By way of suggesting that I was misguided when I railed against the use of “they” with singular antecedents, Rifftides reader David Seidman directed me to a web log called Language Log. Language Log summons up the Bible and Shakespeare to make the case that “everyone” and “themselves” are good partners, and concludes, alliteratively:
This use of “they” isn’t ungrammatical, it isn’t a mistake, it’s a feature of ordinary English syntax that for some reason attracts the ire of particularly puristic pusillanimous pontificators, and we don’t buy what they’re selling.
If this argument interests you, here is Mr. Seidman’s communique, complete with links to Language Log entries on the matter and, for dessert, to an essay on Ray Charles and a language choice he made in a performance of one of his most famous specialties.
A covey of professors of linguistics operates a blog called Language Log. One of the professors wrote, some time ago, “Singular they, as we’ve repeated at tiresome length, has been sanctioned for centuries by the usage of esteemed writers, though it’s deprecated by some.” These blog posts cover singular they in the Bible and in Shakespeare, as well as some other things:
Some of the same material is covered in the Wikipedia article Singular They — Wikipedia notes the content is disputed (and the full notes on the disputes seem to be available).
While at Language Log (which I read regularly, perhaps less because I am interested in language than because the writers write well, interestingly, and often very amusingly), you might want to take a look at this entry, which has nothing to do with the singular they. It is an appreciation of Ray Charles’s magnificence, combined with an analysis of a linguistic error in his recording of “America the Beautiful” — the analysis includes a highly plausible discussion of the likely reasons why Charles made the error.
As for the Rifftides staff, it invites, or they invite, further discussion. Just click on the “Comments” link at the bottom of this item.
Have a linguistically satisfying weekend.
Jim Brown says
“As for the Rifftides staff, it invites, or they invite, further discussion.”
Ah — you have prospered to the extent that you have hired support staff. My congratulations!
Seriously though. I write technical specifications for sound systems, to be bid by contractors who are notoriously male. And I write email responses to technical questions posed by people working in live sound and theatre.
There are women working in this world, and I want to encourage folks to think of women as full citizens in this world. As someone who tries to write complete and cogent communications in our mother tongue, and to do so in a manner that is reasonably informal and unstilted, I continually run into situations where it is difficult to satisfy all of these concerns. As a veteran of the civil rights movement, I think about the importance of the changing of minds, and the many subtle things that contribute to the process.