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I’m a huge fan of NBC’s show Community, and over the last few months I’ve managed to get my entire family and core friends into it as well. That means going back and watching old episodes over and over again, which I can’t say I mind, especially since the show is forever on the verge of cancellation and there are likely precious few new episodes that I’ll be able watch over and over again. #SixSeasonsAndAMovie

In one episode, the study group that comprises the seven main characters is trapped in their group study room while a puppy parade goes on outside. The problem is that someone has stolen Annie’s pen and she won’t let anyone leave until it is returned. As tempers flare and the desire to see adorable becostumed puppies grows, Jeff attempts to reason with the unknown thief.

But what pronoun can Jeff use? The group is evenly split between men and women, so how will he handle English’s unfortunate lack of a singular ungendered human pronoun? Watch the video below, starting at 0:18, to find out (or just scroll to the transcription I put below it).

JEFF: Someone in this room is hiding your pen. Wanna know why? They feel terrible. They made a mistake. They waited too long to come forward and now they feel bad.
BRITTA: They should.

After all I said above about how awesome this show is, you might think this a kind of boring scene, and surely not a good one to convince you to watch it. But it’s the grammatical point that I’m concerned with, and it’s the mundanity of the dialogue that’s crucial to that. There’s nothing odd about this dialogue, despite all the singular theys in it, and we even see that Britta goes along with Jeff’s singular they in her response. It’d sound terrible with he or she replacing every they, and it’d sound like Jeff knew none of the women did it with he replacing every they.

Yes, singular they has shortcomings. So does he or she or “genderless” he or the various invented ungendered personal pronouns people have created. But singular they is natural in a way that the other options aren’t, and it’s the only reasonable solution in this dialogue.

Of course, I’m probably preaching to the choir here, so I hope you’ll forgive me if I’ve wasted your time.

Every time National Grammar Day comes around, I’m struck with a spot of dread. Any of my friends or acquaintances might, at any moment, spring upon me and shout “Hey! It’s totally your day! So don’t you hate when people use the passive voice, since you’re all into grammar?” And then I will be forced, as the crabby old coot I am, to meet their well-meaning inquiry with the level of vitriol normally reserved for a hairdresser who’s decided to treat your head as a testing ground for a new theory of hair design. “No,” I’ll shout, “that’s not it at all! I love the passive, I love variation! Grammar isn’t about telling people what they can’t say; it’s about finding out what people do say, and why they say it!” And through that outburst, my Facebook friend count will be reduced by one.

My problem with National Grammar Day (and most popular grammarians in general) is that it suggests that the best part of studying language is the heady rush of telling people that they shouldn’t say something. But if you really study language, you know that there’s so much more to it than that. Each time March 4th comes and goes, we’re missing an opportunity to show people how wonderful the field of linguistics is. So if you’ll permit me to steal a moment, let me show you the two papers that really made me fall in love with the field.

The first is from Murray, Frazer, and Simon: “Need + Past Participle in American English“, which is the first in a series of three papers on the Midwestern/Appalachian construction needs done (e.g., this article needs re-written, my cat needs washed). This paper made me realize how deep the rabbit-hole of colloquial and dialectal speech goes. (Sadly, you need a subscription to JSTOR to read it.)

The second paper is the one that launched me into the exciting world of alternation studies, Bresnan & Nikitina’s “On the Gradience of the Dative Alternation“. (This paper has since been superseded by revised versions, but I think this draft is still the best version for an alternations newbie.) If you ever have the chance, take a look at these papers. Maybe they won’t do anything for you, but then again, maybe they will, and maybe you’ll understand why I think so many celebrants of National Grammar Day are missing the point.

On to the meat of the post. As you might remember from last year, my favorite way to celebrate National Grammar Day is by debunking popular grammar myths. Here’re 10 facts about the English language that run counter to the rubbish that pedants prescribe. The first eight are from the last year of posts here at Motivated Grammar. The last two are from other sites. Explanations and justifications for the statements below are found by following the links, so if you disagree, please don’t grouse to me that I must be wrong until after you’ve read the reasons why you are.

Singular they is standard English. What’s wrong with the sentence Everyone celebrates today in their own way? Historical usage, contemporary usage, the usage of revered writers, acceptance by language authorities, analogous constructions, and issues of ambiguity all agree: absolutely nothing.

Slow is an adverb. It has been used as such for years, for centuries even. Shakespeare, Milton, and Thackeray all used adverbial slow, so it’s even fine with the literary set and style manuals. You may resume drinking Dr Pepper if you so choose.

People are using hopefully correctly. Hopefully has two distinct usages, one a regular adverb meaning “in a hopeful manner”, and the other a sentence-modifying adverb meaning approximately “I hope” or “With any luck”. The latter usage has been unreasonably derided, because it is a sentential adverb and it is a new meaning for an old word. But neither of those complaints is valid, especially since…

The meanings of words can and do change over time. Hopefully isn’t the only word with a new-meaning stigma; prescriptivists often vilify words that have sprouted new meanings. But this is a very standard part of the English language. In fact, not only hopefully, but also of course, snack, naturally, enthusiasm, and quarantine have all changed their meanings over time.

