Language Log Likes They

The LL folks are by far and large descriptivists rather than prescriptivists when it comes to grammar, so they don’t have any trouble with “singular they.”

Here’s a recent example of their thoughts on this hot topic in English Bible translation: Knuckling under.

The short version is that in certain (not all) contexts, singular they is entirely standard and has been so for a very long time. Yet many people believe, passionately, that it is always wrong, because it offends “logic”.

12 thoughts on “Language Log Likes They

  1. Wayne Leman says:

    If the indefinite “they” is good enough for the KJV, it’s good enough for me.

    If it’s good enough for William Shakespeare, it’s good enough for me.

    If it’s good enough for C.S. Lewis, it’s good enough for me.

    If it’s good enough for John Piper, it’s good enough for me.

    If anyone thinks there is a better word to use, I wonder what they would want it to be.

    🙂

  2. Mike Sangrey says:

    Someone once told me that singular they was perfectly good English. I thought, “Hey, what do they know?”
    🙂

  3. Nik says:

    They gladly makes that lonely little countable noun look larger than life with its generous supply of potential plural power. What more can one say about they?

  4. Theophrastus says:

    Well, this very post is an example of the sloppy thinking that the singular “they” engenders. Dave begins his post by saying

    “The LL folks are by far descriptivists rather than prescriptivists when it comes to grammar, so they don’t have any trouble with ‘singular they.’

    “Here’s a recent example of their thoughts. . . .” (emphasis added)

    The problem with this quote (besides the ungrammatical “by far”) is that the post had an actual single author — not a group authorship. There is no evidence provided that the Language Log authors formed a hive-mind to produce the post; in contrast, it is authored by a certain Arnold Zwicky, an emeritus professor from Ohio State who likes to quote comics and is an outspoken “LBGT” activist. (Normally, sexuality isn’t relevant to linguistic views, but in this case, a perusal of Zwicky’s writings shows that it is — he wishes to erase gender markings from language as part of a larger political-sexual agenda involving erasing gender from personal relationships.)

    (See for example, this paragraph on his bio page: I am the founder of the OUTIL (OUT In Linguistics) mailing list, for lgbt(-friendly) linguists. For an extensive bibliography on gay and lesbian language, see the compilation by Gregory Ward. And for links to just about anything of lgb relevance, check out the QRD (Queer Resources Directory). I am also a long-time participant in the Usenet newsgroup soc.motss (Members Of The Same Sex); the most recent faq file for soc.motss has all sorts of useful information about the newsgroup. (The soc.motss archives also include an anthology of my postings about life with my partner, Jacques Transue, during the last 12 years of his life.) And, if that isn’t enough, for several years I was a board member of NOGLSTP (the National Organization of Gay and Lesbian Scientists and Technical Professionals).

    Continuing with the quote from Dave Ker: “Here’s a recent example of their thoughts on this hot topic in English Bible translation” — this of course is an attribution so misleading as to be called incorrect. Dave undoubtedly meant to write “Here’s a recent example of Arnold Zwicky on this topic, which is also a hot topic in Bible translation.” I have seen no evidence that Mr. Zwicky has any expertise in translation or the Bible. The cited blog post makes no reference to the Bible or Bible translation.

    Now, I do not mean to imply that all of the advocates of the “singular they” are necessarily in favor of erasing all indicators of gender in society — in fact, that is clearly not the case. But I do wish to imply that use of the “singular they” is a type of sloppy thinking and is a slippery slope that results in greater sloppy thinking. I support precision in language, and I was not aware that support for precision in language was a controversial point until I began reading this blog.

  5. David Ker says:

    Theophrastus, that “by far” was driving me crazy but I was too sloppy to change it. 🙂

    I was under the impression that they had posted on this quite a bit but I could be mistaken. You’re being nitpicky which is justified for a post (although comments should be excused for messpillings.)

    “this of course is an attribution so misleading as to be called incorrect.” It’s a group blog so I don’t think that’s incorrect.

    I do appreciate your highlighting the evidence of the author’s ideological motivation for gender neutering. That’s not what I advocate at all and it is a form of prescriptivism. Singular “they” is commonly used by native speakers of English. That makes it grammatical not sloppy.

  6. J. K. Gayle says:

    “But I do wish to imply that use of the ‘singular they’ is a type of sloppy thinking and is a slippery slope that results in greater sloppy thinking. I support precision in language, and I was not aware that support for precision in language was a controversial point until I began reading this blog.”

    It’s a wonder, Theo-phrastus, that the languages the Bible’s written in (and all the quoted speech therein too) don’t seem all that precise.

    Wayne had a great post on this same subject some time back. It’s worth another read: http://betterbibles.com/2006/09/10/singular-they-in-english-bibles/.

  7. Theophrastus says:

    Dave, you are correct in several points:

    (a) It was a cheap shot for me to use your post as an example of sloppy thinking (although your post was sloppy in its expression — it could have been far more precise.

    (b) Other people on Language Log (although not in that post) and, in fact, the vast majority of American linguists consider the “singular they” to be part of contemporary American spoken usage.

