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Singular “They”

An insidious example of creeping insanity.

Singular “They”

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The Singular They

“All guardians of the language resemble a little the village idiot in the shtetl of Frampol, who was given the job of standing at the village gate to wait for the coming of the Messiah. The pay is not high, he was told, but he didn’t have to worry about running out of work.”
—Joseph Epstein, Introduction to Gowers’ The Complete Plain Words

Causes and Cures

That any who would find fault with the conclusions reached below may see whence those arise, I have here set forth a train of simple propositions in what I trust is a reasonably logical order.

I have kept each simple, and the jumps between them small, not out of disrespect for the reading abilities of visitors, but so that any disagreeing with conditions at the destination may take note of at just which station they felt the need to detrain.

  1. A language is a tool with which users of that language place thoughts in the minds of other such users. The intended thoughts may be true or false or some of each; they may be meant to inform, to entertain, to please, to stimulate a train of further thoughts, or any of a large number of other things; but placing those thoughts is the end and purpose of language. That is not a discovery or pronouncement or deduction: it is a tautology.

  2. Languages are purely conventional: they consist of arbitrary symbols with conventional meanings assigned, and of arbitrary rules for arranging those symbols so as to enhance or alter or compound their composite meaning. (There is a belief that some of the most elementary rules of human language may be in part inbred, but there is no conclusive evidence for—and much disagreement over—that idea, conditions that make the conjecture valueless for practical purposes.)

  3. The greater the precision and elegance, in any sense of that word, with which skilled users of a language can place thoughts in the minds of other users—that being the base purpose of language—the more useful (or “better” or “more powerful”) the language.

    (Elegant can mean, as mathematicians and scientists often use the word, “pleasing by ingenious simplicity and effectiveness”, or it can mean “characterized by dignified richness and grace”; both are desireable traits for language use.)
  4. Anything that increases the precision or elegance (or both) with which skilled users of a language can place thoughts in the minds of other such users is thus necessarily an improvement to the language; anything that decreases those abilities is correspondingly a detriment.

  5. The more nearly complete the agreement by the users of a language on the conventions, both of symbol significance and of arrangement rules, the greater the precision and elegance available to those users.

    Let me pause to elaborate the obvious: if A uses the symbol—the word—“glorm” to signify the look of the afternoon sky after a thunderstorm has passed, while B, hearing A, thinks of a kind of small, white worm seen only at night, their language has failed A and B badly in its purpose; if A uses that word to signify the general class we call “worm,” their language has failed A and B, but not terribly; if they both understand the word-symbol to signify that very type of small white worm, it has served them well.

    Their language can only serve them well if A and B, and all the rest of the speakers of it, have agreed to associate the symbol “glorm” with a particular type of small white worm; to the extent that some speakers associate that symbol with something else, that language is less useful to them all in proportion to both the number of users making differing assignments and to the average scope of difference of those differing assignments.

    What is so of the actual symbols is more so of any rules for varying or enhancing the meaning of those symbols by the manner of their arrangement, the potential complexities and subtleties being proportionately greater. It would be supererogation to adduce yet more elementary examples.
  6. Combining the import of the two propositions above, increasing agreement by the users of a language on its conventions is improvement to the language, while decreasing agreement is detriment.

  7. Converting a symbol or a rule that had a unique significance to one that has more than one possible significance is a decrease in user agreement on the conventions of the language. It is thus necessarily to at least some extent a detriment.

    (Unless you think the sentence “The attorney cited several authorities that sanctioned his actions, but the judge sanctioned him anyway,” is admirable communication.)
  8. Supplying a new symbol or rule that makes expressing a given idea with materially greater precision or elegance than before is an improvement.

  9. Whether a particular change in conventions—which is a change in the language—that has elements of both improvement and detriment will be on balance an improvement or a detriment depends on whether the harm from the detriment outweighs the gain from the improvement or vice-versa.

  10. All changes (as opposed to novelties) carry an overhead detriment beyond their actual effect on the power of the language, and that overhead detriment must be included in any reckoning attempting a balance of gain and loss from a particular change.

    That is: change is not free.

    Putting aside the comic folly of it, assume that tomorrow every speaker of English in the world freely and enthusiastically agrees that thenceforth the word-symbol “rain” will denote the path of a point moving on a plane so that it remains equidistant from another fixed point on that plane, while the word-symbol “circle” will henceforth mean water that falls from the skies as a consequence of meteorological processes.

