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The orbit of the Earth being what it is, September 24th has come around again.  September 24th, for those of you who don’t have a copy of Chase’s Calendar of Events lying around, is National Punctuation Day.  But can I be honest with you?  I just can’t bring myself to care.

Don’t get me wrong, punctuation is great.  I use it all the time, I think it’s a great invention.  Like rechargeable batteries.  But, like rechargeable batteries, I just can’t get too excited about punctuation.  I’ve tried to, I really have.  I had a copy of Pause and Effect: An Introduction to the History of Punctuation in the West shipped down to UCSD via Inter-Library Loan, which was supposed to be the definitive academic history of punctuation in English and related languages. I hoped it would reveal to me the history of punctuation, the evolution of its different forms and purposes. It very well might have, if it weren’t so incredibly dense and disorganized. I tried to read it in bed one night. I fell asleep around page 3. So I took it on vacation, the only book I’d packed in my carry-on at the airport.  I ended up sitting at the gate for an hour and a half, staring out the window at a unchanging hillside for an hour, because after reading a chapter of the book on my lap, I just couldn’t take anymore.  I put together one quarter-page of notes on the book by the time that the library asked for it back. I obliged them immediately.

I did get one point out of the book, though: punctuation arose as a means of marking where an orator would pause in delivering a speech.  Different marks could be used to indicate differing pause lengths, which generally corresponded to differing logical divisions.  Short pauses, like those indicated by the modern comma, usually divided segments that were still closely related to a core idea.  Longer pauses, like those of the modern semi-colon, indicated somewhat more independent segments, and still longer pauses, now periods, indicated still more independent segments.

This is the trouble with punctuation: it started out as an indicator of pauses, but due to the correlation with syntax, it has become common for punctuation to mark syntactic divisions instead.  Now we have hybrid punctuation that can either mark timing or serve as syntactic separators, and this has created a somewhat imprecise punctuation system in English.  Furthermore, punctuation is mostly silent.  Is there a difference in pronunciation between high definition and high-definition?  If there is, it’s very slight.  So too with you’re and your. or even

(1a) It seems we’ve failed, all is lost.
(1b) It seems we’ve failed; all is lost.

Yes, there are certainly rules about punctuation, but they’re mostly boring and uncontroversial.  “Put a comma after an interjection.” Okay, fine.   The ones that are controversial, like whether to put periods inside or outside of quotation marks, or the Oxford comma, aren’t interestingly controversial.  One person says “I put the period inside the quotes.”  Another says, “Oh, I put it outside”.  The former is more standard American style, the latter more standard British.  What is there to argue?  I like to wear shorts, and my friend likes to wear long pants.  Who’s wrong?

All the interesting punctuation debates I have are internal, as I debate whether or not a comma is necessary in a given spot, or whether two clauses are sufficiently related to be separated by a mere semi-colon.  Punctuating your writing is, I think, intensely personal, and you have to practice it to get your voice down.  Whenever I edit a friend’s work, I always find instances where I’d change their punctuation (usually by adding a comma), but then it wouldn’t sound like them anymore.  I always found this especially difficult when I’d look at my mom’s writing; she writes more directly than I do, and is much more frugal with her commas than I am, so my inner editor would be distracted noticing all the perfect nesting spots for commas in her sentences.  Arguing about how to best punctuate is often like trying to convince someone that liking chocolate milkshakes is bad because strawberry milkshakes are good.  The trick lies in realizing that there’s more than one good way to do it.

So to return to my original point, the 600-odd words above notwithstanding, a day for punctuation just doesn’t excite me much.  As Vampire Weekend so deftly put it, “Who gives a fuck about an Oxford comma?”

[By the way, goofy over at bradshaw of the future always brings out his A-game for National Punctuation Day, and this year is no exception.  Go read it.  Now.]

Lest anyone think that it’s only since the invention of texting or the Internet that people confuse it’s and its, I just wanted to offer some evidence that it’s not. It comes in the form of an old TV idiom, the spinning newspaper:

authoritysong

This mistake graces the first few seconds of the music video for John Mellencamp’s “Authority Song”, which I hadn’t heard before last week but now have become completely infatuated with. The spinning newspaper editor, no doubt a bit addled from typesetting on a rotating headline, put in an apostrophe that doesn’t belong, using it’s when its is called for! (It’s also arguable that there ought to be an apostrophe after the s in workers, but I don’t find that strictly necessary because Mine Workers Strike could be a complex compound noun in the context of a headline.)

