Sunday, January 13, 2013

singular "their" and the grammar wars

English is, in many ways, a deeply strange language. One of its more overtly unusual features is its profound lack of inflection compared to other languages; that is, English lacks many morphological features that convey information about person, gender, and number. So our verbs, for example, inflect for number only in the case of third person present tense-- I walk, you walk, they walk, but he or she walks. Contrast this with a language like Italian; part of the reason an Italian poet like Dante could write a three-volume epic poem in terza rima is because the Italian morphology adds suffixes with similar endings far more often than English does. There are languages with even less morphology than English; most Chinese languages and dialects are almost entirely morphologically inert. On another extreme is a language like Latin, which has long terrorized high school students with its absurd number of cases, declensions, moods....

English's lack of inflectional morphology has consequences. One of them is the attendant need for a fairly rigid syntax, the structural position of morphemes within a sentence, to convey the necessary information needed to decode the sentence. If you're writing a poem in Latin, you have remarkable freedom to move words around within a sentence, as (usually) the inflections carry the information necessary to determine the relationships within the words. Case markings, for example, denote subject-object relationships. But in English, we only have case markings for pronouns (which here I will use to refer to personal pronouns)-- he/him, she/her, I/me. (In fact English had a broader case structure, but it was lost in the transition from Old English to Middle English; a vestigial example is found in the slowly dying "whom.") We also only have gender in singular pronouns and not in our verbs or nouns that aren't semantically assigned to one gender or sex. (By semantic gender I mean referring to actual gender or sex in the real world, and not purely linguistic gender, as in the assignation of gender to inanimate objects in languages like Spanish.)

Plural pronouns lack gender inflection, given that referring to any group might necessarily include people of both sexes. (Although note that there's no reason we couldn't have a plural pronoun that referred only to a specific sex or gender.) You/your, we/our,  they/their-- each is plural and gender indeterminate. Gendered possessives are found only in the singular-- he/his, she/hers. We can say, therefore, say "every girl threw her ball" or "every boy baked his cake" without trouble. But what about possessives that consider both genders? What do we make of a sentence like "Every child lost their marbles?" It's a question I considered for my semester project in a class in generative grammars and minimalist syntax last semester. I'm not a linguist myself, though I am in a related field, so please take this post with the requisite grains of salt. Here's what I found.

Pronoun X

We have this problem in English: we're lacking a particular pronoun, the third person gender-neutral singular. The conventional way around this is to use their: "every student picked up their paper." But this usage drives prescriptivist grammarians crazy, as "every" is singular, which we can tell from how "student" inflects as singular. (It's "every student," after all, not "every students.") The typical advice is to instead us "his or her" in place of their. That's a technically satisfying answer, but as anyone who actually uses English knows, it's imperfect: it sounds clunky, likely due to its phonological distance from the other possessive pronouns like I, me, she, he, you-- each of which has only one syllable. That's not an irrelevant concern. Phonological symmetry is actually an important consideration when it comes to certain categories of words.

Urs Weidman, in a chapter from a 1984 edited collection, called this missing pronoun "Pronoun X." He defined its features as follows:

◦Syntactic Class: Determiner/Pronoun
◦Prosodic quality: Unstressed
◦Person: Third
◦Number: Indefinite
◦Semantic Class: Human
◦Gender: Dual
The semantic class of "human" listed there is important, as it forbids the use of "its." "Its" carries no gender distinction but is not eligible to refer to human subjects. As Weidman points out, there have been historical efforts to generate the missing pronoun in order to solve this problem-- "ho," "thon," "he'er," etc. Unfortunately, the determiners (a syntactic category of which this type of pronoun is a part) are a functional category-- that is, they are used primarily to structure language and not to deliver semantic or propositional content, which is the role of the lexical categories. You can invent new verbs and nouns-- we do it essentially every day-- but not, say, new articles. So these replacements have never caught on, and lacking the necessary term, we've regularly used "their."

Pronouns, Anaphors, and Binding Theory

To grasp what's happening with singular "their," it's necessary to talk about pronouns, anaphors, and antecedents, and a relationship dictated within them called binding theory. Binding theory describes the conditions under which certain pronominals and anaphors (such as himself/herself, etc.) can occur in English. When two terms are semantically linked to indicate the same real-world reference, such as in "Freddie deBoer" and "me," we say they are coindexed. Terms that are coindexed can be broad/grouped/undefined, but they still refer to some consistent referent.

