Singular they is really indefinite they

Merriam Webster calls pronouns like everyone, anyone, someone, and no one indefinite pronouns—not singular pronouns. Consider If anyone wants a drink, tell them to sit their asses down at the bar. We could be referring to someone of either gender, no one at all, one person, some people, or all of the people. That’s quite an array of possibilities. Though indefinite, these pronouns do take a singular verb. There are only two choices here: singular and plural. English used to have a dual inflection which referred exclusively to two entities. But there isn’t a form of agreement for “indefiniteSingular verb agreement, whose primary function is to predicate one entity, takes on the secondary function of predicating an indefinite number of entities.

The singularness of verb agreement doesn’t seem to interfere with the notion of indefiniteness possessed by our indefinite pronoun subjects. But which pronoun do we use to refer to our previously defined indefinite antecedents later in a sentence? Obviously we don’t have a ready-made one whose primary function is to refer to an indefinite pronoun. Once again some other pronoun, whose primary function— this bears repeating for emphasis: whose PRIMARY function—is to refer to either singular or plural antecedents, but will be conscripted into service to refer to indefinite antecedents.

Starting as early as the 13th century, well before the emergence of Early Modern English, primarily plural they has been used to refer to indefinite antecedents, and remains the most commonly used today, although its legitimacy has not been universally acknowledged.

Primarily masculine singular he was the choice of the grammarians and schoolmasters who followed the creed of 18th-century grammar author Bishop Robert Lowth, whose preference was for English to imitate Latin.

So we have had he and they competing for the job of the secondary function of indefinite pronoun for about the last two-hundred-and-fifty years now.

Let’s pause to note that the indefinite is a secondary, extended function for both pronouns. The main objection put forth by the opponents of they is that because it is primarily plural, it “can’t” be used as a singular pronoun (“can’t” is an odd choice of words for something that “can” and has been used continuously for over 700 years). Yet the same people are happy to extend a secondary genderless function to he, and are utterly silent on the extended use of you for the singular, plural, nominative, and oblique functions in the second person.

But there’s a problem with indefinite he that makes it unsuitable for the job, and which has led to a major decline in its use today: unlike genderless and plural theyhe is semantically just too singular and way too masculine.

A lot of things have changed since Bishop Lowth published his little book of English grammar in 1762, and it’s time for some people to stop pretending they didn’t get the memo. Yes, anyone who doesn’t care for indefinite they is welcome to rewrite their sentences around it, but it is intellectualy disingenuous to keep suggesting that indefinite they is wrong.

We don’t never got no use for it

Multiple negation—perfectly acceptable in standard dialects of other languages, non-standard dialects of Modern English, and older dialects of standard English—has been utterly eradicated and is severely prohibited from Modern Standard Formal English.

Prescriptivist maven Bishop Lowth decreed–quite contrary to what is actually the case–that two negatives cancel each other out and make a positive. In fact, in dialects which allow it, multiple grammatical negation intensifies the negative.

“I can’t get no satisfaction doesn’t mean Mick Jagger CAN get satisfaction. When someone says “He don’t never go nowhere”, we all know exactly what is meant: He really, really, really likes to stay home.

Despite its persistence in colloquial dialects of English, fuelled in no small measure by the large number of immigrants from countries where multiple negation is standard acquiring English as a second language, Lowth’s decree was passed down by other grammarians and generations of sarcasm-spewing, ruler-wielding schoolmasters to become what Merriam Webster describes as “part of the warp and woof of pedagogy”.

Which is where we are now. If you want to be an expert at Standard Modern Formal English, you had better learn that the “double negative” is one of the most despised constructions in the game—and avoid it like the plague.

Mad’s Men: 1960s, 1960’s, or 1960s’ advertising?


A commenter on Grammar Girl’s Facebook page was on the right track to use the phrase “advertising of the 1960s” to describe the setting of AMC’s “Mad Men” as described in this meme. The prepositional phrase “of the 1960s” modifies “advertising” by stating that we are talking about advertising from a specific decade. The PP makes our information more specific , more definite, by limiting “advertising” to a certain era.

