Behind the Dictionary

Lexicographers Talk About Language

Spelling, Usage and the Singular "They"

A couple of weeks ago we ran the first part of our fascinating conversation with Professor Anne Curzan of the University of Michigan, an expert in the history of English and a member of the American Heritage Dictionary's usage panel. Here is part two of our interview -- a jaw-dropper for anyone interested in language -- where we focus on gender, spelling and much more:

VT: Do you sometimes find your work as an English teacher and linguist at cross purposes?

Anne: I sometimes describe it as an almost hypocritical position. I teach my students to look at language diversity and change not as wrong or as evidence of the decay of English, but as a natural part of language and something to see as interesting. Then I get their papers, and as an English teacher it's my responsibility to make sure they have control of prescriptive rules of usage, some of which certainly aid in clarity but some of which are arbitrary, some of which do not correspond to spoken language, and some of which, frankly, I don't really believe in. But it's my responsibility to make sure that students know all of these rules because they will be judged in other contexts by whether or not they control them. I talk with them explicitly about this, and explain my position, which is that I don't grade them down for usage issues.

Typos I feel differently about, but for "who" for "whom," or a singular "they," I underline or circle them and make a note about what the prescriptive rule says so students can make the choice. What I don't do is cross these things out in papers, because that's a very different message. Now compare this to the work we're asked to do on the usage panel, where we get a survey that asks, is this pronunciation or meaning "acceptable?"

VT: What the heck does that mean?

Anne: Exactly the right question. It puts you in an interesting position of what does it mean to be "acceptable." You realize there are meanings and pronunciations that may or will be judged as not acceptable in certain contexts. But I lean towards a more inclusive approach. If I see pronunciations that I know younger people are using, I tend to say, "This is happening, and we need to recognize that this is happening."

VT: Interesting. You mentioned the singular "they."

Anne: Yes, I feel very strongly about that one.

VT: Pro or con?

Anne: Pro. It's a very efficient and natural solution to he/she. In fact, English speakers have been using the singular they for centuries. I've done research on the history of gender constructions in English, and you can find the singular they back into at least Middle English.. English speakers and writers have been using this solution for years. It wasn't until the end of the 18th century when we got the first prescription about it from the grammarian Lindley Murray. He advocated the singular generic he and that got picked up in other grammars. So we had a rule prescribing singular generic he until the 1980's, when feminists urged a different solution, the result being he or she. But in the spoken language we say they all the time.

VT: They seems much more elegant than he or she.

Anne: Most people don't notice it. Imagine if I said, "I was talking to a friend of mine, and they said it was a terrible movie." That would be under the radar for most of us. Occasionally I will have people say to me: "But they is plural, so it doesn't work." My response is that in the example I just gave, they is clearly singular, because it's referring to a friend. My second defense of the construction is that in the course of English history, the pronoun you has done exactly the same thing. We used it to make a singular/plural distinction between thou and you. Then thou died out over time, and you took on both the singular and plural functions. And it does so with the same verb: we still say "you are," even in the singular. They has done exactly the same thing, which is to take on a singular function in addition to a plural function.

VT: This, of course, goes against all the rules I learned in high school.

Anne: I was giving a lecture the other day in a Jane Austen class I teach. Jane Austen actually uses singular "they" fairly frequently. I asked students, "Are you all allowed to use this in your papers?" Most of them answered "no" (except the few who had taken classes with me!). I then asked, who says you can't? The students responded, "English teachers." But I said, who told the English teachers that they shouldn't allow it? Several of the students answered, "Grammar books." But who wrote the grammar books? And as we ask these questions, we can start to realize, wait, who has the authority to tell me that? I think it's an important question to ask.

VT: Another important question that you raise in your work is about spelling. You describe English spelling as the "world's most awesome mess." Why is this so?

Anne: I'm quoting someone else on that, and there are multiple reasons. One is that we have continued to experience pronunciation change after spelling became standardized. So if you take a word like knight, that actually used to be pronounced k-nicht. The "k" was pronounced, and the "gh" was used to represent a fricative in the k-nicht. The "i" was also pronounced like "ee." We've since simplified the consonant clusters, like the "gn" and "kn," which used to be pronounced. We also underwent a change called the Great Vowel Shift, where historically long vowels were raised, but the spelling continued to capture their old pronunciation. Think of the words mouse and mice. They were pronounced like "moose" and "meese," but then the long "i" and "u" became diphthongs. And "boot," as the spelling indicates, used to have a long "o" which was then raised to "u."

