Saturday, August 18, 2012

Everybody Loves their Mother

My grammar instincts, honed to a scalpel's edge by growing up with an English professor for a mother, and by my intense relationship with sentences and paragraphs, reject with vehemence the use of "they" and "their" as singular pronouns. This, I am starting to think, is unfortunate.

Some of you may think that "everybody loves their mother" is a bit of recent colloquial ugliness born from post-feminist fear of giving offense. But this is not so. Ever since we lost the gender-neutral pronouns that Middle English had in abundance -- both "ou" and "a" could serve -- speakers of English have struggled with how to name the unknown person. In 1850 the British Parliament, tired of seeing "him or her" hundreds of times in some documents, actually passed a law saying that "he" would serve a dual purpose: In all acts, words importing the masculine gender shall be deemed and taken to include females. Because the Irish constitution refers to the President several times as "he", some wags actually filed a lawsuit trying to block the inauguration of a female President; the Irish Supreme Court ruled that in this case he is "gender neutral."

The use of "they" as a singular pronoun can be traced back to the 15th century. Caxton's Sonnes of Aymon (c. 1489) has, Eche of theym sholde ... make theymselfe redy. But such examples are not very common, and we probably know about them only because recent grammarians have gone searching. Language historians think, though, that "they" has served this purpose in common speech for centuries. They think this -- and it is a hard thing to know, since we have almost no record of what common speech was like before the advent of sound recording -- because grammar books have waged a 250-year campaign against the usage. Along with the double negative, the confusion of number embodied in their minds the slothful habit of lower-class imprecision. Lindley Murray's 1795 English Grammar offer, as an example of "false syntax,"
Can anyone, on their entrance into the world, be fully secure that they shall not be deceived?
No, no, it must be his entrance, and he. (But where shall he find such security? Lindley did not say, leaving the eternal question unanswered in favor of correcting the grammar.)

Virginia Wolf tried to make "one" serve the purpose, but that never caught on. (Because, if you ask me, it makes you sound like some twee hypersensitive English literateur, and who wants that?) Neither did any of the proposals made over the years by language reformers, such as thon and ip. So we are stuck, and the only solution at hand is the one that has carried on through sloppy popular speech despite the fulminations of grammarians.

Unable to write a singular "they" myself, I have always just recast such sentences entirely into the plural: All people love their mothers. And thus I will probably keep doing, because my internal alarms won't be stilled.

The question I face, though, is what to do when students employ this locution? Should I take a stand on the battlements of grammatical tradition and the logic of number, and hurl red darts at such sentences? I know this is becoming common in ordinary speech, but it is still not acceptable in formal composition. Or should I stand back and let the language solve this very real problem in its own way, hoping that in a century "everybody loves their mother" will seem perfectly elegant? I wonder.


Unknown said...

I'm impressed that you are dealing with students whose writing problems are such that you can worry about this. I'm so busy worrying about things like subject-verb number agreement and sentences that don't make sense--I show the sentence to the student, and they sigh, "I have no idea what I was trying to say there"--that I've decided I shouldn't cloud those really crucial issues with matters like the abstract "they," split infinitives, and who/whom. I must say I'm also a fan of the living language theory. There are changes and tics that irritate me, but it strikes me that if people keep using some form, it's probably for a good reason. Also I keep finding out that grammatical bugbears are often relics of 18th- or 19th-century educators whose goals are no longer PC, including in my own mind, like building national uniformity or erasing lower class cultural traits.

John said...

I should try to find out if Shakespeare ever did this; that ought to provide sufficient cover for ignoring it among undergraduates.

pootrsox said...

For me, as well, Everyone/they grates against the ear.

I do sometimes use his/her, other times recast sentences into plural.

But I suspect this particular battle is already lost and we need to adapt ourselves to it.

I still scream at the radio/TV when I hear "between you and I" or "less" used with countable amounts rather than "fewer."

I raised a "grammar ninja" daughter who somehow imbibed with her mother's milk her mother's "English teacher" mentality!