To put it in context of an actual relationship of possession, look at “the car of John”. The PP “of John” supplies additional information about the car, narrowing down the the field of all possible cars to just one: the one that John owns. We can also express this phrase as “John’s car”.

When we add the suffix -’s- to a noun, that noun is said to be in the “genitive case”. Case is just a fancy word that indicates something about how a noun functions. A noun in the genitive case can appear directly in front of another noun to perform the function of “determiner”.

A determiner makes the noun it is modifying more definite. From a purely functional view, putting a genitive case noun in front of another noun is similar to adding “the”, commonly known as the definite article. “The, a, and an” function as determiners. Determiners modify a noun by making it a) more specific:

the car
John’s car

or b) less specific:

a car
any car

or even express varying degrees of “specificness”:

any of John’s cars.

In the last example we limit our focus to cars owned by John, but we aren’t referring any specific one.

Note that the “possessive” is a subtype of the genitive case, just one example–ownership–of how the genitive case makes a noun phrase more specific. According to Merriam Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage, Bishop Lowth started referring to the genitive as the possessive in 1762, and the practice stuck, causing confusion among practitioners and students of grammar alike in a case of “fooling oneself with one’s own terminology”. “Possessive” is accurate about 40% of the time, according to Merriam Webster”, but wrong the other 60%. 

Back to the meme: should it be 1960s, 1960’s, or 1960s’? Let’s simplify matters a little bit. Let’s pretend that we are only concerned with some advertising we produced for a client during the month of January 2013, a time period that we agree to refer to as “January”:

a) The client loved January advertising.
b) The client loved Januarys advertising. 
c) The client loved January’s advertising.

We would all agree that c) is correct.

Let’s use a different time period. Our client wants to create a retro look for their campaign, specifically in the style of advertising produced in the year 1960.

a) The client loved 1960 advertising.
b) The client loved 1960s advertising. 
c) The client loved 1960’s advertising.

The correct answer is again c). But now it’s not that obvious whether we are describing the year “1960” or the decade known as the ”1960s”. Let’s look at the scenario where the client desires the look of the decade known as the “1960s”:

a) The client loved 1960s advertising.
b) The client loved 1960ses advertising. 
c) The client loved 1960s’ advertising.

Note that we are applying the same cases that we applied to the January and 1960 examples: singular, plural, and genitive. Again, and by the same reasoning we know to be valid for January, c), the genitive case, is the correct answer.

Of course, as good writers we value clarity, so we should consider sacrificing a little brevity with “the advertising of 1960” or “the advertising of the 1960s”, to eliminate any ambiguity over which time period we are discussing.

It is indeed tempting to use the word “adjective” to describe “1960s” because it is a word that modifies a noun, and we are taught that adjectives modify nouns. Classifying by function is indeed how modern linguistics approaches the task, and it is probably the best way to do it. For the non-grammarian it is more important to know what a word does and how to use it correctly than to know what to call it. 

However, as we saw with “possessive”, sometimes the labels we have learned end up concealing the functions we know a word performs, making it difficult to understand what is actually going on in a sentence, and making it harder to do the right thing when putting a sentence together. Words that fall into the traditional category of noun can perform other functions. Rather than wonder what other names we should be calling that noun, it is far easier to just figure out what function that noun is performing at the time.

And for yourself?

Maybe we shouldn’t be too quick to snark at people when they incorrectly use myself in place of me. It is definitely an attempt at sounding more polite and formal in cases like If you have any further questions, please don’t hesitate to contact John or myself. For some people it seems that me just doesn’t have the right tone.

Of course it is not uncommon to see myself used non-reflexively in literature and other edited prose, especially in coordination with the third person.

I hear the same sort of thing nearly every time I go to a restaurant in a group, only this time with you. I am asked And for yourself? It seems less intimate but more felicitous than plain old And for you?

