About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is a Professor of Political Science and a College of Arts and Sciences Dean. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective.
He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog).
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Strict grammarians are just people with an outdated sense of fashion.
Jane Austen would be amused; this usage was common for her.
— Chaucer, The Pardoner’s Prologue
— Shakespeare, Hamlet
The singular they has been a part of the English language since before modern English even existed. It is, like a number of other grammatical “rules”, merely an affectation that became popular during the Victorian Era. Demanding people continue to abide by it is the linguistic equivalent of demanding women go back to wearing hoopskirts lest we all be ruined by the sight of their ankles.
At the college where I teach, occasionally, we are advised to use “they” to refer not to transgender students, who identify as male or female, but as a courtesy to students who feel they have more than one entity residing in them.
@Tillman: “Strict” grammarians are sometimes merely insecure teacher types who gain self-image by trying to impose their will on others. As a field of study, grammar examines what others hear or read compared to what you said/wrote and meant and make suggestions about how the compress the gap.
@Stormy Dragon: I noticed that “problem” while I was studying grammar in grad school. My teacher’s response was to note that grammarians refer to “conventions” rather than “rules” for the reason that I had just observed.
@CSK: Wow! I’m gobsmacked.
@Stormy Dragon: The other thing that I would note is that the they in each of your examples may not actually be singulars but may only represent count shifts. In the case of the Chaucer, the whoso is non-count and can be either collective (and singular) or ambiguous–in which case the word refers to any person or persons and might require a plural replacement for clarity. In the case of Hamlet, since the mother in the quote in only generic “a mother” it makes more sense to use “they” for typical mothers, than “she,” creating an exclusive “only mother who will misinterpret (?) what is said.”
(That was fun, I haven’t done that since I left Korea almost a year ago.)
@Just ‘nutha ig’rant cracker:
Well, we’re very progressive. I would guess about 2 out of 1350 students every year or so want to be referred to as we/they/them. But they forget a lot of the time and refer to themselves as “I.” Or “me.” We once had a student who insisted that she/he changed from female to male five or six times in the course of a single day, not on any fixed schedule, which made it difficult to keep up. Everyone was relieved when he/she graduated.
1) Besides the fact that about 80% of people use it this way, I became completely convinced it would become official when someone pointed out to me that “you” used to be (always) plural.
2) As someone else pointed out above as a sidenote, it’s great for transgenders.
3) I am still somewhat sympathetic to strict grammarians in some situations, because precise language is sometimes needed (the law, for example). And some standards are good, otherwise I think you risk ending up like India, where nobody can understand other dialects of the same language. On the other hand, that’s unlikely to happen now in the modern age of instant worldwide communication.
I would say it somewhat differently: I am a descriptivist in broad outline and for purposes of science, but a prescriptivist when it comes to communication. Just as “a Scottish gentleman is someone who knows how to play the bagpipes — but doesn’t”, I believe it is best to avoid unintentionally employing nonstandard or deprecated usages. If that means learning “proper English” as a foreign language, well, people have been doing that for a very long time. It’s no different from (in my day) learning to tie a necktie and look comfortable in a suit — arbitrary, but with very real life consequences.
@CSK: Do they contradict themselves? Very well, then they contradict themselves. They are large, they contain multitudes.
@Gromitt Gunn: The only people who should refer to themselves in the plural are editors and people with tapeworms.
I don’t like using “they” as singular and often replace it with the word “one”. Which gives my writing a definitely old-fashioned and legalistic tone, but hey, that’s the breaks.
There’ll be wigs on the green before this is all over!
@Gromitt Gunn: @grumpy realist: Walt Whitman and Mark Twain FTW…
@grumpy realist: You can’t always do that.
“Someone dented my car last night. I hope karma gets them!”
Replacing “them” with “one” doesn’t make sense. You could replace it with “that someone”, which is almost as clumsy as “him or her”.
P.S. Notice also that I have applied punctuation marks outside of quotes in the last paragraph, as it logically should be in these particular cases. (My understanding is that the Brits sometimes do it this way.)
@CSK: Some people have an internal sense of gender that lies somewhere on the spectrum between the binary ‘male’ and ‘female’. For some, their sense of gender can drift across that spectrum. They fit under the umbrella term ‘transgender’, but many have appropriated the term ‘genderqueer’ to describe themselves. They don’t have multiple personalities. They are individuals and their use of ‘I’ and ‘me’ is appropriate.