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Everyone is entitled to his/her/their opinion

A knotty difficulty in contemporary English usage is exemplified in a sentence that I use in my copy editing class at Loyola.

Anyone who tells you they know when this craziness will be resolved is kidding themselves.

The mixture of singular and plural pronouns and verbs has traditionally been regarded as an error in grammar. The problem is that the indefinite pronouns anyone, everyone, etc., do not have a corresponding indefinite singular objective or possessive pronoun. In English we have only his/him, hers/her and them/their. (It/its, being neuter and non-human, are ruled out.)

The ways out of the difficulty are all unsatisfactory.

The traditional remedy is to make all the pronouns masculine: Anyone who tells you he knows when this craziness will be resolved is kidding himself. But this practice, which Henry Fowler called “an arrogant demand on the part of male England,” violates the contemporary decorum of acknowledging that there are women in the human race.

The traditional remedy plus balance is ungainly: Anyone who tells you he or she knows when this craziness will be resolved is kidding himself or herself.

The modern equivocation is to take refuge in the plural: People who tell you they know when this craziness will be resolved are kidding themselves.

The gathering momentum is to accept everyone … they constructions, for which there is abundant precedent in English. R.W. Burchfield in The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage cites a passage by Samuel Johnson, and other latitudinarians recall that Jane Austen was fond of every body … their.

But though the indefinite they has become commonplace and acceptable in British usage, it remains a stench in the nostrils of American purists. That, as Bryan Garner remarks in Garner’s Modern American Usage, leaves “a happy solution elusive.”

Like the national debt, this remains a problem for our children and grandchildren to resolve.

Posted by John McIntyre at 9:15 AM | | Comments (6)
        

Comments

The hardcore descriptivists, surprise, think we're nuts to even begin to consider this a problem.

http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/002742.html

In "The Language Instinct," Steven Pinker has an entertaining chapter (The Language Mavens) that addresses this issue, and others. If you haven't read it, you ought to.

Enjoying the blog, by the way.

I've read that Shakespeare mixed the singular with the plural. I can't now remember where but I was distressed to read it.

I don't understand your slur on using all-plural. It's legitimate and reads smoothly. And it's a whole lot better than giving in to the jarring and ugly.

Delighted to see a desk blog acknowledging such a radical idea, but I can see how it might set some nerves on edge among readers and staffers. If you write this one into style, pls post often on the results and responses.

"Hardcore descriptivist" -- isn't that sort of like "fundamentalist agnostic"?

For Jack Bush: Shakespeare's usage of the singular "their" is here (quotes from "Much Ado About Nothing" and "Comedy of Errors":
http://www.crossmyt.com/hc/linghebr/sgtheirl.html#shakespeare

Anyone interested in this topic should visit Henry Churyard's page on the topic:
http://www.crossmyt.com/hc/linghebr/austheir.html#X1a

It's tempting to justify a questioned usage by pointing to the work of great writers (I've done it myself, I'm sure), but my experience with very good writers is that they're pretty likely to be lousy editors.

Going back as far as Shakespeare seems at first glance to make the point even more impressive, but does that notion really hold up to scrutiny? A lot of odd things were done with language back then. (Do we want to *spell* the way Shakespeare did?)

A more relevant question, I think, is how the great editors and publishing houses of a given time -- once you get to a point where editors and publishing houses as we know them existed -- felt about a disputed usage.

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at john.mcintyre@baltsun.com.
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