Heard on The Judges: expansion of "sex-neutral they"

Arnold M. Zwicky zwicky at CSLI.STANFORD.EDU
Thu Apr 17 18:48:18 UTC 2008

On Apr 17, 2008, at 10:40 AM, Larry Horn wrote:

> At 1:26 PM -0400 4/17/08, Wilson Gray wrote:
>> Spoken by Judge David Young, but examples can be heard everywhere:
>> "You know how you can when _a_ male, sexist, inconsiderate _pig_ is
>> lying? _Their_ lips are moving."
>> _A woman_ clearly is getting ready to go out when _they_ start
>> putting
>> _their_ make-up on."
> Right, but "they" for *non-specific* indefinite referents (in
> sex-specified contexts) has in fact been around in informal use for
> quite some time.  I posted my collection of similar cases here a year
> or so back, IIRC.  A real expansion would be a "they" that picks up a
> *specific* indefinite referent--"A woman stood at the sink next to
> mine and started putting on their make-up".   Much more likely:  "A
> woman must have left their make-up kit in the bathroom", where the
> sex of the referent is given but her identity is unknown and
> non-vivid.

and "they" for anaphora to specific referents of known sex has been
reported.  geoff pullum has noted some cases on Language Log.  in

GP, 10/21/04: They are a prophet:

the antecedent is "this person" (in a context where the referent must
be male).   and in

GP, 4/26/07: Virginia, who said they would come:

the antecedents are proper names (like "Virginia") referring to
specific people of known sex; this is a usage that geoff finds
unacceptable, and i agree, but it seems to be gaining ground.  the
other examples from geoff are of several other types. in

GP, 1/3/06: Singular they with known sex:

the antecedent is "any girl who is interested", so this is a non-
specific indefinite case like the ones above.  and in

GP, 12/1/03: Postcard from Vegas, 2: syntactic data collection on the

the antecedent is the definite NP "Treasure Island", the name of a
hotel; this is a kind of notional agreement involving a metonymy, in
which the antecedent is viewed as "notionally plural".  meanwhile, in

GP, 11/16/07: Drivers and kings: A model answer:

the antecedent is "the driver" -- definite but understood
attributively rather than referentially, as pointed out in

AZ, 11/17/07: Definite descriptions:

the historical development seems to have been:
   1. "they" used as a common-gender and common-number pronoun (using
MWDEU's terminology); this usage is very old
   2.  "they" also used for non-specific indefinite reference and for
attributive definite reference, even where the sex of the referent is
clear; this usage appears to be more recent
   3.  "they" also used for anaphora in general, even to referential
definites and even when the sex of the referent is clear; this usage
seems to be very recent


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