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  • A Brief History of Singular 'they'

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Mary.lavelle@gmail.com Aug 4, 2018 5:53 pm

As an aside in Ireland we use Ye a lot as a plural form of you. “Ye should try out that restaurant”. In Dublin this has morphed into yiz e.g. yiz could go to the festival tomorrow. And the strange plural form of an already plural you - yizzer. Again in Dublin. E.g. yizzer are all wasting your time going to the festival. I greatly enjoy hearing yiz and yizzer. And I’m a user of ye. 

Reply to Mary.lavelle@gmail.com at 5:53 pm
rihartley@gmail.com Aug 5, 2018 5:20 am

The example from the 13th century is hardly convincing. It is an example of the idea that the word "each" is thought of as being plural, not singular, which is the current rule (usually ignored).  There is a big difference between saying "each (or every) student must do their own homework" and "The boy did their own homework".  The former ignores the rule that "each" takes the singular.  The latter is confusing, and should be avoided on that ground.

Reply to rihartley@gmail.com at 5:20 am
nowino@gmail.com janetleebutler@hotmail.comAug 5, 2018 5:30 am

Charming and interesting, especially so for we language teachers (TOEFL here).  Had no idea the ubiquitous "they" went back so far.  I'd also like to know what happened to William and his fair one!  

She, I mean they became with child

Reply to nowino@gmail.com at 5:30 am
cfedderson@verizon.net Aug 5, 2018 9:10 am

I have always hated Singular They.  It's just wrong!  Buuuutttt... your post has started to turn me.  I realize [or realise] that words evolve, but I had no idea 'they' has been evolving for so long.  I just figured it was a result of the [USA] public school un-educated masses twisting the language.  So I guess I'll try to be more tolerant in the future...

But, in print, I do still think it looks wierd, and more importantly, it can still be ambiguous and confusing.  We need a completely new word [I've also been saying for years] and I heartened to see that they [  ;-> ] are working on that!

--Chris

Reply to cfedderson@verizon.net at 9:10 am
linda.grashoff@gmail.com janetleebutler@hotmail.comAug 5, 2018 9:28 am

Charming and interesting, especially so for we language teachers (TOEFL here).  Had no idea the ubiquitous "they" went back so far.  I'd also like to know what happened to William and his fair one!  

I hope you realized on rereading your published comment that you meant to write "for <em>us</em> language teachers."

Reply to linda.grashoff@gmail.com at 9:28 am
ballroom16@aol.com janetleebutler@hotmail.comAug 5, 2018 9:59 am

Charming and interesting, especially so for we language teachers (TOEFL here).  Had no idea the ubiquitous "they" went back so far.  I'd also like to know what happened to William and his fair one!  

I'd prefer to use "for us language teachers." I wouldn't say "for I" or "for she" - "for we" doesn't work for me.

Reply to ballroom16@aol.com at 9:59 am
ballroom16@aol.com rihartley@gmail.comAug 5, 2018 10:03 am

The example from the 13th century is hardly convincing. It is an example of the idea that the word "each" is thought of as being plural, not singular, which is the current rule (usually ignored).  There is a big difference between saying "each (or every) student must do their own homework" and "The boy did their own homework".  The former ignores the rule that "each" takes the singular.  The latter is confusing, and should be avoided on that ground.

I do find the example convincing. The singular "they" isn't an example of the deterioration of the language. It was here all along, and used by serious authors as far back as 1375. By the way, Mary Norris slipped into a singular "they" in her book Confessions of a Comma Queen" (even though a few pages earlier she said it was wrong): ""Nobody wanted to think they were not essential."

I no longer use "his or her." It's clumsy, and sometimes I don't want to make a sentence plural. 

Reply to ballroom16@aol.com at 10:03 am
rbrtrsnbrg@gmail.com Aug 5, 2018 11:52 am

I was a professional editor for many years. When someone objects to a usage as “illogical,” I often ask them to think about “everyone.” We say, “Is everyone already here?” But we would never follow that with “Then tell him to go home” (pace Judith Martin).

I am a big fan of the singular “they,” and I have been since I was 21 (long ago) and led a bicycle trip with six girls and four boys. Somehow using “he” just seemed wrong, not to say insulting.

Reply to rbrtrsnbrg@gmail.com at 11:52 am
debaron@illinois.edu ballroom16@aol.comAug 5, 2018 12:22 pm

I do find the example convincing. The singular "they" isn't an example of the deterioration of the language. It was here all along, and used by serious authors as far back as 1375. By the way, Mary Norris slipped into a singular "they" in her book Confessions of a Comma Queen" (even though a few pages earlier she said it was wrong): ""Nobody wanted to think they were not essential."

I no longer use "his or her." It's clumsy, and sometimes I don't want to make a sentence plural. 

Can you dm me a citation for that Norris use of singular they? Tx, DB

Reply to debaron@illinois.edu at 12:22 pm
commerce@essentialstrategies.com Aug 5, 2018 5:01 pm

I appreciate the posting of the history of the singular they. I suppose that does mean it's here to stay, even though it upsets my since of linguistic logic. 

I however have taken another approagh:  'e stands for "he or she".  h' stands for "his or hers".  Since people are used to seeing contractions, when I've used this convention in my books, no one seems to object. 

Unfortunately, however, all of my books are in narrow technological subjects, so the convention hasn't exactly taken off.  Even so, I live in hope...

Thanks for your article.  I do appreciate it.

Reply to commerce@essentialstrategies.com at 5:01 pm
inv331@verizon.net Mary.lavelle@gmail.comAug 5, 2018 5:25 pm

As an aside in Ireland we use Ye a lot as a plural form of you. “Ye should try out that restaurant”. In Dublin this has morphed into yiz e.g. yiz could go to the festival tomorrow. And the strange plural form of an already plural you - yizzer. Again in Dublin. E.g. yizzer are all wasting your time going to the festival. I greatly enjoy hearing yiz and yizzer. And I’m a user of ye. 

I'm curious why you talk about "yiz" and then call "yizzer" a "plural form of an already plural you" rather than simply say that "yiz" and "yizzer" are two different Dublin plural-you forms.  Thanks.

Reply to inv331@verizon.net at 5:25 pm
david.ornick@ymail.com Mary.lavelle@gmail.comAug 6, 2018 6:06 pm

As an aside in Ireland we use Ye a lot as a plural form of you. “Ye should try out that restaurant”. In Dublin this has morphed into yiz e.g. yiz could go to the festival tomorrow. And the strange plural form of an already plural you - yizzer. Again in Dublin. E.g. yizzer are all wasting your time going to the festival. I greatly enjoy hearing yiz and yizzer. And I’m a user of ye. 

In Pittsburghese, the dialect of Pittsburgh, PA, the plural you is yinz or yunz, either possibly derived from you-uns. Yinz/yunz seems similar to the Dublin yiz. Seventy miles away from Pittsburgh in West Virginia, singular you is often the predictable southern y'all (you all), while plural you is all y'all. In WV all y'all is mostly used for comedic effect unless you're really 'country'.

Reply to david.ornick@ymail.com at 6:06 pm