Singular they
Rachel Lagunoff
May 1997

In English, the third person plural pronouns they, them, their, theirs, themself, and themselves can be anaphoric to a grammatically singular antecedent, that is, a noun phrase which has singular verb agreement. The use of what is called singular they has puzzled grammarians since at least the 19th century, since agreement rules appear to be violated (Visser, 1963; Bodine, 1975). Often, singular they is assumed to be a pragmatic strategy for avoiding one of the gender-marked singular pronouns, he or she (e.g., Corbett, 1991). In this study I propose that singular they, while useful as an evasive form, exists independently in the grammar of present-day English, as it has from Middle English on. Singular they can appear in any form, in any structural relationship to an antecedent which describes or quantifies humans (or sometimes animals). Certain types of antecedents appear more often with singular they and are accepted by more native speakers, in the following semantic hierarchy: universal quantifiers, existential quantifiers, indefinite noun phrases, definite noun phrases (cf. Newman, in press; Parker, 1983; Whitley, 1978). Antecedents of singular they can be of any kind, including those where gender is overt or implied, except names. In addition, singular they cannot be used with pointing (deixis), providing support for a theory of reference where only names and deictics are referential (Russell, 1919; Neale, 1990). Antecedents which indicate gender are restricted to those which do not introduce a discourse referent, a noun phrase which can be referred to by a pronoun later in the discourse (Karttunen, 1976). Agreement rules are not violated if the concept of ‘plural’ is understood as indicating lack of precise number or identity, rather than ‘more than one’. Singular they is then often the best choice with animate nonreferential antecedents.
Format: [ pdf ]
Reference: lingbuzz/006367
(please use that when you cite this article)
Published in: Unpublished PhD dissertation
keywords: singular they, third-person pronouns, anaphora, epicene, gender, agreement, semantics, morphology, syntax
previous versions: v1 [May 1997]
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