VT: Interesting.

Anne: We also have idiosyncrasies. For example, we don't know where the "u" in forty went. It used to be there, but now it's not.

VT: That pesky "u."

Anne: Exactly. And then we borrow from other languages, which have different spelling systems than we do. For example, the French use the "c" to represent an "s" sound, which is how we get city and cellar with an "s" sound, but a "c" spelling. But the word colonel is one of the truly idiosyncratic stories of the English language. At the end of the Renaissance we borrowed colonello from Italian, and around the same time we borrowed coronelle from French. What we managed to do was standardize the French pronunciation with the Italian spelling.

VT: My jaw has dropped!

Anne: You can see these things happening around us right now. Here's one story which I love: I was teaching phonology, how you transcribe the pronunciation of words, and one of the words I had on the board was "larynx." I pronounced it the way I say it, which is lar-inx. But I noticed a student looking puzzled. When I called on her, she said, "That's not how I say it." She pronounced it lar-nyx. And I, being the accepting teacher that I am, said "No you don't!" But she insisted she did, so I turned to the class of 50 students and asked if anyone else pronounced the word lar-nyx. And I had six or seven students raise their hands!

VT: Lar-nyx.

Anne: Lar-nyx. I now have students go out and survey people about the word. This is a process called metathesis, where sounds switch places. For example, "bird" used to be brid, and "third" used to be thrid, which actually makes much more sense - thrice, three, thrid. Also, "ask" used to be aks.

VT: Now, of course, that's considered non-standard.

Anne: It's a highly stigmatized usage. But when I tell people that Chaucer actually used aks, it often rocks their world. So now "larynx" is changing, and at some point people may say, "Well why is it spelled this way if people say lar-nyx?"

VT: This is fascinating.

Anne: It is fun. But I also hope that when I'm working with students or when I'm writing about this kind of thing, it unsettles for people their ideas about right and wrong in language, be that about non-standard dialects of language or about the way younger people are speaking. This, of course, is natural to language. You will have variation and you will have change in language. I ask people to think about the evolution of our language differently.


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Comments from our users:

Wednesday May 9th 2007, 2:41 AM
Comment by: Mikela
Very interesting article, I enjoyed it very much. I did not know about this evolution of English, but it makes a lot of sense. In Swedish we still have the "old" pronounciation covered in the examples, just showing that a long time ago our languages were much more similar, and that English has evolved towards simplification of pronounciation while we have kept the "olden" ways. I truly enjoy your site and the interesting articles and interviews you post. Thank you very much for your wonderful work!

A fan in Sweden
Wednesday May 9th 2007, 4:18 AM
Comment by: Edward L.
FYI
Wednesday May 9th 2007, 11:06 AM
Comment by: Laura D.
Singular "they" yes! It's similar to the liberating and practical "Ms.". Let's free our singular pronoun from gender.
Wednesday May 9th 2007, 11:17 AM
Comment by: Lorna H.
I couldn't believe my eyes when I read: So we had a rule prescribing singular generic he until the 1980's, when feminists urged a different solution, the result being he or she. But in the spoken language we say they all the time.
(1)Generic he is still in use, I daresay it will always be used.
(2)Don't flatter yourself that a few feminists have changed English throughout the world. This is quite arrogant.
(e)The word "he" should be used in as a generic because you don't know the gender of the person you are writing about. When you DO know the gender of the person and it is a "he" go ahead and use he. The only effect you are having by saying THEY is destroying any record of women/she in our language and consequently in society. Case in point a "chairperson". When it is used it is almost always a chairwoman. If "chairperson" isn't used then it is almost always a male "chairman". So by encouraging the use of a supposedly gender-neutral "chairperson" you have obliterated the use of "chairwoman". Again eliminating women from acknowledgement as women. Also: "actress" it became "actor" (again obliterating women from language). Most obvious is the word "authoress" which has been replaced with supposly supposedly gender-neutral "author". However it makes most readers assume the writer was a man since the correct word for an author (who is subsequently determined to be female) is "authoress".
Citing feminists who "urged a different solution" is a cop out for mis-use of english. Remember "feminists" were singularly American and you are discussing a language (english) which is used throughout the world. Applying what was "urged" here in the US to the entire world fo english speaking peoples is a bit presumptuous.
Wednesday May 9th 2007, 12:17 PM
Comment by: Magda Pecsenye
Lorna, I think you're missing the point of Dr. Curzan's interview (and, in fact, her whole field of study). She's studying the way language has changed, not prescribing usage. As she says, many of the "shoulds" of the English language are based on a misunderstanding of the history of the words. And prescribing usage is futile anyway, because language changes as people use it.

