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Orwell and Singular "They"

We'd like to welcome Jonathon Owen, a copy editor and book designer with a master's degree in linguistics, as our newest regular contributor! Here Jonathon explains how he discovered that an oft-quoted example of George Orwell using singular "they" turned out not to be by Orwell after all.

Last summer I wrote a feature article on singular they for the October 2012 Copyediting newsletter. For those unfamiliar with it, this is the use of they with antecedents that are grammatically singular, such as Everyone should take their seat. It's especially common with indefinite pronouns such as everyone or anyone and nouns that don't specify gender, as in Every student needs to bring their books to class daily. As part of the argument for its status as part of standard English, I originally wrote that it has been used by literary greats from Shakespeare to George Orwell. Others have similarly cited Orwell's use of singular they, including Geoffrey Pullum of Language Log fame in this paper originally published in Times Higher Education. But when I received my copy-edited article for approval, I saw that the copy editor had written a comment saying, "Could you offer an Orwell example? The web is teeming with sites that claim Orwell used the singular they, but no one ever cites proof."

My first reaction to the query was, quite frankly, annoyance. I had a great snarky line in the article about how "Never use a plural pronoun where a singular one will do" apparently didn't make it into Orwell's six rules in his essay "Politics and the English Language," and  I didn't want to have to change it. And anyway, my proof was that Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage had a quotation from Orwell using singular they. Wasn't that good enough?

But I decided to do my due diligence and track down the quotation. The citation in MWDEU reads, "We can only know an actual person by observing their [sic] behaviour in a variety of different situations —George Orwell, as quoted by Edward Crankshaw, Times Literary Supp., 26 Dec. 1980." (The date should have been my first clue that something was fishy about this quote; Orwell died thirty years before it was published.)

I turned to my excellent university library to track down the original, an article called "The Documents in the Case," which is a review of Orwell's biography, George Orwell: A Life by Bernard Crick. But as I started reading, it soon became clear that Crankshaw was quoting not Orwell, but Crick. The quotation in question comes from the introduction to the biography, when Crick is explaining his approach to writing Orwell's biography. Whoever found this quotation and annotated it for inclusion in MWDEU made a simple mistake and misattributed it to Orwell himself. Properly humbled, I returned to my article for Copyediting and removed the reference to Orwell, along with the snarky line. I also emailed one of the editors at Merriam-Webster to let them know abou the error, and they were thankful for my research.

But what did this discovery mean for the argument in favor of singular they? Well, not much, to be honest. As Pullum wrote, "The rational conclusion from the usage of such a fine writer [Orwell] would be that they allows indefinite singular antecedents in standard English. Chaucer, Shakespeare, Byron, Austen, and dozens of other great writers confirm this." Removing Orwell from the list simply means that one particular data point has been discarded, but this doesn't change the fact that literary greats were using singular they for centuries before grammarians in the eighteenth-century declared it illogical and recommend gender-neutral he in its place, merely trading one illogical use for another. But language is not always logical, and proper usage cannot always be determined by measuring it against someone's narrow idea of logic.

In the end, the discovery about Orwell and singular they was an interesting little side trek, but it changed the thrust of my article not one whit. Mounds of evidence show that singular they is a well-established if idiomatic feature of English. We've already been using it for over half a millennium, and it hasn't destroyed our sense of grammatical number yet. Whether or not Orwell used it is beside the point, because it's still the best chance we have for a true gender-neutral pronoun.

I would like to thank Nancy Paschke, who copy edited my article on singular they, for her great comments. A good editor can fix up your prose, but it takes a great one to sniff out weak spots and make you rethink your arguments.

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Jonathon Owen is a copy editor and book designer with a master's degree in linguistics from Brigham Young University. His thesis explores the role of copyediting in regulating English usage, and he holds the paradoxical view that it's possible to be a prescriptivist and descriptivist simultaneously. He writes about usage, editing, and linguistics at arrantpedantry.com, and he also writes a column on grammar for Copyediting newsletter. In his free time he likes to play Scrabble and design word-nerdy t-shirts. You can follow him on Twitter at @ArrantPedantry Click here to read more articles by Jonathon Owen.