Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

The Tenant’s Dilemma, or,
When Did People Begin to Say They for “He (Or She)”?

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 personthemselvesyourself. 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 theytheir, 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_libermanAnatoly 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 blog.us@oup.com; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”

Recent Comments

  1. Aaron Kangas

    Language changes. Get over it.

  2. DrBB

    I’m sorry but this is nonsense and I’m confused as to how a professional etymologist could be so far off base. The use of the neuter plural as the indefinite pronoun has been in the language since Old English (“hem”) and its persistence from Middle into Modern English is well attested, appearing in Shakespeare and other foundational authors including Samuel Johnson. Ironically in the case of the latter, since the use of the male singular comes into the language as an invention of 18th century prescriptivists, notably Dr Johnson himself. The decision that disagreement in gender is less problematic than disagreement in number is entirely arbitrary, and the use of the plural is deeply embedded in the language. The only reason it’s deprecated is precisely because it belongs to the Anglo Saxon, rather than French/Latinate current in the language, and is thus perceived as “low,” just the way “pork” is what we serve in restaurants and “pig” is what we keep on farms.

  3. DrBB

    Following up: see the OED for “they,” def. 2: “often used for a singular noun,” and giving citations back to 1526 (Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress).

  4. MNPundit

    You appear to be objecting towards a number differential.

    But:

    “the American borrower should recognize their own responsibility.”

    The reference here is to American borrower as a class of people, so while it’s 1 class, it’s actually multiple persons so they is somewhat appropriate. Hero and travel fall into the same category from the context of your examples though table and the last example (heh) doesn’t. So maybe it’s over used a little bit.

    Eventually people will start submitting papers in text message. Save your frustrations for that one!

  5. Carl

    “Language changes” is true and (in my opinion) an appropriate statement, but “Get over it” sloughs a valid argument into the trash. I’m in favor of having the argument.

    As a teacher of high schoolers, I meet many students who are comfortable not discriminating between debatable positions. Many were raised with intense schedules and are generally accustomed to being overworked –- many think that’s The Way Things Are, and that convenience always indicates progress, so Just Give The Answer And Move On. When I suggest that writing is not merely about information but about the need to communicate, and this demands that we strategize carefully about how we portray and organize and present our content, I suspect that they sort of get it. I keep at it, and I hope it sinks in more and more.

    There should be some discomfort involved in changing from one standard to a more just one. We could say that questions of grammar and usage are trivial, but I disagree because I believe that our modes of communication represent what we think about each other. We can’t pursue justice as a principle if our tactics are limited to what’s convenient in the short term (Liberman: “Convenience, this great motor of language change, cannot serve as a criterion of preferred usage”). It’s almost always quantifiably more convenient –- and cost-effective -– to keep using our existing structures, even if they may be biased or worse.

    Context is everything, as long as we can discriminate. It may sound like an application of the Slippery Slope Fallacy, but I pick this they/he/she argument as a spot where we should hold the line. That said, I tell my students that casual speech and Instant Messaging to friends don’t demand the same rigor or formality as an essay or a letter to the editor…although I won’t be upset if they feel a twinge of recognition or even guilt when they IM ungrammatically. Getting accustomed to some discomfort is a key to keeping us civilized, I think.

    I appreciate Prof. Liberman’s commentary, not only for his erudition but also for his reasoned synthesis of both sides of the argument. Consideration of all these elements allows us come to a functional, internally consistent conclusion in a rational way.
    I hope intellectual discourse never “gets over it.”

  6. Seth

    I’m not really sure what your complaint is. For a while there in the 70’s, I (and others) used “he or she” and “his or her” alot. It was cumbersome. Some, like your noted Anglo-Saxonist, alternate gender for their pronouns. For me, that too adds a needless burden and often, as in your example, adds an implication, I would prefer to avoid. And so, like many, I use the plural most of the time.

    Your most agregious offenders here use “they” when there is a perfectly acceptable singular pronoun available, “it.” The fisherman is a specific person, seemingly a he, so it’s fine to refer to “him” as such. A table is neither a he, she nor a they. It is an it.

