everybody...their

Laurence Horn laurence.horn at YALE.EDU
Tue Apr 17 05:39:18 UTC 2001


>>The use of they and its forms with such antecedents is actually about 600
>>years old.
>
>Chaucer (ca. 1395, quoted from Jespersen in the M-W usage dictionary): "And
>whoso fyndeth hym out of swich blame, They wol come up ...."
>
>In more recent times, "their" (singular) has been routinely used not only
>for 'gender neutrality' but also for 'notional agreement'. E.g., in a poker
>game in the 1960's, in which no female has ever played (nor will ever play)
>and in which no player is interested in feminist politics, I can picture
>(and I can remember, I think) "Does everybody have their cards?" --
>although it's grammatically incorrect IMHO.


Here's one:

A player has to be responsible for their actions in this league
-(then-)Knicks General Manager Ernie Grunfeld

(The league in question is the all-male National Basketball
Association, not a merged league of NBA and WNBA players.)

But grammatically incorrect according to whose grammar?  Is this any
different from saying that everyone says "Who do you like?" "although
this is grammatically incorrect"?  If the claim is that the "their"
(with sex-indefinite or even sex-presupposed but non-specific
reference) is inconsistent with traditional usage, you're conceding
that it's not a valid claim.  If your claim is that it's "illogical"
to have a plural pronoun with a singular antecedent, Bodine and
others have observed that it's equally illogical to have a singular
masculine pronoun with a possibly female antecedent, or for that
matter (we might add) to ask "Who's there?" when you hear two people
knocking and shouting outside your door (rather than "Who're there?").
>
>I find this inoffensive as a casual usage, but I confess I am annoyed to
>see it self-consciously used in formal writing: I think I feel embarrassed
>for the writer who apparently feels that he is making some sort of
>political point or contribution in this manner.

Were the well-known feminists Chaucer and Shakespeare making the same
political point when they used "their" with singular non-specific
antecedents?

>...I think in these enlightened times English needs
>not only a common-gender word for "he/she" but also a
>gender-and-species-and-even-animateness-neutral third-person-singular
>pronoun.

See the Dennis Baron book cited earlier for the sad history of such
attempts to devise such a pronoun--he calls this "The word that
failed".

larry
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