Sunday, September 6, 2009

There's No Their There

While at the Fair, I saw this list of questions posted outside one of the animal barns:

Sign with a list of questions, the first on reading Which animal turns their head blue?

The first question on the list caught my attention because of its use of "their." Clearly, this is one case where it would not only be grammatically correct, but perfectly coherent, to use the word "its" -- as in, "Which animal turns its head blue?" Or if not that, then "Which animals turn their heads blue?"

In general, I am ambivalent about the use of "their" for those all-too-frequent times when the gender of the subject is unknown. I have always believed that it is inaccurate and disingenuous to pretend that "he" and "his" are universal pronouns. (Each student must do his best. Your child will go through many developmental phases as he ages. Each camper is responsible for his own hygiene and particularly menstrual supplies. Oops.)

At the same time, I believe that "he/she" and "his/her" and all their variants are awkward and somehow unnecessary. In writing, I have been known to use the compact "s/he", but that construction is less than useful in spoken English, and doesn't help with "his/her."

In some ways, "they" and "their" are attractive options. They're short, and are already being commonly used this way by English speakers. People started using these constructions for a reason, after all -- because the assumed masculine "he" doesn't make sense.

According to the Wikipedia, the use of they and their is considered more acceptable in British and Australian English than in American English (I didn't know that!), and the Wikipedia entry on "singular they" says it dates back as far as the 14th century in written English. So it has quite a history behind it.

Nevertheless, many others can't help feeling that the singular they is wrong. Again, quoting the Wikipedia:

A majority of The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language usage panel "of some 200 distinguished educators, writers, and public speakers" "reject the use of they with singular antecedents" inasmuch as 82% of the panelists found the sentence "The typical student in the program takes about six years to complete their course work" to be unacceptable.
Often, the easiest way to avoid the problem altogether is to shift from singular to plural. In the American Heritage case, the sentence could easily be changed to "Typical students in the program take about six years to complete their course work."

But there are unfixable examples, such as "Each child feeds himself." Pluralizing the sentence ("The children feed themselves") doesn't have quite the meaning of the singular. But using the singular they ("Each child feeds themself") is inherently incorrect because "self" always means a singular person.

One idea for dealing with the problem comes from linguist and cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker. According to the Wikipedia, Pinker "proposes the word they be considered to be a pair of 'homonyms' — two different words with the same spelling and sound.... [examples:] Those ladies over there are wearing THEIR best clothes [vs.] On a day like today, anyone would want to wear THEIR best clothes." This use of their/their as homonyms has analogies in other languages, such as Basque.

Interesting. But it does seem as though that approach would require the use of singular verbs with the singular they, if the homonym they is considered to be a grammatically coherent singular -- a perfectly good substitute for the singular he or she. In that case (using one of my earlier examples), we would have to live with sentences like "Your child will go through many developmental phases as they ages."


Update: A couple more great examples that demonstrate "he" cannot be used as a gender neutral pronoun:
  • At the funeral, everyone was dressed to the nines, each wearing his swankest tie or nicest dress.
  • Is it your brother or your sister who can hold his breath for four minutes?
From my most recent grammar find, Motivated Grammar (via thatwhichmatter).

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