Monday, October 5, 2009

Everybody thought it was stupid, didn't they?

If you read that title and want to know what is stupid, read on. And if you read that title and thought, "How can he use 'they' to refer back to the singular 'everybody'?", also read on.

English is a fascinating language. People have made up rules about not doing things that basically everyone does. We are told that many things that sound perfectly good don't sound good (split infinitives, sentences ending with prepositions, passive sentences, etc.). I cannot think of a single example of such a bad rule in German.

Take the example of the gender-neutral use of "they." Some 15 years ago, I wrote a long-since-lost article for the University of Freiburg's English department's magazine explaining why this is perfectly good English. Now, I see that a linguistics student in the US has just summed up everything quite well, even pointing out that

There has literally been no point since 1400 when singular they went unattested in contemporary English.

Essentially, the gender-neutral he was insisted on by some zany grammarians, who had obviously learned too much Latin, some 200 years ago. The blogger unfortunately does not mention the evolution of the gender-neutral he (which is too bad, because he provides a number of quite impressive references to support the gender-neutral), nor does he point out that everyone basically exclusively accepts the gender-neutral they in question tags, like the one in the title of this post. No native speaker of English can accept "Everybody thought it was stupid, didn't he?"

You could also point out, as I used to do, that other languages have no problem with pronouns that are both singular and plural. German has sie, and Durch zij, both of which can be used to mean that she is and they are (sie ist / sie sind and zij is / zij zijn). French vous and English you are also used both for the singular and plural, though both never take a singular verb. (French actually doesn't even have a difference between his and her: j'ai trouvé son chapeau could mean I found his or her hat -- you cannot know.) But the other blogger actually tries to argue that the gender-neutral they does not have to be thought of as a pronoun at all, if I understand him correctly -- but read it for yourself.

In trying to raise my children in Germany to speak proper English, I repeatedly have to tell them not to say things like "everybody has to bring his own sports clothes," which I cannot imagine sixth-graders in the US saying. It's not native English. In fact, it's a typical mistake that Germans make; there is no option to the German "jeder muß seine eigenen Sportklamotten mitbringen."

In fact, I remember learning not to say "everyone has to do their own work" in 10th grade, and everyone in the class thought it was stupid... didn't they?


  1. Now you're just trying to get my goat, aren't you? The best way to structure your last sentence is, "The whole class thought it was stupid, didn't they?" You could use "it" to reference the class, but it's one of those collective nouns that can either be treated as one unit, or as a collection of individuals, so either works depending on your purpose.

    You really don't have to tell your kids *not* to say "everybody has to bring his own sports clothes." While it's not common usage, it's certainly not incorrect, but you know that. If you're trying to get your kids to sound like natives, it's a lost cause. I've heard their accents. :)

  2. "everybody has to bring his own sports clothes"

    I usually would contruct my sentence as "everybody has to bring his or her own sports clothes" to make it more gender-sensitive. Is this acceptable as well?

    not a native English speaker

  3. Andrew,

    "Everybody has to bring his or her own sports clothes" is the most proper. However, most people find saying "his or her" cumbersome. This is why most people default to "their."

    And, Craig, I just realized that no American would use the phrase "sports clothes," either. Americans would say "gym clothes" or "PE clothes" or "[insert specific sport here] uniform."

    'Cuz I'm in a nit-picky mood...

  4. Andrew, Doafy is giving you a prescriptive definition, but unfortunately there is another one: you will find people who claim "everybody has to bring his own" is "most proper" (Doafy is merely stating her opinion here; I do not know why she does not admit that there is a large camp in favor of "his" - but it's a fact). Both of these camps are demonstrably wrong linguistically. Historically, "they" is the only option, but unfortunately 200 years... well, I described that above.

    People do not "default" to "they" -- they have prescriptive English teachers take points off their papers for producing "they." They then spend the rest of their lives dealing with this unnecessary "his" versus "his/her" debate.

    Prescriptive teachers tell you there is a better way of writing sentences (The best way to structure your last sentence is, "The whole class thought it was stupid, didn't they?"), but the sentence is okay as it is, even if they do not admit it. And they will not talk about the simple fact that "his" and "his/her" does not work in the sentence I gave.

    Doafy, English is a lot bigger than California and New Orleans. I have lived over here for two decades teaching and correcting papers with the English, the Scots, the Welsh, New Zealanders, and the Irish. (My translation agency has people from the US, Scotland, and England, and they submit work to me everyday.) If I say that something is "native English," and you come back with "that's not American," you are once again off the mark. That sentence comes from the English school we just went to, but it is not hard to find ghits in the US for this (hit #1, for instance):

  5. Ah! You are totally right that I was thinking of American English. But I will defend myself by saying that since you are an American, I felt I can assume you are teaching your children American constructs. Actually, I didn't really think about it. Which, I suppose, is very American of me. :) Also, I just noticed that you did in fact say "I cannot imagine sixth graders in the US saying" this. So you did lead me into thinking in American terms.

    In America, his or her *is* the "most proper." (You can really only be talking about prescriptivism when you are talking about proper ways to speak. Descriptivism doesn't judge, prescriptivism does.) In America (and I'm talking about what is being currently taught in schools as acceptable, a field I do have some experience in) grammar handbooks actively discourage writers from using "his" rather than "his or her" in order to avoid sexism in the language. They also frequently suggest rewriting a sentence to avoid potentially awkward or unclear or sexist construction.