What I find very interesting is that this very process already occurred when you took over for thee and thou a few centuries ago for the very same reason. Alternates like youse, y’all (plural all y’all), and yourself are persistently used as a distinctly deferential or simply more polite register.

In the same vein that nature abhors a vaccuum, it would appear that English needs a way to mark some personal pronouns for deference—just like singular vous in French, or the immensely charming himself of Irish-English.

Whom do you love? Not whom, that’s for sure

I hate hearing, reading, writing, or saying “whom”. And it’s not because I don’t know how to use it. I’ve taken home the blue ribbon at many a State Fair whom-off. The source of this discussion is the following article, published in 2007 but somehow still the subject of scrutiny today courtesy of Grammar Girl’s Facebook page.

We first look at this heading:

“Always Know Who You Should Correct”.

“Who” is a called a relative pronoun and is said to introduce a relative clause. That sounds a bit complicated, but it does give us a clue as to where to divide the sentence into its clauses. If “who” introduces the relative clause then let’s break it up there:

“Always Know”

“Who You Should Correct”

The easiest thing to start with is to identify the verbs and the nouns that form their subjects. 

“Always Know”

First we have the verb “Know”. The subject, “you”, is implied in the imperative construction “Always know”. Simple enough. Next comes our relative clause telling us what we should know.

“Who You Should Correct”

We have the verb phrase “should correct”. The nouns available for subject and object are “who” and “you”. This is where people usually start substituting things like “him”. Let’s just try to solve this by sticking to the words we have and the order in which they were given to us. The order is mixed up because you have a relative pronoun in play; however, in most clauses the subject is the noun that immediate precedes the verb.

“Should correct” is immediately preceded by “you” so I will assume that “you” is the subject:

“you should correct”.

That leaves “who” as the object by default. We know that “who” is the subject form and “whom” is the object form. I find “whom” to be infelicitous, overly formal-sounding, and impersonal. But let’s assume for the sake of argument that we have decided to use it, as Mr Manners did. So, yes, the heading should read:

“Always Know Whom You Should Correct”.

Picking out the subjects, verbs and, objects isn’t that tough. No matter how tricky things get in language, there is always a one-to-one correlation to some set of events, conditions, or situations in the real world. Even the most basic utterance of a little baby who points to his bottle and says “buhbuh” correlates to a complex system of existing and possible relationships between subjects, verbs, and objects in the real world. Let’s try the another example from the article:

“If you do wish to correct the grammar of someone whom you truly believe would welcome and appreciate the correction, then start by asking them if it is OK to offer a suggestion.”

This is a little trickier. Let’s try the same approach we used last time. Use your instincts to mark off the clauses.

“If you wish to correct the grammar of someone”

“whom you truly believe would welcome and appreciate the correction”

“then start by asking them if it is OK to offer a suggestion”

It looks like the clause we are interested in is

“whom you truly believe would welcome and appreciate the correction”.

Let’s identify the nouns and verbs:

Verbs: believe, would, “welcome and appreciate”.

Nouns: whom, you, the correction.

We already know from context that the article is about the etiquette of you correcting someone else’s grammar. Let’s use that knowledge to cheat. We are not concerned with “you” welcoming or appreciating anything.  Therefore “you” must be doing the believing.  Let’s start matching up verbs based on what we know:

“you truly believe”

“whom . . . would welcome and appreciate”

“The correction” is the odd noun out. Is the correction likely to be doing any believing, welcoming, or appreciating? Not in this case. It must be the object of one of those verbs.

“you truly believe the correction”


“whom . . .  would welcome and appreciate the correction”

Since the article is concerned with the second option, let’s go with that combination of nouns and verbs.

