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Do you see what I see?

Earlier today I published a post on the singular they which contained this sentence:

“No one ever suggests that they do not understand the meaning of singular they constructions.”

To date, no one has objected to this supposed violation of grammatical propriety. I can only assume that (a) the singular they in this context is so natural and widespread in English that even many sticklers read over it without registering outrage, or (b) the readers who did register it remained silent because they have concluded that I am beyond hope or help.

Actually, both explanations are equally plausible.



Posted by John McIntyre at 10:31 PM | | Comments (6)


When I edited copy I went to great lengths to do the "he/she" when confronted with singular they. I also rewrote sentences to avoid them, and pluralized the whole thing. Now that I've retired and stopped editing other people's copy, I'm also older and wiser. Of course singular they is correct.

I've had this problem crop up with moderate frequency in online forums, where the sex of individual posters is unknown. After getting repeatedly corrected by males named Gingerie and Versa, and females named Barco and BillBob, I gave up. Plurals will have to do, at least, in context.

When I was editing copy several years ago for a newspaper published during an international conference in Geneva, I remarked to one of my co-workers how astonished I was that so many contributors could be so insensitive to the numerical mismatch. He explained that since the singular they had been "politically negotiated," there wasn't much we could do about it. But I still can't bring myself to use it in my own writing: I use he, she, or both.

Having through through it critically once a few years ago, let me humbly suggest a practical rule, which I borrow from the French, though I'm sure other languages use it too. Simply use his or her for someone and their for somebody.

Sorry, I meant "Having THOUGHT through it..."

I'm having a hard time seeing how that rule is practical, Lawrence. What is gained by using "he or she" with one and "they" with the other? And what about all the other places where epicene or generic "they" is used, like the "no one" in the sentence quoted in the post above?

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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
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