How does binding theory operate? Binding theory dictates situations in which two terms are coindexed and one c-commands the other. C-command is a structural relationship in syntax that helps determine a broad range of operations; understanding c-command requires an understanding of syntax tree structure that isn't really important for what we're doing here. If you'll forgive a bit of squishiness, it'll be easier to talk about subject-object relationships. So one rule of English binding theory is that it permits reflexive anaphors to be taken as objects by their own coindexes-- "John loved himself"-- but not personal pronouns-- "*John loved him," where "him" refers to John. Similarly, pronominals can't take their own coindexes as objects-- "*He loved John," where "he" refers to John. So far, so good.

Antecedents, variables and the problem with "gender neutral"

I've used the terms "gender neutral" or "gender indeterminate" to refer to the use of plural possessives like "their." But a little investigation reveals that we don't actually get the "their" problem with every gender neutral antecedent. For example, a term like "student" doesn't provoke that construction by itself; we don't see people saying "The student picked up their paper" where "their" is coindexed with "student." What provokes the construction, rather, is the presence of a quantifier, such as "each," "every," and "some." Those particular terms are unusual in that they are syntactically singular but refer to a range of possibilities-- "each student," after all, refers to students as individuals but applies to a group of individuals.Those are the conditions under which we are likely to get the problematic "their."

What we're talking about here, technically, are bound variables. Pronouns are variable because they can refer to different real-world referents (that is, they can be indexed with different terms, depending on context). Typically, pronouns don't require a specific syntactic position. You can say "when did he get here?" without ever having said who he is. This makes them free variables. Anaphora, however, require a certain locality to their antecedents. You can't just sprinkle "himself"s just anywhere. They therefore are bound. The kind of antecedents that I've been referring to, the quantifier-gender neutral noun combinations like "each student," are bound because they have a necessary structural position (c-command) and variable because they refer to no particular individual. They are syntactically limited but semantically fungible, an unusual case. (A deep consideration of bound variables by Barbara Partee can be found here in PDF form.)

The Syntactic Conclusion

My final conclusion, then, was as follows: “Their” with a singular coindex is a bound variable that must be c-commanded by a Spec where the DET is a quantifier that merges with a singular NP that does not designate a particular gender. That is, we see the use of "their" as a singular possessive pronoun only in cases where the object using "their" follows a subject which contains a quantifier that inflects as singular but refers to any individual of a possible range of choices. I've provided a syntax tree of such a sentence below.

The Grammar Wars 

All of that is long-winded and technical. The practical question persists, however: what to do about "Everyone needs to keep their hands inside the moving vehicle at all times"? The syntactitians have it easy; their definition of grammaticality is simply "that which is recognized by a native speaker as a possible utterance," and considering that this type of construction is voiced all the time, it qualifies. But prescriptivists grammars hate it, because of the pairing of a plural pronoun with a singular antecedent. On the other extreme, the living language crowd says that anything goes.

I am not, myself, either a rigid prescriptivist nor a pure "anything goes" type. The plain fact is that language lives and evolves, and trying to hold onto one version of the language is like trying to grab a puff of smoke. Yet I also think that simply saying "hey, language evolves, so get over it" is too easy, and threatens our ability to use language in a specific and nuanced way. Too often, in my estimation, the anything goes types actually become their own kind of prescriptivists, with whatever current construction they like becoming the right way. After all, if anything goes, the traditionalists are perfectly free to prefer the stricter interpretation. And if we want to be adaptive and cosmopolitan, we shouldn't borrow prescriptivist readings when it suits us. When dealing with scolds, it's nice to be able to point out that "they" was used as a singular pronoun for centuries before anybody said that you couldn't. But we shouldn't be tempted to take that as dispositive when we are trying to avoid exactly that kind of rigidity.

