Singular 'they'

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Rick Mansfield has started what looks to be an excellent series on his favorite Bible translations. So far he's done the HCSB and the TNIV. I have to say that I agree with him in the main, with some disagreements expressed in the comments. I'm especially appreciative to see him liking the TNIV for what it is and seeing what it's good for (enough for it to come in second place) while preferring a more formally equivalent translation for his own primary use, because that's exactly my own attitude.

In the comments on the TNIV post, I challenged one of Rick's statements. He says, "From a grammatical standpoint, one of the most controversial aspects of the TNIV's implementation of inclusive language is the use of plural pronouns for singular antecedents. This is in keeping with the way we informally speak, but technically it's a grammatical error." I responded that this use of 'they' is actually singular and pointed him to the linguists at the Language Log blog. He replied that he's never seen it in a grammar book and thus won't believe it until he does. I tried to respond, but Haloscan wouldn't let me leave a comment with lots of links, so I'm just posting it here instead.

Well, it is in a grammar book, The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language. Here is an interview where one of the authors of that book, Geoff Pullum, explains and defends the view on this issue taken in the book. Pullum also blogs at Language Log, and several posts there argue for this view. I managed to dig up a few posts on this here, here, and here.

There's also a strong history of the singular 'they', including a number of the finest writers of the English language and the KJV translators.

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I usually stay out of these controversies, not the least reason being I don't like to get too in-house here at Allthings2all. So in keeping with the focus of this blog, this post isn't mean ... Read More


Jeremy, I'm willing to meet you halfway on this. Although I'll admit I wasn't familiar with this book, there are a couple of things to point out about after reading the links you provided and looking at it on Amazon. Pullam's book is probably the first of what I've predicted in new grammar books that will begin to embrace the use of "they" and "their" for singular antecedents. From what I'm reading about the book the writers are attempting to break new ground here among the standard grammars. I've said before that we'll start to see this happening over the next decade. Thanks for pointing this book out to me. I may have to get a copy. The fact that it's published by Cambridge gives it some respectful weight. What will be interesting is to see if the standard dozen or so grammars that are used in college classrooms follow suit in the coming years. I would predict that they will.

Regarding historical use of "they" or "their" for singular antecedents, it's no secret that this has been done in the past. But two things need to be pointed out. (1) It's never advisable to judge historical writers by our sets of grammar rules because they are often working under different guidelines. And (2) as I often tell my students, a good writer can break grammar rules on purpose. Even Shakespeare's use of a "singular they" is not standard practice for him. I would suggest that he was doing it on purpose, but knew it was not normal usage.

The problem with most usage like this (such as the papers I grade) is that it's not on purpose, but done carelessly done without thought because we speak this way already. I teach my students the formal rules because I want them to think about the words they are using and how they are constructing their sentences.

[Ironically, Jeremy, now I'm having trouble posting to your comments. If this shows up more than once, please delete the extras.]

As I've said, language is going through tremendous changes right now. We start by changing the way we speak, then the way we write and eventually the grammar books catch up, don't you think?

I'm not sure why you couldn't leave links in my Haloscan comments. Usually I just type them out and they're there.

Thanks again for the book recommend. I’ll cross-post this on my site's comments for the folks reading there.

The comment issue isn't a problem. It's just a forced preview. Sometimes it gives the wrong message and makes it look like an error, but it's just forcing you to type in the code (and sometimes it makes you do it twice, for reasons I can't figure out).

It allowed links. It just didn't allow as many links as I wanted to do. It told me it was too many links.

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