    And I will say that there are frequently better ways of writing sentences. I think my revision of your "Everyone thought it was stupid" sentence is much clearer than yours.

    The thing about what historically makes sense is that we don't speak that historical language any more. Languages evolve, sometimes in stupid ways.

    I think we have very different definitions of what makes "proper" English. Maybe what you call "proper" is what I might call "real" or "informal." To me, proper involves following rules, while informality involves customs, or something. I'm really not quite sure where I'm going with this, other than avoiding grading some really, really bad examples of English language usage.

  6. Wow. "felt I can" That's just horrible tense shifting all over. I hate finding errors in a language discussion.

  7. I see where you are going with the US English bit, but keep in mind that with your "PE" comment you were correcting something I was not even focusing on -- effectively changing the subject.

    (You also wrote that I was "trying to get your goat," but of course I am not. This blog does not address any particular person -- I would write you a personal e-mail for that -- but is a forum for me to talk about things I deem important. And I assume that all of my readers will accept basic facts presented clearly.)

    The debate about whether "his or her" is better than "his" is still open -- and pointless. It would be easy to find grammar books and know-it-alls who support "his," and you know that.

    Your argument about "we don't speak that historical language anymore" is also beside the point, and if we are going to have a conversation, we need to be able to express each other's opposing arguments faithfully. My point is that "they" has to be drilled out of people today (and still, it persists), so I am not arguing that we should speak Chaucer's English. I am arguing that gender-neutral "they" has always been there and is certainly there today. I gave you examples of sentences that you cannot insert "his or her" or "his" into, and your response is to reword them so that you like "they." An appropriate response would have been to admit that "his or her" is not possible there.

    My point is therefore that "his or her" is a recent politically correct response to "his," which itself was artificially introduced 200 years ago -- and that neither of these work consistently, and that native speakers still predominantly use "they," as any review of talk shows in North America or on the British Isles reveals. As a political response to an artificial manipulation of language, "his or her" is artificial to the second degree.

    Both "his/her" and "his" constitute external meddling with language, something I have not seen at all in German, French, or Dutch. Yet, this is not even an isolated case in English -- think of split infinitives, not ending sentences in prepositions, and blanket resistance to the passive voice.

    Finally, you write that my kids do not have native accents, but "accents" is not the word you're looking for. In fact, if they did not have my accent, the event would be newsworthy. Children automatically pick up accents, which is why adult language learners may become quite proficient and even eloquent in their new language (particularly in writing) but still sound foreign when they open their mouth (think of Henry Kissinger -- or me in German, for that matter).

    My kids simply have trouble knowing the exact phrase and exact word in English, so they sometimes produce German constructions or even German words in their English sentences. That has nothing to do with accents.

    By the way, British English is much less subject to these manipulations these days. They do not bat an eye at singular-they, and they think "if that was true" is fine ("if that were true" sounds American to them apparently), and "split infinitives" more freely.

    I like this response (from that website) to the charge that singular "they" is ungrammatical: "to argue that it is incorrect requires a rather odd definition of English, namely one that has little to do with the language as it is actually used."

    For nearly two centuries, grammarians tried -- and failed -- to replace singular-they with "he." Now, many people are trying to replace the failed "his" with "his or her." But singular-they will persist. Language cannot be manipulated like that, as this case impressively proves.

  8. Yes, I was not being altogether focused in my response to you. Although in the informal format of a blog, I don't see why adding "and another thing" would draw any objections.

    I know that in your general blog you aren't writing directly to me. That would be ridiculous and self centered of me. What I meant is "Oooh. This is something that gets me riled up." What I said is a slightly sarcastic way of saying that while facetiously implying that the world revolves around me. I actually used that phrase on purpose because you once said that it's nice to hear those types of American expressions that you don't hear in Germany. It's really not that strange a way of communicating, and I feel a little odd explaining it to my brother-in-law. One of the interesting things about a blog (especially a blog written by a person you know in real life) is the way that a public forum gets individualized attention and responses.

    And just for the sake of argument-as-recreation: accents is *exactly* the word I was referring to with regards to your kids. Even if they spoke English with American construction and idioms, they would still sound German because of the sound of their pronunciation. I can do a great impression, and I think you've heard me do it. My point was (again, not really a serious thing) that discouraging using a prescriptivist construction because no sixth grader in the US would use it (implying that your goal is to make them sound like kids in the US) was not going to reach the ultimate (implied) goal of making them sound like kids in the US because they will always be betrayed by their German accents. I don't mean to imply that there's anything inferior about their accents; they're just very German. You occasionally sound like you're from the south, your kids do not.

    I really doubt any of this is as serious as either of us makes it out to be. I really am not a yardstick-wielding-grammar-nun when it comes down to it.

  9. Well, we are just going to have to differ here, but I'm afraid both the reactions of other native speakers and the way people learn languages (with children of mastering accents with ease) do not really make this matter debatable...

  10. And by the way, if you think this is not as "serious as either of us makes it out to be", then you should keep in mind that I do not appreciate having derogatory comments that are also completely unfounded made about my children, especially not on my blog...

  11. Whoa! Craig! When did I get derogatory? I never meant that to happen at all!

    Some sort of horrible misinterpretation seems to have happened along the way. Everything I said I meant in good fun! I certainly never meant to offend.

  12. Please accept my sincerest apologies for offending in any way. I really don't know where I went wrong.