    Are we no better or worse off than we were? No: we are worse off—because now we have a planetful of libraries chock full of books that describe circles as rain and vice versa (under the new rules, that is). Even those who enthusiastically agreed to the change will soon find making the mental conversions tedious or worse, while succeeding generations will find those books difficult going. Multiply that single change by a even a modest number of such hare-brained modifications, and very shortly the literate past will effectively disappear, and every book in English become about as accessible as Beowulf in the original is today.

    (And let us not commit the exquisite folly of dreaming that all “worthwhile” books would soon be re-issued in translation; I trust that the nonsensicality of that needs no dilation.)

    This overhead, it may be remarked in passing, is what proponents of massive spelling reform either don’t perceive or willfully ignore.

I now abandon the stepped-progress approach, because it has taken us as far as we need go.

Let us assume that English exists, or existed at some moment of relatively recent time, as a set of symbols and rules to which there was universal agreement by all native speakers. Whether it did or not we put aside for the moment: just grant the assumption. The assumption does not include the premise that that agreed-on English is perfect in its abilities, or even close to perfect: only agreed-on.

If, at that moment, someone writes a sentence that is not constructed in accordance with those accepted conventions, that sentence is defective—“wrong” or “bad” English. It may be comprehensible anyway, or it may misfire and place in the minds of readers something other than what the writer intended; but even if it is comprehensible, it is defective, for its readers will encounter the error much as a car will a speed bump, and it will to that greater or lesser extent interfere with the orderly and smooth flow of ideas writers seek. The maker of it, under our assumption, would gladly amend it should the error or errors be pointed out.

Implicit in that possibility of error is that, while all users may agree that there is a set of definite conventions that constitute English, not all users know all of those conventions, and some of the ones a particular user may know may be known imperfectly.

The ability of a writer to make mistakes in uses of the language does not conflict with the idea of there being a universal set of conventions. In democratic republics, the citizenry delegates the making of needed laws—many of them complex and concerned with abstruse matters—with equanimity, and does not feel that its collective or individual inability to recite from memory the entire Federal Code in itself vitiates any part of that Code, nor signals disagreement with or disapproval of it.

Indeed, no one can make mistakes unless there is a right form which has not been adhered to: the exception proves the rule.

(The meaning of that oft-misunderstood legal principle is that if an act is explicitly or implicitly shown to be an exception of some sort, that necessarily implies a rule to which it is an exception. The issuing of written permission for a person to do a certain act implies a rule stating that normally that act—let us say, a “rebroadcast, retransmission, or dissemination in any form”—is forbidden.)

Let us next see what some of the consequences are of the state I have asked you to assume.

We have accepted that the conventions are imperfect. They may lack parallelism, and so appear inconsistent one with another, they may be inadequate for succinctly conveying certain not uncommon ideas, or for providing a sufficiency of shades of meaning in common forms, they may require cumbersome constructions in some instances: the list of possible defects is long enough.

None of the prior assertions requires that we suffer such a condition in perpetuity. I say “suffer”, but manifestly implicit in the assumption was the corollary assumption that the extant system is working at least tolerably well as it is: that is implicit because otherwise the base assumption, consensus, is an intolerable strain on willing suspension of disbelief.

There is hence no need for massive immediate changes in the conventions. We can, in this assumption, afford to proceed like a subsistence farmer offered new crops: slowly and carefully, a little at a time, until we are confident that the changes are for the better. We have, that is, the leisure to make sure that proposed changes are going to be beneficial—without unintended or unanticipated detrimental consequences. Indeed, we have to proceed slowly, lest we lose contact with our linguistic heritage.

(Can we reasonably expect those ignorant, with good cause, of the nature of a tantalus or a gasogene—despite those things being but a century old—to know what a fardel or a petard might be?)

That aside raises a point: changes in symbols are less grave than changes in the rules for manipulating those symbols. The world changes: many new things, tangible and intangible, come into existence every day, indeed, every hour, and those things require names. Coining new names—nouns, as we conventionally say—is not only harmless but vital. The only detriments commonly associated with coining are two: occasional infelicity, which can scarcely be helped, and redundancy, which can. Redundancy is the gravelling practice of coining a term for which a perfectly serviceable word already exists; it is not a grave harm, but to the extent that it muddies the waters of careful diction, it is an annoyance. (Sometimes—though not often—in the long run, such things become benefits as the originally synonymous words acquire distinct senses, allowing improved differentiation and thus power of expression.)