Here we’ve got an example of the its-it’s mistake from 1984, when the Internet was still ARPANET, and texting and instant messaging were unheard of, so it seems unfair to blame the modern state of it(‘)s confusion simply on the profusion of quick electronic communication. But, you might argue, weren’t there beepers and pagers around then? Couldn’t they, as stepping-stones toward full-blown texting, have laid the seeds of apostrophal destruction that are now bearing fruit? I don’t know, because Wikipedia didn’t make it obvious to me when the first pager became available in the commercial market, and information that’s not in Wikipedia isn’t really worth knowing. Maybe John Mellencamp’s 1984 newspaper gaffe was already due to the insidious influence of digital communication. But turns out that it actually goes even farther back, to the very inception of possessive its in the sixteenth century.

Of course, no one should be surprised that its-it’s confusion should predate modern speedy communication.  As the Oxford English Dictionary notes, it(‘)s first appeared in the sixteenth century as the combination of it and the genitive case marker ‘s, and it was “at first commonly written it’s“.  According to the OED, this spelling died out in the early nineteenth century, although Google Books reveals that attestations of possessive it’s continue from that point through to the modern day, albeit less commonly than in its heady early days.  Somewhere along the line, possessive it’s began to be regarded as the dispreferred form, and then later the grammatically incorrect form.

[Drifting off-topic, I loved the old archetypes that the kid adopts in the video: the miner with the head-mounted lamp, the butcher with the traditional apron/bowtie combo, the farmer dressed in flannel and overalls. They reminded me of the noble images of the workingman that I was raised with, the images I had as a child of millhunks and Rosie the Riveters, who worked in mines and mills and factories and returned home grimy and greasy and scarred. I couldn't help but wonder if I'm part of the last generation for whom these images aren't terribly outdated. Or perhaps they're out of date even within my generation; when I mentioned this idea to my girlfriend, she was surprised to learn that there were still operating mines in the U.S. Has a new modern image of the little guy displaced these old archetypes? Or have we lost a part of our collective soul with nothing to fill its void? And if I'm this nostalgic now, what will happen when I actually reach an age when nostalgia is justifiable?]

Summary: Don’t be too surprised that people use it’s when they ought to use itsit’s used to be the correct form, and it never completely died out, even after its became the grammatically correct choice for possession.

Suppose you were reading and came to the following line:

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

Would you …
(a) continue reading, because that’s a perfectly acceptable sentence, or
(b) throw a tantrum and insist that the author is an imbecile speeding the wholesale destruction of the English language?

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you’re probably answering (a). If you’re answering (b), I regret to inform you that you hate the writing of C. S. Lewis.

And if you’re the sort to answer (b), the sort of person who rages at the alleged grammatical buffoonery of your fellows, I’m sure it’s because you think you’re doing us all a favor, and that your condescending tone is justified because: first, you’re being helpful regardless of the tone you’re using; second, people only learn through negative conditioning, and so it is your duty, however unpleasant, to rub their noses in it to keep them from going on doing it; third, only a truly illiterate mouth-breather would be so moronic as to make such a mistake, and such imbeciles are below contempt and probably don’t even realize that you’re condescending to them anyway; and fourth, given the Heruclean effort you’ve put into learning the English language as impeccably as you did, it’s really only fair that you get to be a little self-satisfied and perhaps even gloat a smidge.

The only problem with this view is that all you’ve managed to learn about English is how to get your brain to release some satisfying endorphins every time you blindly regurgitate some authority figure’s unjustified assertion. You’re not helping; you’re just getting someone to pretend to agree with you long enough to shut you up. Or worse, you’re scaring people into submission to a point where they feel compelled to preface their speech with apologies for any unknown violence their words are committing against the presumed propriety of the language. Never forget, though, that language is the people’s. Your witless superstition will, by-and-large, be ignored by the speakers of the language, and the alleged impropriety will almost certainly win out in the end. Don’t mistake yourself for a brave defender of our language against the barbarians at the gates when, in truth, you’re nothing but a millennialist shouting about the end-times of the English language. Meanwhile, the world spins on, and the language flourishes, hale and hearty.