    Just because some misunderstand the modified rule is no reason to denounce it.

    The same era already had given us Ms., a linguistic compromise that posed all sorts of problems. It’s a word posing as an abreviation, with no vowel, and a period again. But it is pronounced as written, with all the inelegance one would expect of a word with no vowel. It provides a nice visual balance with Mr., the words are in no way equal, thereby defeating the very purpose for which it was created.

    But settling upon a familiar word, “they” the perpetrators of that linguistic innovation did a far better job than the Ms.-creants who create that one.

  7. Hellestal

    “They for a singular subject was introduced by those who wanted to rid English of sexism.” This statement is false, as amply demonstrated from the very evidence you’ve already provided. Your complaint is not the “introduction” of this form, but rather its use for antecedents that don’t meet your bizarre and arbitrary standards.

    So it’s used today for more antecedents than just “person” and “anyone” and the like? Even if that’s true, what’s your point exactly? This is a logical extension of the word, the mildest sort of change imaginable. And yet you vote “against” it, with your only argument based on nothing more than the fact that it bugs you, and this despite the obvious utility that other English speakers have obviously found in the form.

    None of your other comments make any more sense. The Shakespearean examples and others even older are quite relevant, despite the differences in English across the centuries, because they demonstrate that this form has persisted, just as placing a definite article in front of the noun has persisted. The singular-they is not just good English today, it’s been good English for a long while.

    Naturally, your dislike is your own. You’re free to hold to your own personal sense of style with as much irrational fervor as you can muster. But don’t pretend that your opinions are somehow authoritative. “They” works with tenant just fine. It’s an elegant solution, perfectly grammatical, and if a writer doesn’t realize that, then I would personally question how good a writer they actually are.

  8. Jeffrey Pechmann

    Even though I am progressive and extremely liberal, I don’t associate the noun “rant” with the adjective rightwing. Perhaps I’m in the minority. I liked it when a professor once refered to something I wrote as a “screed”. I had never heard the word before and looked it up in the dictionary. One definition I remember identified screed as a drunken rant. Even now, when my drinking has all but stopped, I still love the word. I’ve many a screed left in me.

    It really is hard trying to make non-sexist language comply with the rules of grammar without recasting the sentence you’re writing. Personally, I’m pissed at the abuse of exclamation points that has taken hold. It’s uncalled for and devalues the power of this punctuation mark. While I can see the reason people mess up pronoun agreement, I just don’t understand why they’ll punctuate a sentence with !!!. I may not be a great grammarian, but it seems one should know a word or sentence doesn’t become more exclamatory by adding multiple exclamation points. It just defies logic. I can only think the advent of e-mail and text messaging has caused this usage to take hold. I always think I’m reading the diary of a 4th grade schoolgirl when I see 2, 3, or more exclamation points.

    In case you’re wondering, I found your article by following a link on Andrew Sullivan‘s blog. I’m sure I’m not the only one.

    Cheers.

  9. [...] 11, 2008 by stevenwhite Via Andrew Sullivan, Anatoly Liberman does not approve of “they” replacing “he/she” for a singular subject. Maybe it’s [...]

  10. Steven

    Seriously.

  11. pdb

    So if “using he as a generalizing pronoun is silly, but it is desirable that a medicine be not worse than the disease” then what is the proper medicine?

  12. Christopher

    A very interesting and informative article followed by a snotty comment by a jerk. Can morons like Aaron Kangas please understand one simple idea? That language changes does not mean that every change is a good one. If you think that the general existence of change means that all change must be accepted without criticism you are going into a very dangerous place indeed–one where the mere existence of something is its own justification. If there is more crime than hitherto, or inferior health care, are you going to say “things change, get over it?” The response of a thinking man to the criticism of a change in usage which he personally likes is to argue for the beneficial nature of the particular change in question–not to assert that change itself, of any kind, is good. (Or simply so inevitable that even to protest against it is in bad taste?) But that would require thinking which Mr. Kangas and his (depressingly numerous) ilk are not capable of.