Usually more pernicious is the turning of a word: a changing of its symbol assignment. Of such things, general statements cannot be made—because some are good and some bad—save that experience shows that the bad turnings well outnumber the good ones. The harms possible are two: the lesser is that a needless redundancy is created; the greater is that a perfectly serviceable word for which there is no ready substitute may be lost.

A pair of examples may amuse. To “transpire” means—meant, I should say—to slowly, invisibly, imperceptibly pass through a barrier by osmosis, and was a fine description, in its common metaphorical use, of the curious way supposedly secret or confidential information often passes into common knowledge. Now, the word simply means “happen”—and what, pray tell, was wrong with “happen”?—while we must fall back for the original idea on terms like “leak,” which do not convey that slow, mysterious osmosis but instead imply a distinct, well, leak. Water never transpired from a badly soldered pipe.

Then there is, or was, “connive at,” a term meaning to deliberately turn a blind eye to, to passively allow, by supposedly innocent but actually knowing inaction, an illicit activity to proceed. Now it means something like—the turning has left the term in a bit of a muddle—“conspire with.” (Of course, the idiomatic preposition “at” has also had to be varied to accommodate this idiotic shift, which has left us bereft of a simple word for a common, simple idea.)

So for words: what for grammar? There is, because of the immensely complicated jobs it has to do, a definite quality of artifice about grammar. That said, in its fundamentals, it is only sanity: a sane recognition of the real world. Things exist, things have qualities, things do things to other things. We convert our perceptions of those things, and their qualities and actions, into language guided by grammar that, at bottom, reflects those perceptions.

Verbs, in English as in many languages, have forms that correspond to the singularity or plurality of the thing or things performing the action. Pronouns, a marvelous invention, also have forms that reflect data including the number of the noun they are standing in for. On the not-terribly-controversial idea that a thing is equal to itself, pronouns have forms that agree with the nouns they stand in for, as the number forms of verbs correspond to the singularity or plurality of the doer of the action.

English is full of such required correlations between its word symbols, correlations that are a part of what we call the grammar of the language. Those correlations reflect the basic activity of the natural human mind: we don’t expect a verb to denote plurality when the active force is singular, nor a pronoun standing in for a singular thing to indicate plurality. That is hardly artifice: it is its polar opposite.

Still operating under that assumption of consensus, what would we make of a sentence in which a plural pronoun was made to stand in for a singular noun? An error—nothing more, nothing less. We would expect that, as before, did we point out the error, presumably made in inadvertence, the maker would be pleased to correct it. But Lo! we find that the maker insists that No, the form is as was intended. On being referred to the conventions of the language, the writer forcefully expresses disdain: the world needs, and is now ready for, a plural pronoun for a singular noun. We no longer conclude that the writer was in error: we conclude that the writer is literally and exactly insane.

It is well to humor the mad: we inquire further. The writer has recognized what myriads of others have recognized: that for a particular generalized noun construction there is no unique correspondingly generalized pronoun, so that—in that generalized circumstance—the disjunction of two pronouns needs to be supplied to satisfy the consensus conventions of the language, a less than ideal form of expression.

Of that myriad of predecessors, a certain number have, like the writer at issue, gone beyond merely regretting the matter and have tried to supply a solution; unlike the writer at issue, they have sought to coin a new word to fill the obvious need. While that is an eminently reasonable procedure, curiously, no such suggested new word has ever come close to catching the public fancy.

Those inclined to things like checking the water depth at the end of the pool they are contemplating a dive off will be given pause by that curious circumstance; those who—like the fellow in the apocryphal western novel who erupted from his chair at the table, dashed out the saloon door, leapt onto his horse, and rode away in all directions—are less given to reflection on circumstances will be undaunted by the possibility, which will not even cross their minds, that the world may not be here crying out for succor and deliverance just quite so loudly as they fancy—certainly not loudly enough to justify the institutionalized insanity of a plural proxy for a singular thing.

But, argues the patient—cleverly, as the mad often argue—by my act I have delivered the old word from its bondage in the land of Plurality: it is now a proud citizen of two worlds, Plurality and Singularity. Ah, well, but: have the authorities stamped its passport?

