Grammatical Number

Larry Horn laurence.horn at YALE.EDU
Thu May 6 18:57:47 UTC 1999

At 10:49 PM -0400 5/5/99, William H. Smith wrote:
>We all know that English has shifted from grammatical number (e.g.
>"everyone"--"he" unless all of "everyone" is female) to natural number
>("everyone"--"they"), so that not any +Human noun of unspecified sex takes a
>plural pronoun.  Have you noticed that this change is extending to any
>+Human, even when sex is specified?  In answering a test question on Pope's
>"Rape of the Lock," a student of mine wrote that "a coquette does not stay
>with one man long enough to lose their virginity."  Some time ago I heard an
>NPR commentator say "Any woman who has given birth...they...."  Today an NPR
>reporter in Denver said that "Each of them [Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold]
>took their own life."  Does anyone else have examples of this shift to a new
>form of grammatical number?
Unfortunately I don't seem to be able to find the relevant clipping, but I
had one from the Times several years ago in which a National Hockey League
coach explained that "Every player on the team has to understand their
defensive assignment" or something of the sort.  Clearly not a sex-neutral
"they", but a non-specific one.  I suspect it's not all that new, either.


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