Thursday, January 29, 2015

A case for singular they ?

At Language Log, Geoffrey Pullum discusses a sentence from the Twitter account Shit Academics Say to bolster the case for singular they. The sentence:

We wish to thank Reviewer 2 for their critical feedback & sincerely apologize for not having written the manuscript they would have written.
Pullum’s comment:
Here’s a very nice case of modern sex-neutral pronoun-choice style, with the unusual feature that the antecedent for the two occurrences of singular they (which prescriptiv[i]sts hate so much) is not only a definite noun phrase, but a definite noun phrase denoting a unique individual. . . . The special feature here is that the people writing are not permitted to know the identity or the gender of the person denoted by the phrase. Academics submitting to a refereed journal never know who their anonymous reviewers were; all these authors know is that Reviewer 2 hated their paper and wanted them to write a different one. They have no way to know if the reviewer is a he or a she. And especially in the terse Twitter medium, saying “for his or her critical feedback” and “the manuscript he or she would have written” would be much too cumbersome.
Yes, repeating he or she, his or her would be cumbersome. But this sentence, even though it weighs in at 140 characters, twenty-two words, is itself ungainly, as sentences with singular they often are. Sometimes such sentences sound absurd: “A musician who practices will find that they improve.” And the painful repetition of singular pronouns isn’t the only alternative to they, as Pullum must know. One can arrive at a much better sentence by avoiding singular they altogether:
We are grateful for Reviewer 2’s comments and apologize for not writing the manuscript the reviewer would have written.
That’s terser still: 119 characters and nineteen words.

I’m not sure that what Pullum finds unusual — the mystery of gender — is all that unusual. It happens all the time online, where commenters and developers are sometimes anonymous, sometimes pseudonymous. When I asked my students to write about an infamous student-and-professor e-mail exchange, the student e-mailer’s gender was unknown to us. So we worked a bit on finding ways around the endless repetition of they. For instance:
Not so good: If this student wants to make a good impression, they will need to rethink their way of addressing their professors.

Not so good: If this student wants to make a good impression, he or she will need to rethink his way of addressing his or her professors.

Better: For this student, making a good impression should begin with thinking about how to address professors.
I wrote out my thoughts about singular they in this 2009 post. I haven’t changed my mind since then: I still think that they is sometimes a good choice and sometimes not. And I still think it’s wise to avoid singular they when one’s writing is subject to formal evaluation (at least without checking beforehand).

A related post
Pullum on Strunk and White

[About the original sentence: since it’s from Shit Academics Say, the ponderousness may be by design.]

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