Your third point is arguing exactly what Dr. Curzan mentioned, that people think the generic he is the historical standard and is therefore correct (your comment almost sounds as if you think the generic he is morally superior to the singular they).

I'm wondering where you're getting your data that "most readers" assume an author is a man. To my ears, the word "authoress" sounds condescending and demeaning. However, I would never tell someone they couldn't use it, because the language belongs to those who use it, as Dr. Curzan points out. The same with "chairperson." As it is used all the time, then it applies equally to men and women. (A side note is that the debate in my circle is over "chairperson" vs. "chair" as a shorthand. It's too silly to refer to a person as a piece of furniture, but it's already turned into a verb, so that will probably validate its use as a noun. Discuss.)

I also think that there are and were tens of thousands of feminists all over the world who would be quite* surprised to find out that they don't exist.

*American usage of quite, meaning "completely," not the British usage meaning "to a degree."
Wednesday May 9th 2007, 2:56 PM
Comment by: Sam L.
Just for the record: I wanted to give this fascinating article the highest rating, but I didn't know how the voting system works. So I just clicked on the area and apparently gave the article a lower rating. Just shows how voting boxes are corruptible. Oh, me.
Wednesday May 9th 2007, 4:14 PM
Comment by: Barry T.
I have to say my observation and experience does not mirror those of Lorna. In fact, in a former role as a manuscript editor for medical publications in the 1980s, we were allowed to use "she" to refer to a generic doctor—but never "he." I rarely see the generic "he" used when the subject's gender is not evident. I've also become accustomed to the common use of "chairperson" to describe either a man or a woman over the past 25 years.

As far as the use of "actor" and "actress" is concerned, I must admit I have been reprimanded by women who act for referring to them as "actresses" rather than their preferred "actor." I do not see gender as an inherent part of words like "actor," despite the word's origin. Nor do I believe the simplification of the language is in any way "obliterating women from the language." In fact, I find it hard to understand how there can be a point of gender pride in suffixes such as "ess."
Wednesday May 9th 2007, 4:56 PM
Comment by: Wood F.
I have never heard anyone defend feminine suffixes like -ess, as preserving the identity of women. By that logic, I'm surprised Ms. Hodgson isn't advocating their attachment to all occupational words: how about singress (I guess we do have chanteuse, by way of French)? Or writress (somehow more pleasing than authoress)? And if Hilary Clinton wins in 2008, maybe we'll have a Presidentrix.
Wednesday May 9th 2007, 7:33 PM
Comment by: Michael D.
Our comments on this topic topics illustrate quite well why many student writers give up before they begin: they know some persnickety language fussbudget who is more interested in the spelling and grammar than in the story will lambast them. How many writers have we aborted? What stories will never be told?

(I hope I've said all this correctly.)
Wednesday May 9th 2007, 7:35 PM
Comment by: Michael D.
Whoops. Strike that "topics" right off the bat. I trust you got the story, however.
Thursday May 10th 2007, 12:08 AM
Comment by: E. Mike S.
It's an old battle, this battle between descriptivists and prescriptivists (both words undefined here at VT). I first encountered it as an undergrad in the 1960s, after reading several articles (sorry, don't remember the citations) criticizing Merriam-Webster's Third International Dictionary, Unabridged (1961?). Various writers found the dictionary lacking guidance in usage and unwilling to state forthrightly what usages--spelling, grammatical, and definitional--were right or wrong. That edition, a change from the Second International,--and I'm paraphrasing here--left writers and speakers of English adrift without a compass on choppy seas with little chance of getting to an intelligible destination. Dictionaries, many thought, were the needed compass that provided direction and guidance to safe harbor. They therefore required a significant degree of prescriptivism while remaining open to the inevitable change that English would always undergo. But the Third International, several felt, listed too far to the descriptivist side and had left users unmoored.

