In the linguistics videos we’ve been watching lately, Dr. Anne Curzan, descriptive linguist that she is, defends the use of they in reference to a singular antecedent. “Each student had completed their homework,” she says, is perfectly acceptable. To get away from the peculiar complication of using a word, each, that refers to a group while being grammatically singular, she offers another sentence she approves of: “My friend gave me their pen.” She smiled slyly as she said this, and I know she was smiling at people like me. I won’t say that I never use a plural pronoun with a singular referent, but I don’t have to like it or approve of it. I’m not a descriptive linguist. I try to speak clearly (although I mainly fail, I fear), I edit my writing, and I teach my students to write clearly. So I have to have reasons to judge grammar, and number agreement provides part of my reasoning. I’m not content to describe; I must prescribe, if only to myself.
But while I’m not a descriptive linguist, Dr. Curzan is, so of course she notes the construction, finds it interesting, and tries to find an explanation. And I’m with her that far. The problem is that she refers her viewers to a website that calls the construction “singular their” and that refers to people like me as “pedants.” (Considering the topic of common but annoying linguistic constructions, I considered starting that last sentence this way: “The problem is, is that . . . .” I decided against it, obvs.) I’m not sure their is singular even in the examples given, and I certainly don’t like to be dismissed as a pedant. So I thought I’d indulge in a little defense.
I’ll credit Dr. Curzan with two victories right up front, though. First, I realize that she meant this segment of the course as a defense of her way of speaking, so to have me talking about defending myself means that she has switched the momentum to her side. Second, when she said that the website listed several examples of “singular their” found in the works of Jane Austen, I told my friends I’d be surprised if any of them were found in the narration, and I was wrong. While most instances of the pattern occur in the dialog, some indeed appear in the narration itself. And before I go on I also need to make it crystal clear that Dr. Curzan seems nice and smart, and that everything she says fascinates me. I think that if we taught at the same school, she could be my friend.
But she still hasn’t convinced me to quit trying to improve and clarify either my own writing or that of my students. To begin with, I don’t like her arguments about the options available on her first sentence. I agree with her in saying that “Each student had completed his or her homework” is ugly. Taking an idea from Chesterton, I suggest that the government should impose a heavy fine on anyone who utters such an enormity. But why are we so concerned about possession at all? Why not “Each student had completed the homework”? Her second sentence, about the friend and the pen, is just silly. Jane Austen’s narrator never identifies a specific person and then uses their; she uses it after generic tags like “each person” and “everyone” and “nobody.” Surely the speaker knows the gender of his or her friend. (Congress is too busy with the shutdown to fine me for that one.) Would Dr. Curzan still accept the sentence if the friend’s name had been specified? “Jennifer gave me their pen.” Ick.
To go farther, I’m not entirely sure their is singular in a lot of the examples used to defend “singular their.” In many of the examples given on the website, a pronoun beginning with th- links back to the word everybody, and I don’t believe that everybody is necessarily singular. The English generally use plural verbs with collective nouns where Americans would use singular verbs: “The family are coming for Christmas,” for instance, as opposed to “The family is coming.” So why should Dr. Curzan and the website she refers to insist that everybody is singular? “Who’s the pedant now?” I ask, with a challenge in my eye. The website actually offers examples clearly demonstrating the plurality of all the words in question, unwittingly undermining its goal of defending “singular their.” One example, from Bishop William Warburton: “Everybody I meet with are full ready to go of themselves.” If everybody and them were both singular, as the website claims, it seems the sentence should read “Everybody I meet with is full ready to go of themself.”
Even everyone can be thought of as plural, despite it ending with the singularly singular word one. Another example on the website, this time from Shakespeare, is cited this way: “1600 SHAKS. Lucr. 125 Euery one to rest themselues [ed. 1594 himselfe] betake.” The site claims that the pedants only started their crusade in the 1790s, but clearly Shakespeare (or his editor) at least recognized the options two hundred years earlier. And the variation seems to me to suggest not that themselves is singular but that everyone (or euery one) can be treated as either plural or singular.
That last example raises the issue of whether history has any normative force on grammar. Between the video and the website, it seems that the argument is that pedants shouldn’t complain against “singular their” because it’s been around for a long time, at least since the 1300s. But why should we speak the way English speakers did seven-hundred years ago? I thought descriptive linguists embraced change. What ground do they have for resisting this particular change? That its proponents are pedants? Pedants speak the language, too. Don’t we count? And why must the website belittle the very presence of logic as the motive behind the desire to make a pronoun and its antecedent agree in number? Is logic categorically barred from having any influence on language? If so, maybe we should give up teaching grammar to children. Why don’t we just tell fifth graders that “Me and Jimmy don’t got nothing” is fine and get on with life? Madness! Madness! If she really wants to defend this prickly practice of number disagreement while attacking the value of logic, Dr. Curzan really has their work cut out for them.