For myself, I try to keep my scoldings about grammar and vocabulary limited to the cases where there seems to be a genuine threat to meaning and specificity. For example, I would never let a "your/you're" problem go in a paper I was grading; there are a myriad situations in which such substitution can obscure meaning. I'm also touchy about the meanings of many words, as lexical drift tends to move away from specificity, and specificity is the key to writing well. I don't want "literally" to become some meaningless intensifier because when it does, I no longer have a word that means "in the narrow denotative sense." When "ironic" comes to mean simply weird or funny, a particular and important idea is lost into a vague mush. Some things I'm willing to let go of, and some I'm willing to fight for.

Using "their" for singular antecedents is one that I think people need to just give up on. As I've argued, it only occurs in a very limited set of circumstances, and those circumstances uery unlikely to produce confusion about what is meant. We all know what is intended in such a statement, to the point that most of us don't even notice it in spoken conversation. And as we lack a satisfying alternative, the usage is likely to persist. That's not to say that you shouldn't understand what the "rule" is, if only to be able to satisfy those gatekeepers that police it. (Don't use it in your resume, don't use it in your grade school application.) But this is an example of a gate that's not worth defending anymore. I no longer correct it on my own students' papers. Those who want to persist with "his or her" can go right ahead, but perhaps it's better to leave others alone. Everybody can make their own choice.

Works Considered

—Beletti, Andriana and Luigi Rizzi. “Psych verbs and Θ-theory.” Natural Language and Linguistic Theory 6 (1988): 291-352. Print.

Bodine, Anne."Androcentrism in Prescriptive Grammar: Singular 'They', Sex-Indefinite 'He', and 'He - She'." Language in Society 4.2 (Aug. 1975): pp. 129-14. Print.

—Carnie, Andrew. Syntax: A Generative Introduction, 2nd edition. Malden: Blackwell, 2007. Print.
—Chomsky, Noam. “On binding.” Linguistic Inquiry 11.1 (1980): 239-245. Print.

—---. Lectures on Government and Binding. Dordrecht: Foris, 1980. Print.

—Evans, Gareth. “Pronouns, Quantifiers, and Relative Clauses.” Canadian Journal of Philosophy 7.3 (1977): 467-536. Print.

—Partee, Barbara. Compositionality in Formal Semantics - Selected Papers by Barbara H. Partee. ed. Barbara H. Partee. Malden: Blackwell,1978. Print.

—Radford, Andrew. Syntactic theory and the structure of English: A minimalist approach. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1997. Print.

—Weidmann, Urs. “Anaphoric They for Singular Expressions.” Modes of Interpretation. Zurich: Gunter Nagg,1984. 59-70. Print.


Son_et_lumiere said...

I prefer "their" to "his or her", which just seems clunky. Reading older literature it's never in doubt that it would be the male pronoun used to refer to an unspecified individual.

Now we have to worry about gender equality it seems to show up these deficiencies in our language. I've noticed some writers simply switching to using the female version instead, "the gamer can see herself as the avatar", which seems kind of self-consciously strange too.

Here's a little bit by Stephen Fry where he talks about not being too much of a "grammar Nazi" (in internet parlance).

Wesley said...

I tell my students to make the antecedents plural. Not: Every student should pick up his or her . . . But: Students should pick up their . . .

mark said...

Whenever I hear that "they/their" is plural and so can't be used as a gender neutral singular, my mind immediately goes to the example of "sie" in German. "sie" means "she", but it also means "they" and "you" (formal you, as opposed to informal you, which is "du"). If little "sie" can do triple-duty in German, why can't "they" do double-duty in English? In actuality, it does and has for a very long time (the prescriptivists notwithstanding).

Anonymous said...

I use plural antecedents to get around it too. It's easier to read, and once you're in the habit, easier to write too.

The Playgoer said...

You're leaving out one (perhaps obvious) part of the "Pronoun X" story. For centuries, of course, this was not a problem because English-speakers simply used "he," right? It was until very recently that social trends towards gender equality exposed (and successfully shamed) the gender-bias of this practice, thus forcing this issue. Maybe this is irrelevant to your discussion, but I find it interesting--an example of how societal/political factors influence language practice.

mark said...

For example, a term like "student" doesn't provoke that construction by itself; we don't see people saying "The student picked up their paper" where "their" is coindexed with "student."