Which brings us to Ms. Curzan's article and the comments of her
supporters, the temper of which seem overly descriptive, something of a surprise coming from someone who sits on the usage panel of a major dictionary. The logic seems to be that since language will change, prescribing certain usages, and by extension proscribing others, is futile. The descriptivist side, where I place Ms. Curzan and most of the commenters, would let language be and not interfere in its practice with niggling rules of usage. But taking such a notion to its extreme would lead to linguistic anarchy, wouldn't it? Don't we need a measure of order to the language that prescriptive dictionaries and English teachers (full disclosure, I'm one of the latter) can provide? How will the young get the guidance and direction they often need in how to use language well if not from authoritative sources? Should we assume that all change is beneficial? Changes in cell structure, for example, can presage cancer. None of us would think such changes beneficial, would we? Why do we assume, then, that every change in language is somehow beneficial? Shouldn't we oppose some changes and support others. If overprotection can smother a language, can not a lack of restriction result in the same--a dead language?

Last, I'm not certain that I really believe Ms. Curzan and her supporters here want to do away with the guidance that dictionaries and other authoritative sources can give on a better use of English. Otherwise, why would they subscribe to VT, or do they not consult it for definitional guidance? Besides, Ms. Curzan is a member of the usage panel of The American Heritage Dictionary, a respected dictionary that brought back to lexicography a degree of considered prescriptiveness. If I haven't overstated her adherence to descriptivism, why is she a member of such a usage panel? Surely she believes, doesn't she,--and don't you, too--that some uses of English are beyond the pale?
Thursday May 10th 2007, 2:10 AM
Comment by: anna S. (South Africa)Top 10 Commenter
First, I would love to address Lorna's commment briefly by suggesting that her heart is in the right place, but perhaps she is approaching the topic from the wrong angle. Often times people misunderstand the goal of feminism; as a student and the only active and open feminist in my class, people often ask me if I hate men. Feminism is not about superiority over men -- it is about equality. Using singluar "they" is not going to erase women, but instead it's going to bring women and men onto the same level linguistically.
Second, I agree with E. Mike Seybert that a certain prescriptive edge is required for a language to survive. Language, like culture, needs infrastructure, and we can't throw that away. I support the evolution of our language and the addition of vocabulary, but at some point the line must be drawn. Grammar and rules provide comprehension; let's value that.
Friday May 11th 2007, 10:04 AM
Comment by: Max C.
Michael, are we to assume your use of "our" to refer to the comments of both males and females, since you didn't specify. As for "student writers", does that include future authoresses as well as authors? Now, lastly, "fussbudget!" That will certainly require some clarification. I don't know how you can fix that one to be politically correct and satisfy every gender, (male, female and neutrals). I appreciate the point of your comment though.

E dot Mike, you da man, man! I'm wid you bra! You got it goin' on dude! You straitened dis whole thang out wit whut you said bro! It's like you say man, Da Man always gonna be dare to tell ya how to act even if it be about how to talk! Stay cool Man!!!

It is amazing how little it takes to anger people. Lorna, how ya gonna enjoy life if you think your very language is out to get ya?

"We spend so much time shouting our opinions at each other, stressing our importance, that we can no longer hear those things which don't have to shout to be important."

-- Ken Masters, 1992
speaking at a congressional breakfast in Washington DC.

Whatcha think Dr. Carriker?

Friday May 11th 2007, 1:32 PM
Comment by: Fletcher Bonomo (MA)
One issue worth considering is pedagogy as it relates to students first encountering usage issues in a conscious way; that is, in the 7-8 grades. It's not an age when subtlety is taken in readily, and clear messages regarding personal behavior as well as appropriate writing work best. Many educators don't like the idea, but it's a good time for rules. The best way to tell a 7th grader about "larn-ix" is that it's "wrong." It's not helpful to give the stats and leave the choice up to them...too much gray area for that age.

The singular "they" is different, in my opinion; that's "right."

Who gets to decide? It should be English departments...not good having 7th and 8th grade teachers contradicting each other.

My point is that this arrangemnt is good, even though it lays down an authoritarian foundation which, in high school and later, is challenged (Professor Curzan's teaching is much about this.) Students learn that the world is complex, that rules are imperfect human inventions, and so on. This should be an exhilerating experience if we manage it right for them.

Better to have adhered and fallen away than never to have adhered at all.
Sunday May 13th 2007, 11:18 AM
Comment by: Suzanne P.
Fascinating stuff! Among other things, the comment about "metathesis" struck a chord. I think another example of where our pronunciation represents a "switch", when compared to the spelling, are with "wh-" words. In Ancient Greek, I have heard that they had rough and smooth breathing marks which were placed before certain letters to determine if the initial letter was preceded by an aspiration or not. In addition, there are also our "rh-" words (rhythm, rhododendron, etc.) which seem to have a certain breathiness preceding rather than following the "r", I think. I'm just curious as to whether there are any connections to be made here. Any comments?