    However, I still disagree with you on several points:

    (a) There is a difference between standard written English and acceptable spoken English (this dichotomy exists in most languages). The use of a form in spoken English does not validate its use in written English. It is ain’t rite for me to non-standard forms ‘n writin’ ‘glish just cuz people talk that way.

    (b) Linguists are not traffic cops — they do not control the language. Arguably all highly educated native speakers “control” standard written English, and I have yet to be convinced that the “singular they” has been accepted by the majority of those people. Certainly the usage will be flagged by most copy readers, for example. If one wishes to write the Bible in colloquial spoken English, such usage may be permissible, but using mixed standard and non-standard forms requires defense. (Again, I believe at this point the majority of American English speakers clip the “g” in gerunds (e.g., “workin’ ” rather than “working” — assuming that is correct, should we write in the Bible as “in’ “? If you say no, why the inconsistency?)

    (c) The usage of the “singular they” is anything but standardized. The declination of verbs, the use when a specific person is identified, and the confusion with plural noun forms (e.g., in British English: “In the World Cup today, England have won over Spain”) are all points of contention.

    (d) In Biblical translations, are many points where the use of the “singular they” is ambiguous with the “plural they” and changes the meaning of the original text (e.g., in questions of personal versus collective (corporate) responsibility). In these cases, the “singular they” causes a real dangerous of misunderstanding. Now, such points can be corrected through footnotes, for example, if one considers footnotes an integral part of the text (as I do). I have noticed many people on this forum, in contrast, regard footnotes as “optional.” If one of those readers encounters an ambiguous “singular they”/”plural they” usage, he or she runs a real possibility of substantially misreading the text.

  8. David Ker says:

    I agree with you on most of a-d. Remember, my post was a link rather than an essay. It’s no secret that BBB sees a Better Bible in populist terms. What is comprehensible for the “mass of men.” The highly educated are going to prefer something with a different register. Even I was driven to distraction by the NLT yesterday and had to switch to RSV in order to concentrate.

  9. richie says:

    Wayne: “If the indefinite “they” is good enough for the KJV, it’s good enough for me.”

    But it wasn’t “good enough” for the KJV. 99% of their usages are “he”. The “indefinite they” is a rare exception, not even close to a rule.

    Wayne: “If it’s good enough for William Shakespeare, it’s good enough for me.”

    But it wasn’t “good enough” for Shakespeare; he also used it as a rare exception, not as a rule.

    Wayne: “If it’s good enough for C.S. Lewis, it’s good enough for me.”

    C.S. Lewis used it as an exception as well and when he used it he was trying to make a point and thus influence language and thinking on this issue.

    Wayne: “If it’s good enough for John Piper, it’s good enough for me.

    We almost all use it in speech at least occasionally and even sometimes in writing. That gives no support to making it a rule, especially in writing.

    Wayne: “If anyone thinks there is a better word to use, I wonder what they would want it to be.”

    As millions of English speakers/writers have spoken and written for hundreds of years: “he”. Exception usage of the “singular they” does not justify making it into a rule. Even if it is used often in spoken conversation, that also does not justify making it a rule in written language. The TNIV is an outstanding translation; however, there is no sound justification for making it a “rule” and then proclaiming its “gender accuracy”. The use of “he” is also gender accurate and also agrees in number with its antecedant noun. It is no more difficult to properly learn the correct usage of “he” than to learn the “singular they”. As the TNIV translators themselves say, this is all a tempest in a teapot; however, in the reverse of what they intend. They’ve made it the issue – not others.

  10. Wayne Leman says:

    Richie, I don’t think anyone is suggesting that indefinite “they” should become a prescribed usage, unlike those who have said that generic “he” should be prescribed usage.

    Languages change. English usage has changed, and continues to change. Most people no longer use thee, ye, and thou. Most people no longer use the pre-1611 negative word order as in: “Let not your heart be troubled.”

    No one is questioning that generic “he” is still in use. What is hypocritical is that some of the same people who criticize usage of indefinite “they” in the TNIV use it themselves in their own speech and writing. And it is hypocritical to point out usage of generic “he”, for instance in President Obama’s State of the Economy speech, while not mentioning his usage of indefinite “they” in other parts of his speech. If we’re going to refer to language usage, let’s be honest and not just use statistics to support one side in a debate.

    The jury is still out on whether indefinite “they” or generic “he” will win in the court of public usage. They have competed with each other since 1300 A.D. Maybe they will continue to compete with each other for another 700 years!

    One of the points we should learn from all this debate over indefinite “they” is that it doesn’t work to try to engineer language. People are going to speak whatever sounds best to them, regardless of the rules that prescriptivist grammarians make up for us. It makes as little sense to call on people to use indefinite “they” as it does to call on them to use generic “he.” Both have conflicts between their semantics and grammar. And none of the made-up (epicene) pronouns to try to find a generic form which lacks a conflict between semantics and grammar have been accepted by the general public for usage.

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