Actually, you can find cases where "their" would be used in this way. However, it implies that the speaker/writer either does not know the gender of the student, or does not want to reveal the gender of the student. For an example of the latter, I refer you to the pronoun game.

Vince said...

I see nothing wrong with asking "they" to serve double duty. The Germans, who are much more prescriptivist about their language than we Anglophones are, have long used "sie" to mean "she", "they", or "thou." Reusing "sie" introduces ambiguity, yes, but depending on the context and on the capitalization, it's rarely a problem.

Anonymous said...

I think the answer is that we point to past usage as a shield to ward off the prescriptivists and the real justification for "their" is that it works, period.

Anonymous said...

As a copy editor, I struggle with this constantly, since my publisher clients don't approve of either singular "their" or "he or she." Often it's possible to recast the sentence to avoid the problem with minimal alteration, but other times it's a bear.

A somewhat unorthodox solution that has the virtue of being able to implement easily and consistently: Let the gender of the writer determine the appropriate singular pronoun throughout.

--Swift Loris

Anonymous said...

At risk of violating the "don't be a jerk" admonishment, I'll point out that "don't use it in your grade school application" is pretty funny.

Bruce Falk said...

While I can see the value in punting and using 'their' like 'sie' as a third-person singular construction, doing so can create confusion about the direct object of agency. In this context, to say, "Every student picked up their pencil," leaves ambiguous whether a single, jointly-owned pencil was consecutively grabbed by everyone in the classroom or whether each student simultaneously reached for a writing implement... among other possible, more tortured if no less intentional meanings. None of this has to be a problem if the anonymous third person plural is used properly. You could as easily write, "Every student picked up a pencil," or "Each student picked up a pencil," or "Every student picked up pencils," or even -- to be most precise, "Every student picked up their respective pencils." Each of these constructions retains proper symmetry between subject, pronoun, and direct object, the latter of these being arguably the most important means of signifying what thing(s) were in whose hand(s).

Anonymous said...

Another common problem occurs when referring to a singular person of unknown gender:

"Who keeps parking their car in my drive way?"

"His or her" works as a grammatically correct alternative, but is quite awkward.
There is no equivalent to the example given in the other comment (change "every student" to "students.")

Even when the gender is known, the speaker may wish to purposely limit the amount of information conveyed in the sentence:

"I'll never reveal anything about their identity!" (Where "their" refers to a single person.)

Once again, one could come up with a grammatically proper alternative, but it would be very awkward or likely reveal more information, such as your relationship with that person (my friend, my accomplice, etc.)

Or, take this comment. What are the chances someone out there is thinking, "Their comment is dumb!"

Bruce Falk said...

Actually, I think you offer some really smart examples. I'm fine with the last two, since I see no real confusion arising from the last two examples (other than the inherent ambiguity of the pronoun).

I'd only point out that we still have the pronouns 'this' and 'that' and the definite article 'the,' as in, "...that car in my driveway," "... the identity," or even "this comment." Of all these options, I'm still with you regarding the preferred use of 'their' in your second sentence. But then, the whole point of the utterance is to obscure identity.

Anonymous said...

I think this must be connected to interchangeability of the indefinite "they" and the indefinite "one" in the periphrastic passive: "what they say" = "what one says" = "what is said."

Anonymous said...

I play Scramble online against my daughter. When the screen notifies me that it's my turn, I get: "your turn." When it's my daughter's turn: "Their turn." Her gender is private, though her name is not.

Anonymous said...

btw, Vince, "Sie" in German doesn't mean "thou." "Thou" is the direct etymological equivalent of "Du." The reason "thou" got used with God in early modern English is that it's the more intimate pronoun, not the more formal pronoun. Many if not most languages that make that distinction use Du, tu, etc., for God, not Sie, Vous, Usted, etc..

Krishan Bhattacharya said...


