So goes the language

Rudolph C Troike rtroike at U.ARIZONA.EDU
Mon May 21 05:42:09 UTC 2001

Just in case you're not sure what to teach your students:

Date:    Sat, 19 May 2001 21:38:05 -0700
From:    Rudolph C Troike <rtroike at U.ARIZONA.EDU>
Subject: On the antiquity of "they/them/their" as common gender

Years ago, when I was studying Old Norse with the great scholar Lee
M. Hollander at the University of Texas, I read or was told that in Old
Norse, a pronominal reference to a group of males was masculine in gender,
and to a group of females was feminine, but a neuter pronoun was used for
a mixed group. Following the already-cited fact that modern second person
singular "you" was originally plural (as shown in the plural verb
agreement with "are"), we have a perfect (and, be it noted, also
sociolinguistically-motivated) historical model for the use of "they/them/
their/" as a gender-neutral singular pronominal reference. And, if you
remember your history of English, "they/them/their" comes from Old Norse/
        It has always amused me that we hang on so tenaciously to the
archaic masc/fem/neut distinction in singular pronouns (not distinguished
in most other languages), yet are oblivious to the fact that we ignore it
completely in the plural. Those who object to erasing the distinction in
the singular should start a campaign to distinguish the genders in the
plural for consistency, a la Old Norse.



Date:    Sun, 20 May 2001 08:16:57 -0400
From:    "Dennis R. Preston" <preston at PILOT.MSU.EDU>
Subject: Re: everybody...their

>My favorites are those that use singular "their" when the gender is
>specifically female (or male).  A student wrote, regarding Pope's "Rape of
>the Lock", "A coquette does not remain with one man long enough to lose
>their virginity."  And on NPR a speaker said, "Anyone who has borne a baby
>knows that they...."  I have forgotten the specifics of the incident, also
>on NPR, when the referent was necessarily male.
>At 09:09 AM 4/17/01 -0700, you wrote:
>>What about this one?  I have noticed during the past 20-25 years that the
>>use of "Everybody (everyone, each, somebody, etc...) has THEIR own way of
>>doing things" has steadily been replacing  "Everybody (etc)....HIS  own
>>etc" even in "learned discourse"  I attribute this to the influence of the
>>women's movement in making America more aware and sensitive to sexism in
>>society in general and in the English language in particular.  I have
>>tried to use "his/her" (clumsy as it is) as a way to preserve subject-verb
>>agreement, and I notice some others use "her" as a sort of
>>overcompensation; but with each passing year I see "their" picking up more
>>momentum in all corners, even in Academia.  Has this been picked up on any
>>"official radar?"  Is it in any usage dictionaries yet?  Are there any
>>other grammar formalists out there who cringe like I do when they hear this?

Why is the "their" in the "Anyone who has..." quotation necessarily
"singular"? I often treat the saame item as singular and plural in
the same sentence For example, I suspect "Does anybody want to leave
their coat in here?" to be my most likely expression of that idea.

Dennis R. Preston
Department of Linguistics and Languages
Michigan State University
East Lansing MI 48824-1027 USA


Date:    Sun, 20 May 2001 07:14:51 -0500
From:    "Robert S. Wachal" <robert-wachal at UIOWA.EDU>
Subject: Re: everybody...their

If you check Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English usage, you'll find that
it is a time-honored way of referring to people of either both or unknown


Date:    Sun, 20 May 2001 11:00:51 EDT
From:    Bapopik at AOL.COM
Subject: Re: everybody...their


   From Peter Vecsey's column in the NEW YORK POST, 20 May 2001, pg. 104,
col. 4:

   "Anyone can score 50 on my team twice in one series, but I'll be damned
if they'll do it a third time," Wilkens declared.

   Coach Lenny Wilkens was talking about Allen Iverson of the Philadelphia
76ers.  Damned if "he'll" do it a third time?


Date:    Sun, 20 May 2001 14:26:21 -0400
From:    Beverly Flanigan <flanigan at OAK.CATS.OHIOU.EDU>
Subject: Re: everybody...their

Singular "their" no longer bothers me in oral use, and I use it myself (I'm
fussier in writing but try to avoid the dilemma by using plural
referents).  The British-based textbooks I often use have adopted singular
"their" (S. Romaine and, I believe, P. Trudgill), as has the Queen in her
speeches (by whoever writes them).  But I'm increasingly seeing a
hypercorrection that goes:  "The students all said he/she would go and
wrote his/her name ...."  And to add insult to injury, the spelling is
often "s/he" or "his/er."  Now THIS bothers me!

Beverly Olson Flanigan         Department of Linguistics
Ohio University                     Athens, OH  45701


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