Monday, May 16, 2011

Left hand, meet right hand

From the preview for the (subscription only) May issue of The Vocabula Review, emphasis added:
Perhaps nothing in the fetid grammatical atmosphere we are all breathing is more disturbing than the frequent presence of so-called singular they. This should be seen as plain error but is tolerated by some … ("Another Plea for Avoidance of 'Singular They,'" by Robert Hollander) 
The English journalist Malcolm Muggeridge -- a first-rate, if underappreciated writer -- believed success could be had only in second-rate pursuits -- like becoming a millionaire or a prime minister. First-rate pursuits involved "trying to understand what life is about" and therefore must inevitably result in a sense of failure. Thus could a Napoleon or a Roosevelt feel themselves successful, but a Socrates, never. (“Too Wretched for Words,” by Christopher Orlet)

11 comments:

Bryan M. White said...

I'm guilty of frequently using the singular "they". Our P.C. culture has driven me to it. Using "he" as a generic pronoun when the gender is unspecified or unclear seems to wreak of chauvinism, and as far as "he or she" or the even worse hybrid "he/she"...no, I can't do it.

Jonathon said...

Oh, sweet irony.

Stan said...

I frequently use singular they (and their and them), but I feel no guilt about it whatsoever. The usage has been well established for centuries, in formal and literary contexts as well as casual speech.

Q. Pheevr said...

That first quotation is an example of why I will never pony up for a subscription to the Vocabula Review. It's a shame, though, because the second article looks as if it might be interesting.

David Craig said...

What baffles me is the shunning of the singular themself. No one has any problem with a singular yourself, why is there a problem with singular themself?

Sean said...

David, I think that actually reinforces the issue. People don't use themself (not that I've heard) because whilst reference might be being made to a singular person, them is not singular. In much the same way that myselves is obviously incorrect. However, you can hear the reflexive themselves being used as singular. I suppose our options are to use he and not they at the risk of being non-PC, he/she at the risk of being overly verbose or fussy. Personally I think I'll just remove any human element and simply use it...

Anonymous said...

Singular "they" has a long (15th-century!) and distinguished pedigree in English, used widely by Austen, Chesterfield, Shakespeare ("God send every one their heart's desire!"[Much Ado About Nothing, III.4] and elsewhere), Fielding, Durrell, Wilde, and further dozens of the brightest lights in the language.

Warsaw Will said...

I not only happily use singular they, which I consider much more elegant than any of the alternative solutions, but happily teach it as well. In TEFL it's considered totally standard.

And @Bryan, it goes back a lot further than PC or being non-sexist, and is the natural accompaniment to anyone, someone etc - If anyone wants more cake, can they just help themselves.

John Burgess said...

Singular 'they' may have a rich heritage, but it sounds wrong to my ears; looks wrong to my eyes. So, I don't use it. Others may and I won't get upset, but it may trigger a red flag that keys higher altertness to subsequent transgressions from the norm.

I'm generally happy, too, writing 'he' when a generic is needed. If I must, I'll go to the ugly but utilitarian 's/he'.

The Ridger, FCD said...

So which pronoun do you use in "If everyone is present, let ___ take __ seat"? Him and his, I presume.

How about "When everyone heard the fire alarm, ___ ran out of the building"?

John Lawler said...

I wrote a column about this a while back.
http://www.umich.edu/~jlawler/June05Eye.pdf