But let me not confuse the issue by referring—yet—to any “authorities.” Let us just recall the eminently commonsensical proposition #7 above: “Converting a symbol or a rule that had a unique significance to one that has more than one possible significance is a decrease in user agreement on the conventions of the language. It is thus necessarily to at least some extent a detriment.” The mad, of course, can argue against anything whatever: for them, rationality is not a constraint. For most or all of the rest of humanity, the force of the logic is incontrovertible.

But! cries the patient: look at your very own #9! “Whether a particular change in conventions—which is a change in the language—that has elements of both improvement and detriment will be on balance an improvement or a detriment depends on whether the harm from the detriment outweighs the gain from the improvement or vice-versa.” I have made a vast improvement! That far outweighs any cost! In reality, the supposed improvement is half-vast.

The disjunct pronoun pair at issue is two syllables, printable as nine characters (including spaces). The proposed replacement, the word once uniquely plural, is one syllable of four spaces. The world-shaking saving effected is one curt syllable or five printed spaces. For that stunning benefit, we are asked to throw away the ages-old innate idea that a thing is equal to itself, and to accept that a long-unique term is now to be ambivalent (ambi-valent, of two values), with the determination of the operative valence a new requirement on the writer to exhibit and the reader to detect.

And all of that wrangling ignores the further consideration that in reality the special circumstances that might require that disjunct pronoun pair are, in the great majority of cases, readily avoidable. Anyone can tell me anything they choose to, and I—not being a telepath—will be unable to contradict that anything; but can you honestly report back to me that at some point in the nine long paragraphs (including this one) discussing a hypothetical writer and sanity in pronouns you said to yourself, “Ah yes, self, a clumsy circumlocution to avoid a gendered pronoun”? Yet that hypothetical writer has been discussed at length, assigned many qualities, made to do and say many things, and we still don’t know—and haven’t had to deal with—of what sex he or she is.

The dissenters will by now doubtless have packed up and left for a long weekend, but, should any vacillating souls remain, the next issue is the assumption under which we have dealt with that crypto-sexed writer: that there is, or at some moment in relatively recent time was, consensus on the conventions of English. To what extent is that assumption plausible, and to what extent does it affect the conclusions we have tentatively drawn?

Let us first be sure we know precisely what it is that was assumed, or hypothesized. Yes, it was consensus (which does not mean majority—it means universal or near-universal agreement); but with these two conditions:

Now, at last, we turn from sheer common sense and logic to the world of determinable facts. Whether or not there was such a consensus is a matter of fact, and is, certainly in principle and probably in reality, determinable.

I submit the proposition that at, oh, let us say roughly the mid-point of the twentieth century, there was such a consensus, or something very close to it. Let me weasel my words with due care: by “very close to it,” I mean that while not every single user agreed on every single detail of grammar, syntax, diction, and orthography, there was near-universal agreement on all major points in each area of the language, and substantial agreement on even the lesser ones. Yes, some otherwise-sane grammarians could end up looking like the famous Laocoön statue trying to somehow make Ms. Hemans’ memorable solecism “The boy stood on the burning deck / Whence all but he had fled” into something respectable English speakers could accept; but aside from the occasional intellectual hula hoop like that, there really was little on which folk disagreed.

I do not mean by that—cannot mean—that every soul who ever spoke or wrote in English in that period spoke or wrote in perfect accord with the standard English that I am claiming existed: of course not. Nor that every such soul had a perfect grasp of that standard English. But the assertion does not require those things. It requires only that: one, no one much dissented from the idea that there is (or then was) a single, correct, standard form of English, and that transgressions of the conventions of that form were errors; and two, that the record bear out that those who propounded guides to or explications of that standard form were in substantial agreement one with another. I assert that those two conditions were met in that period.

This is not an academic paper, nor yet a best-selling novel. I have neither gold nor a bit of ribbon (ref.: Napoleon) inclining me to massive research from which to glean and strew learned footnotes hither and thither. But I will cite a few bits of evidence, and suggest that it is up to those who strenuously disagree to come up with sufficient counter-examples.

