Laurence Horn laurence.horn at YALE.EDU
Tue Apr 17 12:29:46 UTC 2001

At 3:27 PM -0400 4/17/01, Douglas G. Wilson wrote:

>>"A player has to be responsible for their actions in this league." --
>>Ernie Grunfeld
>What would Mr. Grunfeld say if asked about this utterance? [I have no idea;
>I've never met him.]
>He might say: "Oops, I meant 'his'." [OK, we all make boo-boos.]

Only if it's a "performance error" rather than a fact about his
idolect, an idiolect which is by no means unique to him.

>He might say: "I feel one should use 'their' in all cases, to advance
>sexual equality." [OK, each man has his notions, but I don't have to like

doubtful, given what I know about Ernie Grunfeld; in any case, no
similar explanation is available for the "female" THEIRs exemplified

>He might say: "I think the plural pronoun must be used since 'actions' is
>plural." [If my opinion were solicited, I would strongly object.]
>He might say: "I meant that each individual player must be responsible for
>the actions of all the players." [Hmm ....]
None of the above, I'd wager.

In a paper Steve Kleinedler and I gave a couple of LSAs ago,
"Parasitic Reference vs. R-based Narrowing:  Lexical Pragmatics Meets
He-Man", we noted the tendency to use THEY/THEIR as "increasingly the
pronoun of choice even for non-specific singular antecedents of known
sex", as in the Grunfeld example or these (where "their" is female in

I can't help it if somebody doesn't want their husband and then
somebody besides them decides they do.
  -"Serial mistress" Pamela Harriman, quoted in The Mistress, by
Victoria Griffin

No mother should be forced by federal prosecutors to testify against
their child.
-Monica Lewinsky's mother's attorney

On the other hand, as we also argued, "when the sex is unknown but
the referent sufficiently specific or individuated, the they often
seems not entirely successful, even when it would come in handy", as
in our (constructed) example

(#)I've met this hot Transcendental Grammarian, Chris Jones, in my bi
chat room and I'm totally smitten with them.

If we're right about these claims, the use of singular THEY/THEIR is
more complicated than just a feminist plot.

>Such observations are incorrect IMHO. I contend that "he" acts both as
>masculine and as common-gender pronoun. Furthermore, grammatical gender
>need not correspond to sexual characteristics of the referent.

One problem I have with this claim is the extensive empirical
literature that indicates that "common-gender he" is interpreted by
both male and female hearers and readers as masculine, and tends to
exclude female referents.  Another is the theoretical argument that
tends to show that neither HE nor (especially) MAN is really common
gender in practice, specifically if one can't construct a male
exemplar or image.  (Actually, that AHD4 usage note under MAN says
something similar.)  I provide some additional data at the end of
this note.

>  >Were the well-known feminists Chaucer and Shakespeare making the same
>political point when they used "their" with singular non-specific antecedents?
>I don't think so. As in the case of Grunfeld, I haven't met these
>gentlemen, though. Use in quoted dialogue would not have the same
>implications as self-expressive use, of course. And my (or our) grammar may
>deviate a little from Shakespeare's and a lot from Chaucer's.
No doubt, but my point is that the tradition of sex-neutral
indefinite "singular" THEY is older and at least as well-established
as that of mandated "common gender" HE, which was instituted (as
Bodine and others show) in the 18th century by (male) grammarians who
wore their political agenda clearly on their sleeves.

Well, on the bright side, it's nice that I've finally found a subject
I can disagree with Doug about; I was beginning to think we were the
same person.

P.S.  Additional data and discussion from the Horn & Kleinedler
(2000) paper mentioned above.  As usual, # indicates bizarreness or
"Given the traditional default of adult males as the prototype
members of the category HUMAN, we predict that when and only when a
male image can verify a proposition, the quasi-generic man is
reasonably acceptable.   As shown by the contrasts in (14), however,
when world knowledge rules out verification by (adult) male
exemplars, the quasi-generic is excluded, no matter how strongly the
local context encourages a generic interpretation."

Man is the only mammal capable of suicide.
Man is the only mammal capable of rape.
#Man is the only mammal that menstruates.
Man is the only mammal that is embarrassed by his {nakedness/sexuality}
#Man is the only mammal that is embarrassed by his pregnancy.
#Man, being a mammal, breast-feeds his young.     (from Miller &
Swift 1991: 29)

(14')  #Everyone should be able to decide for himself whether or not
to have an abortion.
-New York state legislator cited by Treichler & Frank (1989: 162) inter alia;
a similar quotation has been attributed to Sen. S. I. Hayakawa (R-Cal.).

[Data showing that HE/HIS is awkward or impossible in situations
where a female referent has been rendered salient (but where truly
common gender THEY/THEIR is possible, modulo prescriptivist
complaints about number disagreement):]

(16)    #Any boy or girl who thinks that he knows the answerŠ

(17)    The candidate may ask you about local employment options for
                his spouse/#his husband or wife.

(18)    Every child should be taught how to wash his {private parts/genitalia}.
        #Every child should be taught how to wash his penis or vagina.

Note in particular that semantic equivalence-the fact that x is y's
spouse iff x is y's husband or wife-is  irrelevant.   When the
quasi-generic (but prototype-evoking) he/his is replaced by the true
sex-neutral they/their, the sex-linked bizarreness disappears,
although the traditional ire of the prescriptivists may not be so
easily assuaged.

(16')   Any boy or girl who thinks that they know the answerŠ

(17')   The candidate may ask you about local employment options for
                their husband or wife.

(18')   Every child should be taught how to wash their penis or vagina.
-------------- next part --------------
An HTML attachment was scrubbed...
URL: <http://listserv.linguistlist.org/pipermail/ads-l/attachments/20010417/150f58ae/attachment.html>

More information about the Ads-l mailing list