By Anatoly Liberman
“If a tenant has an eviction on their record, it does not mean they were a bad tenant,” the owner of rental property said to a student newspaper. I have never had an eviction on my record and cannot judge (I am sure the owner knew what “they” were saying), but as a historical linguist I would like to find out when people began to use this sort of syntax. More than two years ago, I published an article titled “Pluralia Tantum, Or, E Pluribus Unum: Three Adventures with the Plural” (Verbatim, vol. XXXI, No. 1, 2006, 26-29). One of the “adventures” concerned the hapless tenant and “their” cohorts. I mocked the use of they/them/their for a singular subject like tenant. The responses to my article were mixed. Most readers laughed and said that yes, it is funny, but everybody says so. A few people shared my righteous wrath. One, a professional linguist, declared that, according to the research of his colleague (I am sorry for saying his, but I know that the linguist is a man), this usage goes back to early Modern English, compared me with the most uninformed contributors to the net, advised me to stay in the only area in which, according to him, I am a specialist (namely, etymology; the cobbler should stick to his [!] last, right?), and called my piece a rant. Since the noun rant usually goes with the adjective rightwing, my critic sounded like a progressive, cutting-edge type of person. I don’t relish the idea of impeding the march of society toward a shining future (especially when people march in serried ranks) or being thought of as even more ignorant than I am, but it’s wasted labor to shut up a neighbor (a free translation of a Russian proverb). However, chronology is not a matter of opinion. The concord in question did not develop naturally (it was forced on English), and I insist that those who trace it to early Modern, let alone Middle, English give, in the words of a Victorian author, a deliberate twist to verity.
It has been known for a long time and mentioned in numerous books that people use their, they, and them with indefinite pronouns (someone, everybody, and so forth): for example, everybody should mind their business. Those who want to confirm this fact and understand why the 16th century is often pressed into service while discussing the tenant’s dilemma can dispense with painstaking research: the OED (they 2; the earliest citation is dated 1526) gives all the information they need. The word person frequently joins indefinite pronouns in the aforementioned context. Whether saying every person should mind their business deserves praise or censure is a moot question, for some people find this syntax awkward and others consider it to be sufficiently elegant. Both the usage and the disagreement have been hallowed by tradition. Here is another quotation from a student newspaper: “When people are drinking in an addictive manner, the mere process of ingesting alcoholic beverages is abusive and little else. If a person does this to themselves, then it is simply self-abuse, i.e. beating yourself up.” The whole is rather repulsive, but note a person—themselves—yourself. I quoted the sentence in my article because I found it tortured, though I knew that person had correlated with they for centuries.
They for a singular subject was introduced by those who wanted to rid English of sexism. At a time when equal opportunity added millions of women to the work force, using he as a generalizing pronoun is silly, but it is desirable that a medicine be not worse than the disease. An easy way exists of discovering when the tenant’s dilemma emerged. Our best dictionaries give away the truth. In the first edition of Random House Unabridged Dictionary (1966), the entry they occupies eight lines and is trivial. In the second edition (1993), a long section on usage was added, which I will reproduce in full: “Long before the use of generic he was condemned as sexist, the pronouns they, their, and them were used in educated speech and in all but the most formal writing to refer to indefinite pronouns and to single nouns of general personal reference, probably because such nouns are not felt to be exclusively singular: If anyone calls, tell them I’ll be back at six. Everybody began looking at their books at once. Such use is not a recent development, nor is it a mark of ignorance. Shakespeare, Swift, Shelley, Scott, and Dickens, as well as many other English and American writers, have used they and its forms to refer to singular antecedents. Already widespread in the language (though still rejected as ungrammatical by some), this use of they, their, and them is increasing in all but the most conservatively edited American English. This increased use is partly impelled by the desire to avoid the sexist implications of he as a pronoun of general reference.” Almost nothing in this comment is controversial. Yet I will point to three things. The phrase singular antecedents disguises the fact that only words like everybody and perhaps person are meant. Also, I would avoid references to Shakespeare. His grammar is so different from ours that it cannot guide modern English usage. Even Fielding should probably be left alone. Finally, in the reference to Scott, Dickens, and “many other English and American writers,” it would have been useful to state whether such syntax appears in their speech or in the speech of the characters. Let us note that in 1969 the editors of Random House Unabridged let they be and added a detailed comment justifying what seems to be age-old usage only in 1993 (why suddenly?).
The same happened to The Heritage Dictionary of the English Language: nothing in the first edition (1966), but a long “Usage Note” in 2000, with examples like “A person can’t help their birth” (from Vanity Fair, without specifying who says it), “To do a person in means to kill them” (from Shaw’s Pygmalion), and “When you love someone you do not love them all the time.” Still no tenant in view, but there is a remark that eighty-two percent of panelists found the following sentence unacceptable: “The typical student in the program takes about six years to complete their course work,” as opposed to sixty-four percent who accept the sentence: “No one is willing to work for those wages anymore, are they?” The note begins with the statement that “[t]he use of the third-person pronoun they to refer to a singular noun or pronoun is attested as early as 1300, and many admired writers used they, them, themselves, and their to refer to singular nouns such as one, a person, an individual, and each.” Here pronouns and nouns are lumped together, and thirteenth-century English, even less than the language of Shakespeare, can provide models for twentieth-century usage, but clearly, no “admired author” would dream of saying they were a bad tenant. The American Oxford Dictionary (2001; the second edition, 2005) went much farther: “Sentences such as ask a friend if they could help are still criticized for being ungrammatical. Nevertheless, in view of the growing acceptance of they and its obvious practical advantages, they is used in the dictionary in many cases where he would have been used formerly.” Convenience, this great motor of language change, cannot serve as a criterion of preferred usage. For example, he don’t is more convenient than he doesn’t, but the Standard still makes the distinction.
Several decades ago, schoolchildren were taught to use they in reference to any single noun, and now it has become standard usage. A literate columnist (sic) from the same newspaper writes: “The convenient scapegoat on Wall Street and in Washington will surely carry the blame for this crisis, but the American borrower should recognize their own responsibility.” The sentiment is noble but the grammar is abominable. In my presence, a thoroughly stultified janitor (a native speaker) said that a table can be carried out despite their size. A few more examples follow. They have been excerpted from the papers I was privileged to grade: “The hero has their reward,” “The traveler has nowhere to lay their head,” and the absolutely delightful: “A fisherman caught a talking fish that promised to give them anything they wanted.” Poor fisherperson from the Grimms’ tales!
I challenge the defenders of this horror to produce similar examples from pre-1965 (pre-1970-1975?) books. Not even Joseph Wright’s The English Dialect Dictionary has anything reminiscent of them. People bend over backward to fight sexism in language, which is fine, but in crushing an enemy, it is advisable not to kill one’s own troops by friendly fire. A noted Anglo-Saxonist (a woman) writes: “…a passage explains that no person, however depraved, if she looks at her heart…” I wish she had said they—their, for in her zeal she distorted the meaning of the passage: it is addressed to everybody rather than to sinning women. Language planning is like social engineering. Some experiments are relatively harmless; others are detrimental. The speakers of American English were led to believe that tenant, borrower, hero, traveler, and even fisherman are proper antecedents of they and accepted the rule. This usage will stay, but no one should be prevented from expressing his/her/their opinion on this phenomenon. I vote against. Dixi et animam meam salvavi.
Anatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins…And How We Know Them as well as An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology: An Introduction. His column on word origins, The Oxford Etymologist, appears here, each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to firstname.lastname@example.org; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”