One great example of this situation is the shouting down of those who use singular they.  I’ve wanted for some time to have one place to send everyone who complains about singular they, a single page that can debunk whatever junk they’re peddling against it. There’s been lots of great stuff written about why singular they is acceptable, but every time I want to smash the arguments against it, I have to waste time jumping through old Language Log posts and books and whatnot, so I figured I’d finally go about summarizing it all. Without further ado, here’s the evidence for singular they, and why you ought to stop “correcting” it.

Historical usage: Geoffrey Chaucer is widely credited as the father of English literature. He was one of the first well-known authors to write in Middle English instead of the prevailing literary tongue, Latin, bringing legitimacy to the language. And, what’s this? Why, it’s a line from The Canterbury Tales, ca. 1400:

And whoso fyndeth hym out of swich blame,
They wol come up [...]“

It’s a little hard to tell in the Middle English, but whoso is a quantified expression, like whoever, that is syntactically singular, but then is paired to the syntactically plural they. So, since at least the beginnings of literary Middle English, 600 years ago, it’s been all right to use singular they. It’s been consistently attested since then; Henry Churchyard reports examples from the Oxford English Dictionary in 1434, 1535, 1643, 1749, 1848, and a wide variety of years in between. There has literally been no point since 1400 when singular they went unattested in contemporary English.

Usage by good writers: Lest one counter the historical point by claiming that it was a mistake or an illiterate usage, it should be noted that singular they has been employed by revered writers throughout its history. A list of examples from some such authors (including Chaucer’s and C. S. Lewis’s quotes above) is available on Churchyard’s site. Among the luminaries: Lewis Carroll, Walt Whitman, George Eliot, Shakespeare, William Thackeray, Jane Austen, and Oscar Wilde.   The Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage has still more examples for those who prefer their empirical data to be overwhelming.  And, if you subscribe to Mark Liberman’s one-liner “God said it, I believe it, that settles it,” you’ll be interested to see that the King James Version, along with the Tyndale, Bishop’s, and Geneva Bibles, along a range of other versions of the Christian Bible all employ singular theys.  (I’m not sure of the stance of non-Christian religious texts. I imagine no religion has a commandment disavowing singular they, but I have not studied comparative religion.)

Acceptance by authorities: So it’s historically attested, with usage by great writers. “But great writers are fallible!”, cries the grammaticaster*, ignoring the implication in this that the grammaticaster is substantially more aware of the rules of our language than its best writers. “Grammatical authorities agree that singular they is a barbarism!”

This appeal to imagined authority wouldn’t be convincing regardless, but it rings especially hollow when you realize it’s patently false. Certainly many prescriptivists assert that singular they is an affront to the language. Some even put it in books. Eric Partridge, for instance, says it’s so in Usage and Abusage, supplying exactly no argumentation for his opinion.

But The New Fowler’s, 3rd Edition, which carries on its front cover the subtitle “The acknowledged authority on English usage”, takes a neutral-to-positive stance on singular they, calling the issue “unresolved” but noting that it “is being left unaltered by copy editors” and that aside from pedants, “such constructions are hardly noticed any more or are not widely felt to lie in a prohibited zone.” [p. 776] (This is an especially interesting stance because it goes against Fowler’s own original position from 1926.) Grammar Girl also comes down unambiguously in favor it, if she’s your cup of tea.

Some old style guides even saw the light a century ago. An English Grammar by Baskervill & Sewell, originally published in 1896, states that while he is preferred to singular they in general, they is “frequently found when the antecedent includes or implies both genders. The masculine does not really represent a feminine antecedent [...]” (Italics in original.) Further, as an exercise, they give examples of singular they, and tell the reader, “In the above sentences, unless both genders are implied, change the pronoun to agree with its antecedent.” (Again, italics in original.)