You wrote: "The conventional way around this is to use their: "every student picked up their paper." But this usage drives prescriptivist grammarians crazy, as "every" is singular, which we can tell from how "student" inflects as singular. (It's "every student," after all, not "every students.") The typical advice is to instead us "his or her" in place of their. "

Steven Pinker provides the answer to this grammarians' dilemma, saying that they are basically misreading the phrase. From his dazzling chapter on grammar myths "Language Mavens" in The Language Inscinct:
Sometimes an alleged grammatical "error" is logical not only in the
sense of "rational" but in the sense of respecting distinctions made
by the formal logician. Consider this alleged barbarism, brought up
by nearly every language maven:

Everyone returned to their seats.
Anyone who thinks a Yonex racquet has improved their
game, raise your hand.
If anyone calls, tell them I can't come to the phone.
Someone dropped by but they didn't say what they wanted.
No one should have to sell their home to pay for medical
He's one of those guys who's always patting themself on
the back. [an actual quote from Holden Caulfield in
J. D. Salinger's Catcher in the Rye]

They explain: everyone means every one, a singular subject, which
may not serve as the antecedent of a plural pronoun like them later
in the sentence. "Everyone returned to his seat," they insist. "If
anyone calls, tell him I can't come to the phone."

If you were the target of these lessons, at this point you might be
getting a bit uncomfortable. Everyone returned to his seat makes it
sound like Bruce Springsteen was discovered during intermission to
be in the audience, and everyone rushed back and converged on his
seat to await an autograph. If there is a good chance that a caller may
be female, it is odd to ask one's roommate to tell him anything (even
if you are not among the people who are concerned about "sexist
language"). Such feelings of disquiet—a red flag to any serious linguist—
are well founded in this case. The next time you get corrected
for this sin, ask Mr. Smartypants how you should fix the following:
Mary saw everyone before John noticed them.

Now watch him squirm as he mulls over the downright unintelligible
"improvement," Mary saw everyone before ]ohn noticed him.

The logical point that you, Holden Caulfield, and everyone but the
language mavens intuitively grasp is that everyone and they are not
an "antecedent" and a "pronoun" referring to the same person in
the world, which would force them to agree in number. They are a
"quantifier" and a "bound variable," a different logical relationship.
Everyone returned to their seats means "For all X, X returned to X's
seat." The "X" does not refer to any particular person or group of
people; it is simply a placeholder that keeps track of the roles that
players play across different relationships. In this case, the X that
comes back to a seat is the same X that owns the seat that X comes
back to. The their there does not, in fact, have plural number, because
it refers neither to one thing nor to many things; it does not refer at
all. The same goes for the hypothetical caller: there may be one, there
may be none, or the phone might ring off the hook with would-be
suitors; all that matters is that every time there is a caller, if there is
a caller, that caller, and not someone else, should be put off.

Anonymous said...

Can't the prescriptivists escape this bind by accepting the idea that plural "their" and singular "their" are completely separate lexical items that just happen to be phonologically and orthographically identical?

This may seem like just a matter of semantics, but I think there's plenty of precedent for it.

For example, Russian and Spanish (Mexican Spanish, anyway) both use the "same" verb-inflection pattern for second-person formal and third-person singular. They are formally identical even though their meanings are distinct.

Another example: In Russian, (IIRC) the accusative case for masculine animate nouns is formally identical to the genitive plural case. It's not that these two cases are *semantically* the same; they're just spelled and pronounced the same, and context usually makes it clear what's meant.

So why not just let English have two "their"s with two meanings?

Freddie said...

Great comments, all.

BioProf said...

Absent a uniformly accepted third person gender-neutral singular, I prefer the solution used by Charles Murray in the Preface to his co-authored The Bell Curve, viz., the possessive pronoun takes the gender of the speaker/writer.

Marshall said...

You never mentioned that actual usage in liberal circles is to use "she" in place of the neutral-by-convention" "he". That might be grammatically as well as politically correct, but as far as I'm concerned it's as awkward as the constructed sie/hir.

Freddie said...

I agree with that as well. What I don't get is people who object to using "their" because it is matching a singular antecedent to a plural pronoun but are okay with either "he" or "she" when there are people of both sexes represented in the group.

quixote said...

I'm glad I read to the end. This:

"What I don't get is people who object to using "their" because it is matching a singular antecedent to a plural pronoun but are okay with either "he" or "she" when there are people of both sexes represented in the group."

is exactly the point.

If it's meaning you're worried about, how is excluding half the human race better than continuing to use a plural pronoun as also a singular indefinite?

It's enough to make me think that those who insist on "he" have an agenda, one that's not really about grammar.