This post is one in a series about The Negative Canon.
In my last post I considered the question of agreement with collective nouns. Another question of number arises with the use of they. (When I say they I mean them, their, theirs and themselves as well, and, for convenience, I refer to all of them as pronouns, although their is a possessive determiner, and theirs and themselves are different types of pronoun.) Some people still seem to think that they can refer only to a plural antecedent. Thus, they would claim, it has to be, for example, Any student who is ill must obtain a certificate from his or her doctor. That is perfectly grammatical, but – and I concede this is a subjective judgement – it’s awkward, and becomes more so in an extended text:
Any student who is ill must obtain a certificate from his or her doctor. He or she should inform his or her tutor of the situation, and if he or she has an assignment outstanding, he or she should ensure that he or she completes it as soon as he or she has recovered.
Two alternatives are sometimes used. One is the use of he/she and his/her. Another is the alternate use of the masculine and feminine pronouns. I find the first visually unattractive, and the second distracting. Both are unnecessary when a perfectly good gender-neutral pronoun is available in they which R L Trask in ‘Mind the Gaffe’ calls ‘a brief and elegant solution’. It allows our example to become:
Any student who is ill must obtain a certificate from their doctor. They should inform their tutor of the situation, and if they have an assignment outstanding, they should ensure that they complete it as soon as they have recovered.
If you really can’t stomach that, then it is usually possible to make the whole thing plural:
Any students who are ill must obtain a certificate from their doctor. They should inform their tutor of the situation, and if they have an assignment outstanding, they should ensure that they complete it as soon as they have recovered.
That may often be a pragmatic solution, but there will be occasions when the singular form is preferred for stylistic reasons.
Those who object to singular they do so in the face of many authorities. The Oxford English Dictionary comments that they and its derivatives are:
. . . often used in reference to a singular noun made universal by “every”, “any”, “no”, etc., or applicable to one of either sex.
In ‘The Cambridge Guide to English Usage’, Pam Peters writes of the use of various avoidance strategies that:
. . . that kind of response to singular ‘they’/’them’/’their’ is no longer shared by the English-speaking population at large. Writers who use singular ‘they’/’them’/’their’ are not at fault.
In her advice to users of international English, she concludes:
The appearance of singular ‘they’/’them’/’their’ in many kinds of prose shows its acceptance by English writers generally. It recommends itself as a gender-free solution to the problem of agreement with indefinite pronouns and noun phrases.
The ‘Longman Student Grammar of Spoken and Written English’ is a little more guarded:
The use of ‘they‘ referring back to a singular personal noun or pronoun is common in conversation. In serious writing, however, it is often avoided as ‘incorrect’, because a commonly accepted ‘rule’ of pronoun concord states that the pronoun should agree with its antecedent noun phrase in number, as well as in gender. However, there has been a growing adoption of this use of they in written texts.
Even Harry Blamires in ‘The Penguin Guide to Plain English’ is less heated on the topic than some of his other entries might lead the reader to expect. Of the use of ‘their‘ to refer back to ‘every one ‘he writes ‘This practice has now become established.
The detailed article in ‘Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage’ concludes:
‘They’, ‘their’, ‘them’ are used in both literature and general writing to refer to singular nouns, when those nouns have some notion of plurality about them.
The question has become more acute in recent decades because of the reasonable objection that the traditional use of the masculine pronoun is non-inclusive. That, however, is not always the reason why the plural is preferred. The Merriam-Webster article covers the case where the antecedent may be male or female, but also where singular nouns are ‘used in such a way that the singular stands for and includes any or all’. One of the citations illustrating this use is from Bernard Shaw:
No man goes to battle to be killed. – But they do get killed.
As the authors comment:
It would be a violation of English idiom to use a singular pronoun in the second sentence . . . on the assumption that because ‘no man’ is singular in form and governs a singular verb, it must take a singular pronoun in reference.
Once again, we see those who have spent time researching the question lined up against those who have not. If I want an opinion on contract law or on precambrian geology or on the causes of rheumatoid arthritis I consult a specialist in the subject. I don’t listen to the talkative bloke I met down the pub. What you do?
For any who remain in doubt, or who think that singular they is an invention of the nasty modern age, this website provides an illuminating historical perspective.
A further development in the use of they is its use, reported on Language Log:
. . . in reference to a specific, definite, known person, as in ‘Kim helped themself to another piece of cake’, or ‘Sandy said they [meaning Sandy] left their cell phone on the table’. Or an exchange like this one: ‘A: Is Mary coming to dinner? B: No, they texted me to say that they’re not feeling well.’
In an earlier Language Log post, Geoffrey Pullum expressed his view that the use of they where the antecedent is a proper name ‘sucks canal water’. The example he was considering was:
Dr Gerald Black has applied for a position of Lecturer in the Department of Criminology at the University of Penzance. I would be grateful if you could provide a reference on their suitability for this post.
You can see his point.