Lastly, a great read about the English language is "The Professor and the Madman", by Simon Winchester, 1998. At a certain point, while discussing the development of Modern English Usage, Winchester brings up the theoretical question of where Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, et al "looked up" their words. Well, of course, there was no such concept of "looking up" as we think of it today. (The subtitle of the book is "A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary" for those who might be interested.)
Wednesday December 3rd 2008, 11:52 AM
Comment by: Mary Lee M.
Love the article!

1) Relative to metathesis, another example is the word "nuclear." It's a pet peeve of mine to hear people pronounce it "new-kew-lar" but I have heard some very educated people do just that. Are they wrong, or is the language changing?

2) Relative to the use of gender-neutral words when gender is known, I think that Lorna has a very good point. If the person chairing a committee, for example, is a woman, why not indicate that in our word use? I thought the point of gender neutral for groups was not to exclude women, so why do exactly that when gender is known to be female? Are we still pretending to be male to appear equal? Stating that I am female is not demeaning.
Friday December 5th 2008, 9:29 AM
Comment by: El (Los Angeles, CA)
The clarification of the word 'forty' vs 'fourty', made me LOL at myself. In the 50's in grammar school I was
taught to spell '40' as fourty. Somewhere along the way I began to be confused as to the correct spelling of
'40'. I couldn't believe my confusion at such a simple word. At least now I know I am not so crazy. So fourty
has morphed in forty. Um! Um! Um! Thanks for lifting the fog.
Monday April 13th 2009, 5:56 PM
Comment by: A. Z.
Wonderful!
Friday August 13th 2010, 12:01 PM
Comment by: Chris P. (Glendale, AZ)
Wonderful article, fun comments. I may be wrong, but I think that the disappearance of feminine forms of nouns such as authoress, actress and hostess is a reflection of the English language evolving true to its overall genderlessness. Where the association of a noun with gender is primary - man, woman, mother, father - we're okay with it, because it's part of the meaning. If the meaning of a word is not dependent on gender, we do away with the feminine form. That doesn't mean we're downplaying the record of female persons in language, and as a matter of fact, the "male" form of a noun, such as "author", is only male in the presence of the female form. Otherwise, it's genderless. Most of the feminine forms of nouns like these add a suffix like -ess, which draws from French, a gendered language.
Wednesday September 14th 2011, 6:26 PM
Comment by: Ellen M.
Oh, come on, Professor--I've never heard anyone say in casual conversation, "I was talking to a friend of mine, and they said it was a terrible movie." They (showing I don't object across the board to singular "they") would say either "he" or "she" depending on the gender of the friend in question.

That's not to say I like the use of the masculine singular general pronoun, which usually sounds pompous as well as sexist, but in many cases the whole sentence can be better cast in the plural:
"the reader can see for himself that..."
"readers can see for themselves that..."
Thursday September 15th 2011, 12:02 AM
Comment by: PETER C. (Tempe, AZ)
A friend of mine...is either a he or a she.
Friday November 4th 2011, 5:43 AM
Comment by: Rudolf M. (Almonte Canada)
You have a most interesting view of imprecision.
After having lived in North America for more years than elsewhere I have accepted the 'local' language as an easy tool for communication. North American English is certainly enjoying a flexibility that is not (yet?) found in languages like German where every thing and every person has one of three genders. And while here all is genderless (ideal for feminists) one encounters the odd man who (I don't know of any woman who,or should I say that?) would call his car or his boat a she with lots of affection.
Saturday November 5th 2011, 2:13 PM
Comment by: Heather K. (Winder, GA)
I would have to say that I disagree with several of the comments that claim a person would never say "I was talking to a friend of mine, and they said it was a terrible movie." in casual conversation.

In the age of the internet it's not exactly uncommon to be talking about a "friend" that you don't know the gender of. Also sometimes people use "they" when the gender of the person they are talking about is not important to the conversation - or when they don't wish to reveal it. That second scenerio I ran into often in my college days when a guy was talking to his girlfriend and mentioning a female friend.
Saturday November 5th 2011, 3:49 PM
Comment by: Rudolf M. (Almonte Canada)
never mention the sex or hint to it when you talk about a friend to your wife or girlfriend. The English language is ideal for that. While I usually talk to my wife in French, I switch to English when I tell her that I had Lunch with a friend.
Friday November 25th 2011, 8:58 PM
Comment by: mike H. (san diego, CA)
VT thanks for recycling a thoroughly enjoyable article. I learned to pronounce lar-iks and lair-nix during the 1960's in St. Louis MO, USA.