    As for the article, Mr. Liberman is the first person I have seen to render a fairly useful contribution to the debate: he has distinguished between antecedents like “everone” and positively discordant cases in which an unambiguously singular antecedent gets a “they”. “Everyone should open their books” is wrong (I will still say “his book”) but not egregious; “tell your friend to wait and I’ll get back to them” (which I’ve heard even when the friend in question was known to be a man) is abominable.

    Now can Mr. Liberman favor us with his opinion on another bit of usage? On the phone I often hear (from recorded messages of course) “Your call will be answered in the order it was recieved”. Can that be acceptable? Should it not be “in the order in which it was recieved?”

  13. Mormon Socialist

    I have heard this argument in a variety of forms, and while I appreciate Anatoly’s strength of feeling on the subject, I don’t believe the application of this kind of logic is any help.

    After all, many a writer has opined at length on the illogicality of the double negative in English, and the impediment it poses to understanding; none of which prevents its widespread and correct use in many of the languages of continental Europe.

  14. [...] on October 11, 2008. Filed under: Uncategorized | http://blog.oup.com/2008/10/anatolyliberman-plurals/ : In the first edition of Random House Unabridged Dictionary (1966), the entry they occupies eight [...]

  15. Tucker Hope

    I agree with the last post. They obviously know what they are talking about.

  16. Jesse F

    You’re right; the proper solution, which I’ve been following without problem for the last few years, is to simply use “her” as the generic singular pronoun. The female gender is, empirically, the generic gender—think “parthenogenesis”—and there’s no reason our language shouldn’t recognize this fact.

  17. Kathryn in California

    I would point to Hofstadher’s
    A Person Paper on Purity in Language as a counterfactual. Replacing a grammatical error with a category error also grates.

    Of Fowler’s three makeshifts, A was clumsy, B was to be used only when one couldn’t risk C (yet, he notes, B is not condemned by the OED), and C was the convention when “sex is not conspicuous or important.” If sex has become neither inconspicuous nor unimportant, then C has become risky.

  18. Rachel

    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.

    Curious. If she had written “…a passage explains that no person, however depraved, if he looks at his heart…” would you have complained that the meaning was distorted, obviously thus then applying only to sinning men? Wager you wouldn’t.

    The whole point of using “her” as a gender neutral pronoun is that there is no such thing as a gender neutral pronoun. Using the feminine is just shocking enough to make you notice that. If it happens often enough, perhaps you’ll get used to it — or find yourself an advocate of “they”.

    I do find “they” aesthetically displeasing, but consider gender equity more important than my own sense of aesthetics.

  19. Andrew M

    “Several decades ago, schoolchildren were taught to use they in reference to any single noun.”

    No they weren’t. Singular “they” is right up there with “ain’t” on the list of things we do not allow in English class. This might be taught now, but it certainly was not taught in the past.

    “Our best dictionaries give away the truth.”

    “Ain’t” used to be absent from dictionaries until about the same time as singular “they”, but that doesn’t mean it’s a new word. It’s just that dictionaries reflected standard educated usage, which until recently virulently suppressed these forms.

    And as for your horror cases, they have the same kind of meaning that “indefinite” pronouns have. Nominal phrases like “the American borrower” or “a person”, like “everyone”, do not have to make reference to any actual people. In the cases you describe, they don’t. It’s when this reference is lacking that “they” naturally comes up.

    The usage of “a fisherman” is an example of an indefinite whose referent irks you. That usage, for all I know, is an extension of the indefinite usage, and it might actually be new. “A fisherman” does have a specific referent, but the *identity* of that referent is unknown to the writer. The student who wrote that probably didn’t read the book very well, but their English is just fine. (THEIR English…)

  20. Janus Daniels

    What Aaron said.
    The use of “they” nearly always makes a clear improvement in accuracy of meaning.

  21. Ophelia Benson

    “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.”

    Oh come on – you can’t be that blinkered. How many millions of passages are addressed to everybody rather than to sinning men yet nevertheless say he-his? Why is it worse to use female pronouns than it is to use male pronouns?