There was even an article in Robert Hartwell Fiske’s fervently prescriptivist Vocabula Review arguing for singular they. The money quote: “We have seen that history is not on the side of those who would ban singular they from written texts; neither is logic; nor is majority rule.” If you needed an authority figure to tell you that singular they was all right, well, I hope you might find it harder to find one against singular they.

Singular/plural syntactic disagreement: Then, of course, there’re the self-styled logicians who say that they can’t be used with an indefinite pronoun like everybody because they have different numbers.  After all, you say they are but everybody is, and so that proves it.  A moment’s reflection shows that this argument is fallacious, especially if in that moment’s reflection you think of a sentence like

(1) My family stops by regularly, and they always bring pizzas.

My family is syntactically singular in American English, as seen in the conjugation of stopsThey is syntactically plural, as seen in the conjugation of bring.  And yet, (1) is a well-formed sentence, and the other option (“My family stops by regularly and it always brings pizzas”) sounds absurd.  The key point here is that it’s not the syntactic number, but rather the semantic number that matters.  And everybody is semantically plural, just like they.  Don’t believe me?  Consider this trio from Geoff Pullum:

(2a) Everybody knows each other.
(2b) They know each other.
(2c) *He knows each other.

Each other is a reciprocal pronoun that requires a plural antecedent, or in non-linguistic terms, whoever each other refers to has to be plural.  So it works in (2b), where it can refer to the semantically plural they, and it doesn’t work in (2c) with the semantically singular he.  Since (2a) is a grammatical sentence, we know that everybody can be semantically plural.  Since everybody can be semantically plural, we know that there’s nothing wrong with using they with it.  And, as we’ll see in the next section, this agreement only matters if you insist that everybody and they have a pronoun-antecedent relationship, which probably isn’t the right way of looking at it.

It’s not really a pronoun relationship anyway: The above argument supposes that they is a pronoun referring to a syntactically plural but syntactically singular quantified expression like everybody.  But what if you’ve got a semantically singular one like anybody? Is it essential that they and the quantified expression agree in number at all?  Steven Pinker argues that it isn’t:

The logical point that everyone but the language mavens intuitively grasps is that everyone and they are not an antecedent and a pronoun referring to the same person in the world, which would force them to agree in number. They are a “quantifier” and a “bound variable,” a different logical relationship. Everyone returned to their seats means “For all X, X returned to X’s seat.” The “X” is simply a placeholder that keeps track of the roles that players play across different relationships: the X that comes back to a seat is the same X that owns the seat that X comes back to. The their there does not, in fact, have plural number, because it refers neither to one thing nor to many things; it does not refer at all.”

And that’s the weird thing.  Here’re these pedants crying about how English has to adhere rigidly to logic, and they don’t notice the one time the language actually behaves like a system of formal logic.  The point is that singular they can behave non-referentially; it’s an entirely different word from the standard referential pronouns he or plural they in these cases.  In fact, Pinker notes that some other languages have different words for the two meanings.  Since this they doesn’t pick out any specific entity or entities, it functions like the variable x in the mathematical expression 2(x + 7).  Can he be used in the same way as they, as a bound variable?  Sure, but that leads to the next point.

he isn’t gender-neutral: Some claim that singular they is unnecessary because he is gender-neutral, and that this whole kerfuffle about singular they being in any way good or useful only came about when “arrogant ideologues began recasting English into heavy artillery to defend the borders of the New Feminist state.” That’s from an article in The Weekly Standard by David Gelernter, a computer science professor at Yale. See,

“Ideologues can lie themselves blue in the face without changing the fact that, to those who know modern English as it existed until the cultural revolution and still does exist in many quarters, the neutral he ‘has lost all suggestion of maleness.’”

Yep, back before the evil, scary cultural revolution of the 1970s, no one ever saw anything odd about gender-neutral he.  And we see this by the fact that back in 1896, when women couldn’t vote in the U.S., Baskervill and Sewell thought that he sounded weird with mixed company. And we see evidence in the fact that singular they has been used since Chaucer’s time.  No, wait, that’s the opposite of his claim!  Nuts!