You can eat healthy food. This meaning was fine for 300 years, and then Alfred Ayers came along and declared it wrong. Of course, it was he who was wrong, but his edict has stuck around at the edges of prescriptivism ever since.

I’m good is good. Every once in a while, someone gives me guff about my careful avoidance of the phrase I’m well when I am asked how I am. There’s nothing wrong with I’m well, but it isn’t what I mean to say. There is also nothing wrong with I’m good, and it is what I mean to say.

Between and among differ not in number, but in vagueness. The rule that between can only be used with two items, and among with more than two, is specious. The real tendency of English favors between when the connections are conceptualized as being specifically between individuals, and among when the connections are more vague and collective.

An invite is informal, but hardly wrong. It’s a minor point, of course, but the noun has been around for 500 years. I mention this post mostly because there was a great discussion in the comments about the psychology of prescription.

And from others:

Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style isn’t a good grammar reference book. From Geoff Pullum. While Strunk & White are able dispensers of style advice, they drop the ball in their grammatical advice, and unfortunately, that’s what people use them for. Pullum explains why the 50th anniversary of the book should have been met not with celebrations, but with shaking heads.

Choosing between which and that is more interesting than you’d think. It’s nearing five years old now, but Arnold Zwicky posted about his understanding of different contexts in which which and that can be used as relativizers in a relative clause. It’s much more interesting and rewarding than just saying that which is to be limited to non-restrictive clauses. It’s also much more accurate.

Want more debunked myths? 10 more are available on last year’s post! See why 10 items or less, different than, and alright are all right. Want still more, preferably in fewer-than-140-character chunks? Follow Motivated Grammar on Twitter.

[Update 03/04/2011: For National Grammar Day 2011, I’ve listed another 10 grammar myths, addressing topics such as Ebonics, gender-neutral language, and center around.]

[Update 03/04/2012: And again for 2012. Ten more myths, looking at matters such as each other, anyways, and I’m good.]

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

Over break, I’ve had the chance to take advantage of my girlfriend’s cable TV, which means that I’ve had the chance to be utterly underwhelmed with the mediocrity of mid-day programming. On the plus side, though, I’ve been able to catch a few re-runs of shows I’ve often thought I ought to watch. One of these is WordGirl, a PBS show designed to convince kids that words are fun and cool and hip and so on. It’s full of the self-awareness and meta-jokes that my generation respects, not the sing-song dreck that made Barney and Teletubbies so horrendously popular amongst the younger generations. I still remember, upon first catching it, thinking that Power Puff Girls was the best kids’ show in history because of the way it played with the conventions of the genre — and I have to say that WordGirl manages to hit the same chord. Sure, I share Mark Liberman’s concern from 2007, when the show premiered, that WordGirl can be condescending when she corrects people’s word usages and that no doubt this will influence some viewers to become the judgmental prescriptivists that I so hate. But the show is surprisingly reasonable in its grammar.

In the episode I caught yesterday, the writers offered us linguists a conciliatory gesture. After being convicted of robbing a hair salon, the criminal mastermind Granny May was sentenced to house arrest.  This house arrest was to be served at the house of one of Granny May’s relatives, but Granny May was not told in advance whose house it was.  The house, which for some reason Granny did not recognize, was her mother’s, and the police were evidently being quite careful not to spoil the big reveal by giving away any details about the relative.  In fact, when they got to the front door of the house, the policewoman accompanying Granny May remarked that “we’re taking you to a relative’s house so they can watch you”. The policewoman was completely aware that Granny May’s mother was the only resident of the house, and that her mother was a woman, but to avoid revealing prematurely whose house they had taken her to, the policewoman chose to use the neuter pronoun they. (Note that, no matter what anyone tells you about he/him/her being gender-neutral, “so he can watch you” would not have worked in this situation.)

Good for WordGirl‘s writers. I’m glad to see them taking their case directly to language learners. If the kids agree that singular they is illogical and unacceptable, and stop watching the show, then I suppose the prescriptivists will be proven right. But I’ll bet dollars to donuts (both of which I am quite fond of) that kids will be fine with this eminently useful, historically well-attested, and entirely reasonable construction. Maybe at last we’ll be able to outgrow these stupid grammar myths.

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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, currently a postdoctoral scholar in the Language and Cognition Lab at Stanford University. Before that, I got a doctorate in linguistics from UC San Diego and a bachelor's in math from Princeton.

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. Currently, I'm working on models for acquiring phonology and other constraint-based aspects of cognition.

I also examine how we can use large electronic resources, such as Twitter, to learn about how we speak to each other. Some of my recent work uses Twitter to map dialect regions in the United States.

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