Etymology: "They" revised continued

Laurence Horn laurence.horn at YALE.EDU
Fri Jan 11 02:36:50 UTC 2002

At 8:03 PM -0600 1/10/02, carljweber wrote:
>Etymology: "They" revised continued
>Michael Newman said:
>2) In contemporary English, one of a number of principles governing
>pronoun agreement is that use of the they, them, etc. tend to signal
>generic (i.e., general, abstract, nonspecific) referents. Use of the
>singular forms signal individuated ones. This is why it is possible
>to find singular they with sex-definite referents, as indeed I have from a
>variety of places when that referent is clearly generic. It is also
>difficult to get sex-indefinite ones with specific referents whose sex
>happens to be unknown.
>I think:
>It would be nice to see one or two of your favorite examples, Michael.

I'm sure Michael has his own examples, but I've been collecting a few
in which "they" is used for sex-known but nonspecific antecedents.  I
posted a few here the last time we were discussing this, back in
April 2001, but they're germane to this point raised by Carl, so
here's an excerpt from that post:


In a paper Steve Kleinedler and I gave a couple of LSAs ago [Jan.
2000], "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

["A player has to be responsible for their actions in this league." --
Ernie Grunfeld, then general manager of the all-male New York Knicks]

or these (where "their" is female in reference):

"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 [the 'their', 'them' and 'they' are all sex-known
but non-specific]

"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 my (constructed) example

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

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