To take perhaps the least first: Americans beyond youth may well recall the long period in the early part of the second half of the twentieth century when the back covers of many periodicals, notably (but not, I think, exclusively) comic books were regularly covered with ads for the Sherwin Cody correspondence school of English. Those advertisements—or rather, that advertisement, for it never varied a whit—I have seen described as the single most effective advertisement ever propounded. It included the boldfaced headline Do you make these mistakes in English? Its legendary effectiveness can signify only that large numbers of readers—and, this is important, readers of comic books and like stuff—were acutely aware of their deficiencies in English and anxious enough to remedy them that they would pay money to do so. It’s irrelevant to the argument, but I submit, without evidence, the suggestion that such an advertising campaign would be impossible today, as so many, especially of that same customer base, have been persuaded that in fact there are no “mistakes” to be made in English use, and that their English is as good as anyone else’s.

Notably more significant, we can turn to the reference manuals. The first thing we need is a consensus, or close to it, as to what the leading reference manuals from in and near that era were. There, I think, we have little difficulty. Far ahead of the rest of the pack is Henry W. Fowler, notably with his 1926 edition of A Dictionary of Modern English Usage; many writers to this hour (Ursula K. Le Guin pops to mind, owing to an explicit remark) feel that a copy of Fowler and a good dictionary are all any sound writer needs. Well in the running are Theodore Bernstein, with several entries, notably his 1965 The Careful Writer, and (my personal favorite) Wilson Follett with his 1966Dictionary of Modern American Usage.

Behind those but still noteworthy are Eric Partridge (with his 1954 Book of Usage and Abusage) and the Evanses, Bergen and Cordelia, with their 1957 Dictionary of Contemporary American Usage (the only one in these listings I do not possess), Sir Ernest Gowers with The Complete Plain Words (a combining of two volumes, composed in 1948 and 1951), and the 1975 Simple and Direct by the delightful Jacques Barzun (who headed the committee that posthumously completed Follett’s book). There are numerous others worth mentioning—the legendary Strunk’s (later, and most famously, Strunk & White’s) Elements of Style stands out. Some folk famed primarily as writers had their say, H.L. Mencken and Herbert Read, for example.

I have included only so-called “usage” manuals. For pure grammar, pretty much the undisputed King of the Hill is George O. Curme’s English Grammar from 1932 or so.

That is not a list selected to buttress a viewpoint. It is a list of pretty well all the usage manuals anyone paid any attention to. Omitted are I know not how many equivalents of today’s “For Dummies” books about writing, but I think the omissions fair, for while in the main they sold enough copies to sustain the belief I cited earlier that many, many people believed in a standard “correct” English and wanted to acquire it, none by itself was especially influential.

Anyone with an interest in what Lincoln Barnett, in the title of a book, called The Treasure of Our Tongue is invited to obtain copies of all of those many reference books and peruse each on this or that matter or topic and see if they don’t represent a consensus on the major and most of the minor matters. I elsewhere extracted from most some succinct notes on the use of “they” and variants for a generalized singular; those, being especially relevant here, may stand as an example.

I would call that consensus, and it covers 1926 to 1975. Draw your own conclusions.

There remains a lot of folklore about English grammar and grammarians. It is true, as I have noted elsewhere on this site, that in bygone centuries, when first the concept of a universal systematization of English began to seem practicable, a few fools propounded nonsenses. Two in particular of those nonsenses—disdained by all competent users of the tongue—have remained in some currency within folklore as supposed examplars of why grammarians are fusty fools wildly out of touch with reality. They are brought up again and again and again in a sort of “When are you going to stop beating your wife?” mode of silliness, usually by the ignorant for and to the ignorant, for none not ignorant can be hornswoggled by those canards.

The one is some imagined prohibition against “splitting infinitives”; the other is some equally fictitious prohibition against ending a sentence with a preposition. Some quotations from literary lights may help here:

The other authorities I have mentioned all agree on these matters, as do all folk of any sense whatever. But, and count on it, the anarchists will have those zombies lurch out of the closet faithfully at every opportunity, to frighten the unknowing (and will make opportunities when none reasonably exist).

Owing to follies like those (the beliefs that someone believes those things, I mean, not the things themselves) perpetuated by the ignorant and—much more of account, and much more evil thereby—by those who themselves know perfectly well that those are falsehoods, too many persons acquire a bias against sound grammar and against those who defend it.

For myself, I don’t care: I don’t derive my sense of self or worth from the remarks of strangers on the internet. But for our mother tongue, I do care. Mother is distinctly unwell these days, and she needs the active support of all her children.

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