Laurence Horn laurence.horn at YALE.EDU
Wed Apr 18 11:15:18 UTC 2001

At 3:39 PM -0400 4/18/01, Douglas G. Wilson wrote:
>>>>"A player has to be responsible for their actions in this league." --
>>>>Ernie Grunfeld
>>"No mother should be forced by federal prosecutors to testify against
>>their child." -- Monica Lewinsky's mother's attorney
>These persons may be trying to make a generalized reflexive pronoun,
>something English sadly lacks. I see no reason to prefer it over "his" or
>"her" respectively in these examples.

No particular reason, but these examples seem to indicate that (for
better or worse) a possessive pronoun (I wouldn't call "their" a
reflexive, but some speakers may do similar things with "themself" in
other syntactic contexts) bound by a singular quantifier is
increasingly realized as "their", even when the sex of the possessor
NP is predictable.

>>"I can't help it if somebody doesn't want their husband and then somebody
>>besides them decides they do." -- Pamela Harriman
>This person apparently suffers from aphasia, possibly as a result of
>chronic abuse of third-person plural pronouns.

Well, use of "they" and "their" in such cases does make it easier on
the speaker, although arguably a bit trickier for the hearer.  The
"they" does make the "victim", i.e. the deceived wife, a bit more
impersonal and far away than "she" would do.  Marginally, it might
also be observed that out of the blue "...if somebody doesn't want
her husband" could be interpreted as 'if a woman x doesn't want a
woman y's husband', while "...if somebody doesn't want their husband"
can only be interpreted as a non-specific bound pronoun, i.e. if a
woman doesn't want her own husband.  I'm sure Doug wouldn't view this
as a valid argument for the use of "their husband" in such cases, but
perhaps on some level a Pamela Harriman-type speaker might.  I think
the first motivation is stronger--the "their" is used to attenuate
the reality of the deceived wife.

>>(#)I've met this hot Transcendental Grammarian, Chris Jones, in my bi chat
>>room and I'm totally smitten with them.
>(#)Chris e-mailed me a picture of themself; they have the sexiest mullet!

Nice one!  I think we'll have to borrow that (with accreditation, of
course) when we get around to writing our paper up.

>>>... I contend that "he" acts both as masculine and as common-gender pronoun.
>>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 ....
>Well, you have to know who your audience is. I'm sure many male and female
>readers would interpret "parasitic reference" as something referring to
>vermin. Usually the context will clarify the pronoun's sense. In doubtful
>cases, "he/she" or "him or her" or something will usually be clear --
>usually more clear, I think, than the third-person pronouns. Of course
>different persons may have different opinions about what "sounds good".
>>Man is the only mammal that is embarrassed by his {nakedness/sexuality}
>>#Man is the only mammal that is embarrassed by his pregnancy.
>I would prefer "its" instead of "his" in these (in fact I consider "its"
>correct). I concede half of a "#" with "pregnancy" even then. I'll concede
>a whole "#" however for "Unlike other mammals, man is embarrassed by his

Well, I myself don't get "its" as a sex-neutral animate in such
cases, at least not for human reference.  "its pregnancy?"

>>#Man, being a mammal, breast-feeds his young.
>I give this one a whole "#". To me, however, "man" used in this fashion is
>borderline archaic/poetic/polemical/religious and not generally appropriate
>for science (perhaps my perception here is idiosyncratic), and the clash
>between the word and its context provides some of the unnaturalness.

Is this more scientific than the above "Man is the only mammal that
is embarrassed by his nakedness/sexuality"?  (or "self-conscious
about his emotions", whatever)
Or "Man, being an animal, must secure his food and shelter"?  For me,
the "his" doesn't sound anomalous in such cases (although it might be
objected to on various grounds), but it does sound anomalous in the
breast-feeding and menstruating examples, where there's a conflict
between the image constructed and the (NON-common-gender) "he".

>>[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
>>(16)    #Any boy or girl who thinks that he knows the answer
>>(17)    The candidate may ask you about local employment options for #his
>>husband or wife.
>>(18)    Every child should be taught how to wash his {private
>>         #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 answer
>>(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.
>The third-person word does the job in these examples, I admit. Still, I
>find the results repulsive (others may find them elegant). There is very
>seldom the need to use an expression with "or" in the first place, which is
>what gets one into this mess. I prefer the following:
>(16")  Any person who thinks that he knows the answer
>(17")  The candidate may ask you about local employment options for his or
>her spouse.
>(18")  Every child should be taught how to wash his or her genitals.

That's actually my point--the incompatibility of "his" (as opposed to
"his or her" or "their") with any antecedent that renders a possible
female referent salient.  "Any person" doesn't do so, and thus
permits "he"; "Any boy or girl" as subject or "husband and wife" as
possessed nominal does, and so rules out the unadorned "he" or "his".
This supports the claim that "he" is NOT a common gender pronoun, or
else the #'d examples in (16)-(18) would all be impeccable.  I agree
that a number of the "he or she"/"his or her" examples can sound
awkward, I agree that many object to the indiscriminate flowering,
especially in formal prose, of "they"/"their" with quantified or
indefinite antecedents (even in examples with plural semantics, as
with "Every" subjects), and I also agree that alternative
formulations of a given sentence (especially in written English when
you have time to edit) can often avoid the problem.  My point here is
that (i) "he"/"his" is not truly a "common gender" pronoun, (ii) its
employment in the relevant contexts is not a viable alternative, for
both sociological and linguistic reasons, and (ii) like it or not,
"they"/"their" is often used in such contexts, and increasingly so.


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