E-Mail 'Real Grammar Quiz, Question 6: Is it OK to use "they" when referring to a singular person?' To A Friend

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3 Comments

  • The question “Is it better …?” could usefully be divided into three:
    1 Do you think it’s better to say X or Y?
    2 Do (you believe that) you personally say X or Y?
    3 Do you personally – actually, really – say X or Y?
    Number 3 would be interesting, especially in contrast with number 1, but could only be answered by stalking people with a microphone.

    Consider this scenario …..
    A: Look! There’s someone on that roof over there!
    B: So there is – I wonder what __________ doing?
    (‘Someone’ is a singular person, too far away for gender to be identifiable.)
    I don’t think many people would say “I wonder what he’s doing?” or “I wonder what he or she is doing?”

    I wonder whether people are inclined to like:
    1 We should give everyone a chance to say what they think
    more than:
    2 The winner will be given a cash prize and an all-expenses paid trip to our next conference, where they will be asked to present their project
    – because ‘everyone’, although it’s formally singular, refers to a plural number of people, whereas ‘the winner’ refers to a single person?

    As you say, “using a plural pronoun to refer to a singular entity violates the principle of concord”. But concord, like everything else in language, isn’t carved in stone; it’s inherently wobbly and subject to change.

  • Thanks Jonathan: stalking people with a microphone may be a bit extreme, but it has been proven that there is often a difference between what people *think* they say and what they actually do say when they’re not thinking about it. On your second point: the use of “they” feels more natural in relation to indefinite pronouns (like someone, anyone) than when the antecedent is a singular noun (like your example of “winner”). So, like most things in language, it’s not a binary right/wrong choice, but more of a spectrum.

  • “….in any other register it is the only natural thing to say, and is perfectly acceptable.”
    So here is a firm rule from the the non-prescriptivist!
    One criterion in deciding whether or not to adopt a common but recent usage (and perhaps the only useful one) is: Will it annoy the readers or make them think I am uneducated or lacking in linguistic taste? If the answer is yes, what I have to say may not be taken seriously.