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RE: a singular choice  Daniel Puckett
 Mar 08, 2004 06:10 PST 

Chris Wienandt wrote:
He could
easily have written "Pity the poor writers who come at grammar armed
only with common sense ..." -- which is what someone using common sense
would have written to keep the sentence's elements consistent.

One aim of good writing is clear communication, and mixing singular and
plural stymies that.

It never hurts to question your assumptions.

We've been taught that mixing singular and plural stymies clear
communication, and that "they" is plural and therefore cannot refer to a
singular antecedent. We've been taught that if it is used that way, the
reader hesitates, wondering where the plural antecedent for this plural
pronoun might be.

But is that so?

I'm not aware of any research on the subject. But I am aware that:

1. Native English-speakers use "they" to refer to singular antecedents
all the time. In fact, "he" used "in reference to a singular noun made
universal by 'every, 'any,' 'no,' etc." -- as the Oxford English
Dictionary puts it in definition 2 of "they" -- is so uncommon as to
sound stilted, and "he or she" or "s/he" are even more so. (I have asked
several people who aren't journalists but are college-educated to insert
a pronoun into a sentence referring to "anyone." Every one
unhesitatingly used "they." A few then stopped, pinched by the ghost of
some English teacher past, and said something like, "Oh, wait, it's
supposed to be something else, maybe. 'He'? That can't be right."
Granted, that's unscientific, but I found it revealing.)

2. "They" used as a singular pronoun is common not only in speech, but
also in writing -- and not just in everyday writing. If writers have
been using it since at least the early 16th century, and if great
writers such as Henry Fielding and Jane Austen used it, it is a
well-established part of our literature.

3. It is so natural, so idiomatic, that we must train new copy editors
even to notice it, and we must often remind veteran copy editors to
change it. If it is that invisible to educated people whose job it is to
fix such "errors," it can't be causing any of this alleged hesitation.
On the contrary, it is native speakers' natural choice.

4. We have no problem at all with another pronoun that can be either
singular or plural: "you." If "you" can be second-person singular *or*
plural, why should "they" make trouble as third-person singular or
plural? The writing of the past five centuries shows that, in fact, it
does not.

So why should we deny ourselves a whole range of expressions involving
singular nouns made universal? Switching to the plural is the
traditionalists' usual counsel, and it loses something.

Take this sentence: "If anyone disagrees, they can e-mail me." A
grammarian might advise changing it to "Those who disagree can e-mail
me." (Yes, there are other alternatives that would preserve the
singular, but switching to the plural is a standard maneuver.) The two
sentences don't have quite the same connotations: The original suggests
that no one at all might disagree, and that if anyone does, the
disagreers may be few. The second hints that the disagreers may well be
many. It's a small difference, but it is a difference, and we lose that
by forbidding the original.

We lose something else, too: We lose time and energy that we might
otherwise have spent on fixing problems that actually do impede
communication. My larger concern in this discussion is that we copy
editors waste part of our limited time and limited energy on trivia,
enforcing rules that do not help us communicate better. Moreover, we
damage our credibility in the newsroom, bolstering our reputation as
nitpickers playing "gotcha" with arcana that no sane person gives a damn
about. It's an unfair image, and some of the arcana really does matter,
but that reputation does have some basis in reality. Rules like this
help sustain it.

This is an opportunity to reduce the waste: We can stop enforcing a rule
that does not enhance communication and that flies in the face of the
language as its speakers, both educated and uneducated, actually use it.
It's also an opportunity to burnish our image: Every time we enforce a
rule that doesn't make any sense, we reduce the chance we'll be listened
to while trying to enforce one that does.

We have better things, far more important things, to do with our eight

Daniel Puckett
St. Petersburg Times
St. Petersburg, Fla.
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