government they

Michael Newman michael.newman at QC.CUNY.EDU
Sun Oct 16 19:29:45 UTC 2011

It seems like a pretty standard singular they. It's a "whoever is the president."  Let's not get all prescriptivist here.
Michael Newman
Associate Professor of Linguistics
Queens College/CUNY
michael.newman at

On Oct 16, 2011, at 8:32 PM, Joel S. Berson wrote:

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> Sender:       American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU>
> Poster:       "Joel S. Berson" <Berson at ATT.NET>
> Subject:      Re: government they
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> At 10/16/2011 12:18 PM, Victor Steinbok wrote:
>> There is a barely noticeable quibble Dan Drezner posted this morning. He
>> is responding to Herman Cain's "foreign policy" (which he says is
>> nonexistent, but that's another matter entirely).
>>>>    The primary duty of the President of the United States is to
>>>>    protect our people. In fact, it is the principal duty of a
>>>>    limited federal government. They must ensure that our military
>>>>    and all of our security agencies are strong and capable.
>>> I'm with you so far, Mr. Cain -- my only objection is your odd pronoun
>>> choice of "they."
>> The first paragraph is Cain's, the second Drezner's. Personally, I don't
>> see anything particularly odd about the choice of "they", irrespectively
>> of whether it refers to "the President and a limited federal government"
>> or just the "government". The latter might sound more British than SAE,
>> but I'd be perfectly happy to use it. But, I suspect, Drezner totally
>> missed the possibility of the former--which would make /his/ comment
>> "odd". YMMV
> But the ultimate limited federal government is
> singular -- just one person.  Cain, who is
> otherwise alleged to be direct, should have said "he" (or ït").
> Joel
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