EllenM, if asked I would say that the singular they would be used by everybody I know.

Mike
Thursday January 5th 2012, 4:59 PM
Comment by: Gabrielle T. (Sydney Australia)
Shouldn't 1890's be 1890s, and I would not say, 'She was talking to Mary and they said' but i would if saying, 'I was talking to a friend and they said'.
Friday January 13th 2012, 8:12 PM
Comment by: Lily T. (Mesilla, NM)
Fascinating debate here. Great interview! Thank you VT and thank you Prof. Anne Curzan!
Tuesday February 14th 2012, 1:16 PM
Comment by: Brittney Callens
I love conversations that you can turn into plays. Plays gives you more excitment on how you should do them.
Wednesday April 11th 2012, 4:13 AM
Comment by: Rosina W. (San Francisco Bay Area, CA)
Fascinating article, with some surprisingly argumentative comments.

Um, can you find the typo here? (Hint: the word begins with "p")...


"VT: My jaw has dropped!

Anne: You can see these things happening around us right now. Here's one story which I love: I was teaching phonology, how you transcribe the pronounciation of words..."

[Fixed! —Ed.]
Thursday April 26th 2012, 10:49 PM
Comment by: Jeanne A. (Sanford, ME)
How recently did fourty evolve into forty? I realized there had been a change when I noted others didn't spell it as I did about thirty years ago. I'm thrilled to read that it ever was correct, and wasn't just a case of error.
Sunday April 29th 2012, 1:47 AM
Comment by: Patricia H. (Seattle, WA)
Great article. Very informative and succeeded in making me question whether a word is written/spoken improperly or whether it is evolving. Also, as others have commented, it's nice to have the validation that fourty once existed as a valid spelling of forty. I have always thought the word forty looked like it is missing something. It's too short. This article jogged my memory. I, too, learned to spell forty as 'fourty' and don't remember when I swapped it out for the current spelling.

On a different and irrelevant subject, I wonder if anyone else shares a quirky reaction I have while enjoying an article on the VT website? I commonly arrive at an article via a topical rabbit hole and start in thinking it is freshly written fodder, but like this article, it is can be written several years earlier. Since the material is often valid irrespective of when it was authored, I routinely don't notice my dumb mistake while reading. In keeping, the seeds of any comments I may have begin forming while still under this erroneous assumption of recentness; it isn't till quite a bit later that I realize the source of my comments is dated. That happened with this article. I didn't notice it was time stamped 2007 until I went to post my comment. As stated, that date is of no consequence because the material is just as relevant today as it was five years ago, and thus the comments should be fine too. However, being chronologically out of sync with the interviewer and the subject messes with my head. Those comments I lovingly began crafting while reading are directed mostly towards them and that's the snag. Those two moved on long ago! I find it chuckle worthy to think the few people who just might see my comments are also reading this article late in the game and I can't help wonder if they, or anyone else, has this same humorously disconcerted feeling after writing comments for an audience that resides mostly in the past?
Wednesday July 18th 2012, 4:50 PM
Comment by: Richard F. (San Diego, CA)
(This may be a bit off-topic, but I don't see your email address.)

Lately, especially on the web, I find articles or comments that use a company or corporation as a plural entity. For me, those have always been singular entities, with multiple examples being plural. Employees of the company are plural.

Here's a recent example of an author using both versions within two sentences.

"According to AllThingsD, Google isn't acquiring Milk, or Oink. Google are however acquiring the entire Milk team."

http://techleash.com/2012/03/kevin-rose-to-start-work-at-google-this-monday/

(Just imagine someone from a hundred years ago reading that quote).