If you really think that he is gender-neutral, you ought to find nothing wrong with the following sentences:

(3a) At the funeral, everyone was dressed to the nines, each wearing his swankest tie or nicest dress.
(3b) Is it your brother or your sister who can hold his breath for four minutes?

Geoff Pullum came up with (3b), and I think it’s the clincher. I just can’t picture any competent speaker of English saying it and thinking it correct.  Sometimes it might be the case that he is approximately gender-neutral, but it’s not so in the general case.  There are many such examples where he sounds bad compared to a truly gender-neutral pronoun.

Equal ambiguity: Some others, often members of the “Don’t start a sentence with since!” set, complain that another problem with using they with a quantified or generic expression is that it introduces ambiguity. For instance, who does they refer to in

(4) Everyone meeting the royal family said that they were gracious?

Yes, that’s ambiguous as to whether the visitors or the royal family were gracious. Yes, replacing they with he removes the ambiguity. But what about

(5) Everyone meeting the new principal said that he was gracious?

What’s this? He has led to an ambiguity?  Inconceivable!  Note that (5) wouldn’t be ambiguous with a singular they.  Like the Oxford comma, sometimes singular they introduces an ambiguity, but just as often it avoids an ambiguity. Ambiguity is par for the course with pronouns with multiple referents, anyway:

(6a) Bob asked Jim if he was fat.
(6b) The Romans befriended the Gauls, but they slew them.

These sorts of ambiguities are common, even in edited writing, because the surrounding sentences give context to the ambiguous sentence.  Pilgrim’s Progress, for instance, one of the most prominent books in English literature, has almost 40 examples of “they * them” (e.g., they overtook them, they seek to stifle them).  That’s a lot more examples than one would expect if this sort of ambiguity were so crippling.  So ambiguity in singular they isn’t a deal-breaker either.

Summary: You don’t have to use singular they yourself.  You can go ahead and re-work your sentences to avoid it. You can employ he or she, or s/he, or a made-up gender-neutral pronoun of your own devising like xe.  You can even just stubbornly plow on, using he as a gender-neutral pronoun until you grow tired of people pointing out that it isn’t really.  I don’t care, and you’re not grammatically wrong.  But you’re just making a fool of yourself when you go around telling users of singular they that they’re wrong, because they’re not.

*: Grammaticaster, by the way, is one of my new favorite words, learned from the book Dimboxes, Epopts, and Other Quidams. It refers to a “petty, self-styled export on grammar, usually a niggling, precise type who can stab a bony finger at a dangling participle or split infinitive but lacks a true appreciation of writing in all its riches and varied styles. The rule-conscious pedant who sees writing not as good or bad but as right or wrong.” Or as the OED more briefly puts it, “A petty or inferior grammarian. (Used in contempt.)”

**:The information above was compiled from a number of sources, most of which are mentioned in the post, but here’s a few others that I found useful and may or may not have linked to above:
Grammar Girl: Generic Singular Pronouns
Language Log: Shakespeare used they with singular antecedents so there
Language Log: Singular they with known sex
Language Log: “Singular they”: God said it, I believe it, that settles it.
Language Log: Lying feminist ideologues wreck English, says Yale prof
The Lousy Linguist: Singular ‘they’ is old, logical, and grammatical
Wikipedia: Donkey pronoun

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About The Blog

A lot of people make claims about what "good English" is. Much of what they say is flim-flam, and this blog aims to set the record straight. Its goal is to explain the motivations behind the real grammar of English and to debunk ill-founded claims about what is grammatical and what isn't. Somehow, this was enough to garner a favorable mention in the Wall Street Journal.

About Me

I'm Gabe Doyle, a graduate student/doctoral candidate in Linguistics at UC San Diego. I have a Bachelor's in math from Princeton and a Master's in linguistics from UCSD.

In my research, I look at how humans manage one of their greatest learning achievements: the acquisition of language. I build computational models of how people can learn language with cognitively-general processes and as few presuppositions as possible.

I focus on learning problems that have traditionally been viewed as difficult, such as combining multiple information sources or learning without negative data or ungrammatical examples. My dissertation models how children can use multiple cues to segment words from child-directed speech, and how phonological constraints can be inferred based on what children do and don't hear adults say.



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