Now we have the various relationships lined up. We are concerned with what you believe about how the other person will receive your corrections. The clause “you truly believe” looks to be embedded inside the clause “whom (you truly believe) would welcome and appreciate the correction”. Let’s just continue to replace it with three dots as above:

“whom . . .  would welcome and appreciate the correction”

We know that “who” is the subject form and “whom” is the object form. It should be:

“who . . .  would welcome and appreciate the correction”


“If you do wish to correct the grammar of someone who you truly believe would welcome and appreciate the correction, then start by asking them if it is OK to offer a suggestion.”

Yes, sir, I hate hearing, reading, writing, or saying “whom”.

Our Two Englishes

How do we define good grammar? What is bad grammar? If anything wonderful is to come of this 1500-year-old story, it must be clearly understood that there are Two Englishes: Everyday English and Formal English—and they are both ours. Everyday English has been evolving mostly on its own, bending its shape and sound to the forces of trade and foreign invasions for the last for 1500 years. It’s the one we use in casual communication in countries all over the word. Formal English is a relative newcomer, and a bit of a troublemaker.

Starting in the 5th century, invaders from the east: Angles, Saxons, and Jutes brought the Germanic languages that became Anglo-Saxon, and later came to be called Old English. Although Old English vocabulary was heavily influenced by Latin-based French after the invasion of 1066 by the French-speaking Normans from the south, its grammar is not like French, or the Latin from which much of French is derived. The grammar of Old English was heavily influenced by waves of Scandinavian invaders speaking Old Norse, a Germanic language similar to Anglo-Saxon, who conquered and settled the north of England, as well as Ireland and Scotland starting around 900.

As generations of these Old Norse-speaking Scandinavian invaders became integrated with the Old English-speaking local populations, they and their children acquired Old English somewhat imperfectly, resulting in a grammatically simplified hybrid of the original languages that eventually developed into modern Everyday English by around the end of the 16th century.

Around the middle of the 18th century, a second style of English began to evolve: Formal English.

Due in part to a huge influx of Latin and Greek terms influenced by unprecedented advances in science and medicine, combined with the lack of any formalized rules of English grammar, well-meaning language scholars attempted to define and standardize English grammar in one fell swoop. Deciding that a version of English which more closely resembled Latin and Greek would be the most desirable, they attempted to transplant the rules of Latin grammar onto Everyday English. Because they were the first of their kind, the books they wrote became instant bestsellers, prompting many “experts” to get into the now-lucrative grammar business, some with little more qualification than the possession of an opinion or two.

But Latin grammar rules for English weren’t always a good fit. It was often the case, and still is, that Everyday English, which had developed organically over many generations, was very resistant to the transplanted Latin rules, which rightly seemed artificial, unnatural, and even arbitrary. Indeed Latin grammar, with its strict grammatical rules about how words are formed and how they may be combined, had much more in common with Old English than Everyday English. Many of these rules, especially regarding case endings for nouns, had disappeared from Everyday English many hundreds of years before, and bringing them back suddenly was a tall order, an unholy marriage of sorts, which would have long lasting implications for both Englishes.

Today 200 years later, Everyday English and Formal English are still resisting each other, fighting a war for dominance. But that doesn’t have to be a problem for us, because it is a phoney war, and we are going to prevail by becoming experts at both versions.

In many ways Everyday English and Formal English are a like two different languages—fine—then that is how we shall treat them. All languages and all styles and dialects within a given language follow certain grammatical rules—including sign language, computer languages, and even text messaging. These rules form the link between the sounds and written letters of language and the real-world events and situations that language attempts to describe. Formal English has some rules that aren’t found in Everyday English and vice versa. When we gain a solid understanding of Our Two Englishes and master the differences we will realize that that there is really no such thing as bad grammar—just different grammar. We will also see that the similarities between Our Two Englishes are greater than the differences.

And don’t be fooled into thinking that just because Our Two Englishes lack some of the more complex rules that other languages have in abundance, they are inferior or deficient in any way—they are not. Our Two Englishes rely more on context, implication, and the experience of their speakers than most other languages. That’s OK. The rules are there, they are just different. We will master them and wield the Two Englishes—OUR Two Englishes—like weapons, conquering any challenge that is set before us.