Am I behind the times, or do you think the web are leading the way?
Wednesday July 25th 2012, 12:31 PM
Comment by: Cody (Eugene, OR)
Despite the author's credentials, she will never convince me that it is now acceptable to use the 'singular' they. It sounds clunky, uneducated, and simply wrong. As a copy editor, I will continue to rewrite sentences that use 'they' as a singular pronoun. Surely we can make our language sound good without throwing good sense out the door. I must also agree with Ellen who wrote, "I've never heard anyone say in casual conversation, 'I was talking to a friend of mine, and they said it was a terrible movie.'" Really? If people spoke that way, I'd think they had something to hide!"
Monday September 10th 2012, 5:51 AM
Comment by: Mitch Powell (Laguna Beach, CA)
I don't like metathesis. Noo-kyoo-lar for nuclear, rill-a-dur for realtor, and now this: lar-nyx? Please. What gets into people that they don't travel from left to right, applying the rules of pronunciation? Is this dyslexia? Is it laziness. If their parents always said it that way, why didn't they question it when they surely saw an inconsistency in pronunciation rules? Or maybe they just accepted that it was sort of weird and didn't feel they needed to question it, I don't like it.

:D
Monday September 10th 2012, 2:59 PM
Comment by: Cody (Eugene, OR)
I'm with you Mitch! As our language disintegrates, I will be one of the holdouts who will continue to suggest gently to friends who mispronounce words or use incorrect grammar. I haven't yet found the nerve, however, to tell one of my colleagues that saying, e.g., "The neighbors told Mary and I..." It seems that lately, people are so afraid of saying "me" when they should say "I" that they just use "I" all the time.
Thursday December 6th 2012, 4:12 PM
Comment by: Victoria V.
I've just read this article and find it interesting. I may be able to use this for "Current Events", an assignment for one of my teachers at school.
Wednesday January 23rd 2013, 12:41 PM
Comment by: Marilyn T.
I have written a blog entitled "Following Senseless Language Rules to Avoid Criticism." It should make you chuckle.

http://marilynhudsontucker.com/2012/07/22/following-senseless-language-rules-to-avoid-criticism/
Wednesday April 3rd 2013, 5:43 PM
Comment by: Ellen M.
I'm clearly swimming against the tide here, and don't hang with enough young folks to hear the singular "they" slung around wantonly. I'll ask my nieces.

But then my doctor showed me a letter that said,
"This is to inform you that your patient has not come in for their mammogram." which is way up there in WTF-land, usage-wise.

And it will always irk me when the singular "they" is used in a sentence that would be just as PC and much more graceful if it was put entirely in the plural.
E.g., "Students must all bring their own pencils", rather than "Each student must bring their own pencil."
Friday April 12th 2013, 11:12 AM
Comment by: Janet D.
Thanks for the comments on the word "forty". I am a copy editor also and thought maybe I was crazy when I had to look it up because I wasn't sure if it was spelled with a "u". I'm sure I learned it that way a long time ago, but found it has now changed. Thanks for the sanity check!
Wednesday October 30th 2013, 4:56 AM
Comment by: Brendan M. (suwon Korea, Republic of (South Korea))
A fascinating article for sure... but the point about where to draw the line on flexibility,and whether it is truly linguistic innovation, is certainly an arbitrary and debatable one.There is no doubt that language evolves and we adjust, if not immediately, eventually to some adaptive and acceptable form, either through slang which become idiomatic or science or other literary terminology.
Friday November 8th 2013, 12:49 PM
Comment by: Becky C.
Cody: it isn't just "me"! My bugaboo is using "myself" when "me" or rarely "I" should be used. These people think they sound educated, to me they just sound presumptous and unaware.
As for the elimination of gender-specific nouns, I do regret the demise of "executrix", it sounds so much more elegant than "executor"!
Tuesday November 12th 2013, 1:37 AM
Comment by: cleanframe (LYDBROOK United Kingdom)
In conversation I naturally use singular 'they' and the associated accusative 'them' and genitive 'their' and 'theirs', etc. It's a perfect solution. Though I have played with formulations like 's/he' for 'he or she', 'hem' for 'him or her' and 'hir' for 'his or her', they would never really catch on - too awkward. 'They' works, it has the precedent of how 'you' fulfills a similar role - job done, I say.
Wednesday March 26th, 8:21 AM
Comment by: William H. (Severn, MD)
I certainly agree with the acceptability of the singular "they" as a replacement for the very awkward "he or she" when the sex of the person is not certain or could apply to males or females.

Regarding the use of plural construction for groups (e.g., corporations, governments, and other groups), common British usage is to use the plural (i.e., "the government are ..."). As someone raised on American English, this strikes me as odd, but it actually makes better sense. At one time, I worked for a company which was named after the brothers that founded the company. Some careful editing was necessary to avoid a phrase like "Smith & Smith is pleased to announce ...".

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