owner will get to read this in any case.

    If you haven’t read it recently- track down Samuel Johnson’s introduction to the English dictionary. Dr Johnson has a great time mocking the idea of language as settled- in essence, contained and dead. One of the many reasons I’m happy English has no official governing body deciding what is or is not the language we speak.

    Also, I believe that for centuries they was considered acceptable in plural and singular form and the change to “he” or “he or she” is relatively recent (and a confusing one, imo).

    If you want a feminist take on it: http://arith.stanford.edu/~gere/satire.html. Although, I think he’s a little overboard in his praise of English, at least he loves the language.

  14. I’m with Alan. The use of “they” as a singular pronoun drives me nuts. Why? It’s confusing.

    I find it acceptable in a context where the referent is non-specific, such as almost all of the literary quotations above. “Everyone” and “no one” could be considered to refer to more than one person. That’s like the British use of plural verb and pronoun forms for collective nouns. “Did everyone bring their lunch?” makes sense.

    However, “Somebody gave me directions, but they didn’t tell me where to go” is baffling. The sentence means that one particular individual gave you directions, but some other people didn’t tell you where to go. The relationship between the first person and the latter people is unknown.

    Presumably, once a given individual has spoken to you, or you have observed that individual doing something, you are aware of that individual’s gender, and may safely use the appropriate pronoun. Even if you’re not sure (perhaps it was an e-mail from a person with an androgynous name), in very few cases would it make any difference whatsoever if you guessed wrongly.

    Cases like “someone left their book” could go either way, I suppose, and in casual conversation it would go unnoticed. But, if writing that sentence, I would simply make it “someone left a book.” And examples like “every writer has their style” are ridiculously easy to convert to correct grammar without adding unnecessary complexity. All writers have their own style, and this writer does not use the word “they” to refer to an individual.

  15. I too am late, but I’d like to throw in my two cents. (Or, now that I’ve reread this, probably more like twenty bucks. But bear with me.)

    To me, there’s a rather large difference in language changing out of necessity versus out of ignorance. Necessity would include the creation of words such as Internet or computer, words that did not exist for hundreds of years but developed to help the ease of communication. The so-called “singular their” is not comparable to these changes, because there are sufficient alternatives available–people just do not understand how to use them correctly (or possibly are too lazy to take the time). Others have already outlined the alternatives (the use of “him or her,” or the fairly easy rewording of the sentence).

    An example I see akin to the improper use of “their” is the improper use of “ain’t.” Ain’t, many moons ago, began as a correct contraction of “am not.” Its misuse has spread, but it has never gained status as correct in the English language. Because of the alternatives, there is no need to adopt “ain’t” as correct, no matter how many people use it on a daily basis. It can be argued that the use of ain’t as opposed to one of the proper contractions is not unwieldy as is the case between the use of his or her in place of their, and therefore it is less necessary than the so-called singular their. However, the sinngular use of their poses other problems, such as the ambiguity other commenters have already outlined. It is not a true solution to the singular pronoun problem.

    As far as I’m concerned, there’s a huge difference between formal and informal language, and I firmly believe that the use of their as a singular pronoun should remain in the realms of the informal. While it may not matter in everyday life whether one uses their as a singular pronoun, uses ain’t as a contraction instead of the proper one, or even says “gonna” instead of “going to,” for goodness sake, in formal writing the use of the their as a singular is bound to cause problems: there is no chance to specify what is meant by “their.” If someone were to ask me which “they” I was referring to in the real world, I could simply answer him or her; in writing (or public speaking in which there is no interaction between the audience and the speaker) it isn’t the case. The reader or listener can be left confused, making language ineffective as a means of communication.

    The issue with everyone, everybody, and their ilk is that they are simply not referring to a group of people–they are referring to the individuals within the group of people, hence why they are considered singular. Also, no one (as with none) cannot be plural because it is nothing–there cannot be a plural amount of nothing. However, this issue is much harder to understand than the basic pronoun usage, so I find it ever so slightly more acceptable than the aforementioned. Again, it had a lot to do with formality versus informality–I would expect it to be correct in a research paper but not in an e-mail between friends.

    To reiterate slightly, I do not think the use of the “singular their” is as much of a necessity as a product of laziness and ignorance about the way the English language works. It does not matter to me that it has been used throughout history–literature is not the standard for correct grammar. With the absence of automated grammar checking programs and easy access to anything and everything relating to grammar (which can be found on the Internet), writing in the olden days was more likely to be incorrect than it is now.

    I think that, now that I’ve officially written more than the OP, I can shut up now, and you all have probably gotten the point (if you got through it at all, that is). Have a nice day (or night, depending on who reads this when), and I hope everyone has luck in their future endeavors (pun very much intended). ;)

  16. @ Laura, also popping in late – but can’t resist adding my 2c.

    There is a very interesting discussion about this on Language Log if you’d care to look it up, you may find some articles that will change your mind on the “laziness and ignorance” aspect of SNR “their” usage.

    As a linguist, I can tell you that language is indeed fluid and does evolve, and for the past 20 years most linguists have been both happily using “their”, and defending its usage as a single noun referent.

    As an undergrad I struggled for a long time with the idea that long-held grammatical “truths” could be toppled by the organic nature of the evolution of language – now I enjoy observing the evolution in progress on the web and elsewhere (in some places it seems more like a devolution, but that’s a digression).

    As to your example on public speaking – surely, from a point of view of pure parsing the use of “his” is equally confusing – especially since it could refer to a woman? I’m being deliberately nit-picky here, as I think your argument is somewhat specious – who is the [they], perhaps, but equally, who is the [he]? Bad speech-writing would be at fault more than iffy grammar if there was confusion.

    “Everyone” means every person without exception – it is one of those words that makes a person synonymous with a group – removing the individuality of the individual. “Everyone” and all its synonyms refer to the group. A group is a singular entity in grammar.

    Literature is the base source of evidence for grammatical rules, spellings, word-meanings etc. Hence the field of linguistic study called philology where the definitions and usages in your dictionary come from. Writing off examples from literature is akin to dismissing the OED because you don’t like where they get their evidence from.

    Also: reiterate? Check usage (even linguists have bugbears).

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