    Try reading some Isaiah Berlin or (1970s-vintage) Richard Swinburne (appropriate for OUP blog!) with this thought in mind. They are addressing and discussing everybody, but they invariably and incessantly (multiple times on every page) say ‘a man’ when they mean ‘a person’ and ‘men’ when they mean people. It looks (to me anyway) positively perverse – as if they were going out of their way to be annoying (which I’m sure they weren’t – it was just the fashion). It also, oddly for philosophers, makes what they are saying significantly unclear and deceptive, which can’t have been their intention.

    This idea that ‘he’ is fine while ‘she’ is peculiar is not as bad but it’s still…mistaken.

  22. Ophelia Benson

    “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.”

    Oh come on – you can’t be that blinkered. How many millions of passages are addressed to everybody rather than to sinning men yet nevertheless say he-his? Why is it worse to use female pronouns than it is to use male pronouns?

    Try reading some Isaiah Berlin or (1970s-vintage) Richard Swinburne (appropriate for OUP blog!) with this thought in mind. They are addressing and discussing everybody, but they invariably and incessantly (multiple times on every page) say ‘a man’ when they mean ‘a person’ and ‘men’ when they mean people. It looks (to me anyway) positively perverse – as if they were going out of their way to be annoying (which I’m sure they weren’t – it was just the fashion). It also, oddly for philosophers, makes what they are saying significantly unclear and deceptive, which can’t have been their intention.

    This idea that ‘he’ is fine while ‘she’ is peculiar is not as bad but it’s still mistaken and peculiarly obtuse.

  23. neil

    brilliant!

    I have always hated the use of ‘they’ to refer to a single subject. Not that I particularly enjoy having to write ‘his or her’ over and over in a paper, but ‘they’ just sounds wrong!

    I have to say, however, that, lately, I have noticed much more of the use of ‘she’ to refer to a single subject, regardless of any actual actual knowledge of the subject’s gender. A bit of linguistic affirmative action (i know, a very crude analogy) perhaps, but at least it’s arithmetically correct. What do you think of this newer trend?

  24. A-gu

    Your article nearly made my head explode.

    Please do not take such a prescriptive view, and please do not claim generic “they” was somehow forced upon the English language as part of an anti-sexism movement — my 85-year-old great-grandmother from West Texas uses it, and so do I. And school didn’t teach either of us this usage.

  25. MNPundit

    For the record, one of my favorite writing constructions is the silent exclamation point.

    For example: “Someone is arguing(!) about the use of they!”

  26. A poster

    How many people is everybody? One? Or more than one?

    Every roomful of freshman composition students I’ve ever taught will always vote “more than one.”

  27. Christopher

    Hellestal is egregiously wrong on one point.
    “They” does not work with tenant “just fine”. To say that it is grammatically correct is an odd statement from people whose whole project is based on denying the possibility of correctness (hence the irritating creation of “prescriptive” as a pejoritive) and to say it is elegant is untrue. To paraphrase Hellestal himself, if anyone says it is elegant I question how good a writer he is. It is the most inelegant thing I have ever heard.

    Dr. BB says:

    “The decision that disagreement in gender is less problematic than disagreement in number is entirely arbitrary.”

    This does not appear to me to be true. When I begin a sentence with “The tenant” there is at least a fifty percent chance that the tenant in question is male, whereas there is never a possibility that an individual tenant in a group.

    Contrary to Ophelia Benson, when Isaiah Berlin et al. used “Man” to refer to the collective human race it was not “the fashion”; it was the English language and still is. Consider the following:

    “Oh what a piece of work is man!” (Hamlet–note the ironic coda to the famous speech: Man delights not me–no, nor Woman either: Hamlet meant Man in its universal, R&G in its specifically masculine sense. If we rob the language of the universal “Man” we rob Shakespeare of one of his best double-entendres.)

    “Of Man’s first disobedience…” (Paradise Lost–considerably ironic here as the disobedience in question was 50% the work of Eve.)

    “…and justify the ways of God to man” (Pope, Essay on Man)

    “Thou madest Life in Man and Brute” (Tennyson, In Memoriam)

    “Poet and sculptor, do the work
    Nor let the modish painter shirk
    What his great forefathers did,
    Bring the soul of man to God,
    Make him fill the cradles right” (Yeats)

    One could go on. The point is that in addition to referring to a male individual, the word Man also refers to any member of the human race, and also to the race collectively; so do the masculine pronouns–in other words they refer not only to “vir” but also to “homo”. This has never even been questioned; read Hannah Arendt and there too one will find it on virtually every page.

    I understand completely that this is distasteful to numbers of women. There are various elegant solutions to it; one can avoid singular abstract antecedents altogether (say “tenents who…”, for example).

    I personally am quite sympathetic with attempts to vary the use of the abstract he with the abstract she, especially in anecdotes which conjure a particular if unnamed individual who could very well be a woman. However there is a danger with the anglo-saxonists usage of she: it could sound as if she is saying that the idea applies only to women. The reverse is not true of the masculine pronoun.

    Finally, I wonder whether the advocates of gender-neutrality realize the degree to which they run the risk of weakening (I had almost said “neutering” our language. “Person of the Year” is insipid and offensive to anyone with taste. A civilized society will recognize the contributions of great women as often as those of great men; and if Toni Morrison, for example, should win the prize, it will be, for that year, Woman of the Year. But person is pallid. And there are things we cannot say without Man. Pope’s Essay on Man which I quoted from before cannot become “Essay on Humanity” without strain. And consider Armstrong’s “One small step for a man; one giant leap for mankind.” Take the titles of two books by Jung: “Modern Man in Search of A Soul” and “Man and His Symbols”. Try translating those without fatal weakening. “The Modern Person in Search of a Soul”? “The Person and Their Symbols”?

  28. Kathryn in California

    Christopher,

    Have you looked at Hofstadher’s “Person-paper” I linked above?

    His counterfactual includes Armstrong’s statement: ‘”One small step for a white, a giant step for whitekind.” This noble sentiment is anything but racist; it is simply a celebration of a glorious moment in the history of White.’

    “…There is great beauty to a phrase such as “All whites are created equal.” Our forebosses who framed the Declaration of Independence well understood the poetry of our language. Think how ugly it would be to say “All persons are created equal,” or “All whites and blacks are created equal.” Besides, as any schoolwhitey can tell you, such phrases are redundant. In most contexts, it is self-evident when “white” is being used in an inclusive sense, in which case it subsumes members of the darker race just as much as fairskins.

    There is nothing denigrating to black people in being subsumed under the rubric “white”-no more than under the rubric “person.” After all, white is a mixture of all the colors of the rainbow, including black. Used inclusively, the word “white” has no connotations whatsoever of race. Yet many people are hung up on this point. “

  29. Nijma

    “He” has never been a gender neutral pronoun. Looking back even as little as a few hundred years, when people wrote stuff like “one man, one vote” it wasn’t because the secret meaning of “man” is really “man and woman”. It was because women didn’t vote.

  30. mollymooly

    I use the singular-they construction, and see no reason to revive the now old-fashioned common-he. However, I regret that most commentators have ignored the most interesting part of the post: the contention that the use of singular-they is a recent innovation for antecedents outside a small group (pronouns, “person”).

    If this contention is correct (and no poster has offered any evidence to the contrary), then usage manuals and dictionaries that argue in favour of singular-they by saying “it’s been used continuously for centuries” are making a statement that is misleading at best. Future generations of apologists for “they” will have to construct alternative justifications, and will owe Mr Liberman a debt for that.

  31. [...] English and generic they. My objections to the use of generic they aroused a good deal of interest, and after Andrew Sullivan reproduced part of my essay, it traveled [...]

  32. [...] fry. 1) Generic they. In my old polemical notes on the pronouns they and their being used with reference to a single person, I should have made it clear that this usage [...]

  33. [...] my angriest opponents are those who have no facts (just opinions) at their disposal.  For example, I once stated that contrary to the loss of endings or changes in the word order in the history of English, [...]

  34. [...] those who use they in speaking about a single person. I think the first time I did it was in a post “The Tenant’s Dilemma,” dated 8 October 2008. The post irritated some of my colleagues who asserted that such constructions [...]

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *