Complex Demonstratives and Singular ‘they’

Here’s a neat fact I learned from Geoff Pullum’s radio talk about singular ‘they’.

It’s appropriate to use ‘they’ in spoken English as a singular pronoun, provided it plays something like the role of bound variable. So (1) could mean (2)

(1) Every scientist said they believe in evolution.
(2) [All x: scientist x]Believe in evolution(x)

The proviso is important. You can’t use ‘they’ as short for ‘he or she’ (as it appears to be used in (1)) when it is anaphoric on a name.

(3) Morgan said they believe in evolution.

In (3) ‘they’ has to refer to some group. Morgan might be a part of that group, but he or she can’t be denoting him or herself with ‘they’. Wouldn’t it be easier if I could say there “they might be denoting themselves”? I can’t, which shows that the use of ‘they’ here derided by some self-ordained grammarians is actually rule-governed. (If anyone has seen Bill Safire sounding off on this use of ‘they’ I would be very happy to see quotes!)

It’s not just universal quantifiers that can bind singular ‘they’, as the following examples show. (These are all from Pullum.)

‘Everybody should marry as soon as they can do it to advantage.’ That’s Jane Austen in 1814. And there are thousands of other examples down the years.

‘A person can’t help their birth.’ (That’s William Makepeace Thackeray in 1848.)

‘Nobody fancies for a moment that they are reading anything beyond the pale.’ (That’s Walter Bagehot in his book ‘Literary Studies’ in 1877.)

‘… at the end of the season when everyone has practically said whatever they had to say …’ (That’s Lady Bracknell speaking in Oscar Wilde’s play, The Importance of being Earnest in 1895, and Lady Bracknell never says anything ungrammatical.)

‘Who ever thought of sparing their grandmother worry?’ (That’s Edith Wharton writing in 1920, using singular ‘they’ with ‘who’ as the antecedent).

‘Too hideous for anyone in their right mind to buy.’

The conclusion Pullum draws from this data is:

The relevance of the distinction is this: in English, the pronoun ‘they’ is fairly strictly limited to having a plural-inflected antecedent when it is used as a referring pronoun, but there is no such restriction when it’s a bound pronoun.

He attributes much of this to a PhD dissertation by Rachel Lagunoff, who pointed out that some genuinely existential quantifiers can govern ‘they’ as in (4)

(4) There’s a caller with a musical question on Line 1. They realise they may have to wait. (This was an example Pullum noticed while going in to the studio to record the talk I’m ripping off here.)

I’m not sure referential/bound is quite the right distinction here, because I think (5) sounds bad, even if the definite description is uncontroversially attributive.

(5) The scientist said they believe in evolution.

Still, I think there’s a good point that when the NP is referential, singular ‘they’ is inappropriate. Which brings me back to the title. Some of the time I can convince myself that complex demonstratives can licence singular ‘they’, as in (6).

(6) That scientist said they believe in evolution.

(6) is a little marginal, especially compared to the Austen to Auden examples above, but I think it can be OK. And that’s a bit of evidence (hardly compelling, but evidence) for the claim that complex demonstratives are quantificational rather than referential.

Confession. I haven’t gone and looked up the literature on complex demonstratives, and for all I know this argument has been refuted more times than I’ve had Chinese dinners. If not, I gladly offer up some more evidence for the quantificational side of the disputes about complex demonstratives.

11 Replies to “Complex Demonstratives and Singular ‘they’”

  1. My favorite explanation of the gender-neutral “they” is based on Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle.

    Suppose I tell you, “there’s someone on the phone.” You might respond, “Are they calling about the plumbing?” The explanation is that, until you know whether the person calling is a “he” or a “she”, there is a nebulous set of
    numerous possible people calling.

    So “they” can refer to a genuinely plural nebulous possibility cloud.

  2. Safire gets linguistic matters wrong so often that there is no point in seeking out his thoughts.

    One interesting question is what the proper reflexive pronoun for the singular “they” is. I think it’s “themself.”

  3. The “Uncertainty Principle” —- that you can use singular they when you don’t know the gender of the person you’re referring to —- appears to be false. If I know that someone called Chris is known to have visited but I don’t know if it was a Christopher or a Christine, and I find an unfamiliar keyring, I can’t say “It looks like Chris left their keys.” I have to go for the clunky “his or her keys” if I don’t know the gender, because I actually used a name. (This example, or one very like it, was in my Australian radio talk.) Rachel Lagunoff’s view is that the more referential a noun phrase gets, the worse singular they sounds, and names are the most referential of all.

    The topic of singular they receives a terse but serious treatment in chapter 5 of THE CAMBRIDGE GRAMMAR OF THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE (Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey K. Pullum; Cambridge University Press, 2002). Chapter 5 was mostly the work of John Payne and Rodney Huddleston. Their discussion of how to refer to humans with singular pronouns in a sex-neutral way can be found in pages 491-495. It is more cautious than I was in the radio talk —- it doesn’t say that the bound variable sense is the only one that allows “they” to be singular —- but the discussion makes it clear that the truth is fairly close to that, subject to the usual subtle and complex codicils that are necessary when talking about the structure of a natural language.

  4. I should have noted that the point of using a (somewhat) gender-neutral name like ‘Morgan’ in (3) was to defeat the idea that it’s just ignorance of the gender that allows use of ‘they’. And this of course wasn’t an original idea of mine – as Geoff notes it’s also in the radio talk.

    Before I saw it was false the uncertainty principle explanation made a lot of sense. It just happens to be inconsistent with the data.

  5. I don’t think the judgment on (5) is very strong. Suppose I spill juice all over my shopping cart. It seems fine to say (eg, if you’re giving me a reason to clean it up),

    (5A) The next shopper will want their cart to be dry.

    In any case, on the question of whether the patterning argument is good, here are two distinctions: referential vs. attributive uses of an expression, and referential vs. quantificational expressions. The first distinction is pretty clearly an epistemic one. (What allows me to use ‘the man in the corner drinking champagne’ referentially, e.g. to talk about the guy drinking water, is that everyone can figure out who I’m talking about). The second distinction isn’t obviously an epistemic one. In fact, quantificational and referential treatments of complex demonstratives need not differ in the epistemic requirements on felicitous uses of complex demonstratives.

    If it’s the second distinction that’s at issue, then on the assumption that that distinction is exclusive, the badness of (5) should be evidence (‘hardly compelling, but evidence’) for the referential (as opposed to quantificational) status of definite descriptions. At least, it should be evidence, if the acceptability of (6) is evidence (‘hardly compelling, but evidence’) that complex demonstratives are quantificational. If you’re not inclined to take the badness of (5) (ignoring its weakening by (5a)) as evidence that definite descriptions are referential, then you shouldn’t take the acceptability of (6) as evidence that complex demonstratives are quantificational.

  6. If you make the complex demonstrative specify gender, (6)-ish sentences don’t sound as acceptable.

    (6A) I swear, that guy thinks they are better than everybody else!
    (6B) That lady hopes they don’t look too suggestive in that dress.

    Turn “they” into “their” and things are worse:

    (6C) Smith hoped that woman would bat their eyes at him.

    In examples where there’s a perfectly good alternative reading available, I think it’s a real stretch to say ‘they’ refers to the demonstrative:

    (6D) That seamstress worries they will run out of work.
    (6E) That actress knew they would forget their lines.
    (6F) That king has a feeling they will win the battle.

  7. (6) strikes me as worse than marginal—I just can’t hear it. I would read it as “That scientist said scientists believe in evolution.” Perhaps this is just an intuition clash, but when I compare
    (5B) The deparment chair said they would step down at the end of the year
    (6B) That department chair said they would step down at the end of the year
    I get the exact same results—whenever I can convince myself that (6B) is acceptable, I feel the same about (5B). Can you say why you think (6) is OK? Not necessarily an answerable question.

  8. I don’t think there’s any way to convince someone that an example sentence is good – it’s just a data point that some people find these sentences acceptable. Maybe I’m missing something important here though.

    I’m convinced by Geoff and Susanna’s examples that there isn’t as much of a difference here between definite descriptions and complex demonstratives than I thought. (I’d just missed examples like Susanna’s (5a), which makes this point very clearly.)

    But that doesn’t undermine the main conclusion that I drew – that we have some evidence that complex demonstratives are quantificational – since definite descriptions are quantificational.

    I don’t think, in particular, that the problems Geoff and Susanna bring up provide much reason to think CDs are referential. The important point, one I hadn’t stressed here (and again this is a point I’m getting directly from Geoff Pullum’s radio talk), is that two conditions have to be met before we can use singular ‘they’. One is that we have a ‘bound variable’ use of a pronoun. The other is that the domain of the quantifier the variable is bound to cannot be known to be all male, or known to be all female. The second clause rules out the following:

    (7) ??Every mother loves their youngest child.
    Compare: Every American loves their youngest child.

    (8) *At least one mother loves their youngest child.
    Compare: At least one American loves their youngest child.

    We can’t conclude that ‘every mother’ or ‘at least one mother’ are referential on the basis of this evidence.

    Note this explains why we can’t use ‘they’ when it is bound to (what Donnellan would have called) a referential use of a definite description. In those cases, we normally know the gender of the referee.

  9. I take a patterning argument to be of the form, ‘Expression E patterns with expressions that are uncontroversially quantificational [referential]. That’s evidence that E is not referential [not quantificational].’ This might be a good argument. Whether it is depends in part on whether the q/r distinction is exclusive. And that in turn depends on what it is to be q or r. There are multiple candidates for what it is to be each of these, and it’s not obvious (to me) which ones are the most theoretically useful.

    But I agree with the original point, that if the patterning argument is good, then there is evidence that CD’s are quantificational and not referential.

    In the original post, when (5) [=bad case of DD w/singular ‘they’] was on the table but (5a) [=good case of DD w/singular ‘they’] wasn’t, Brian seemed to want to resist the conclusion of patterning argument as applied to DD’s. Although the conclusion seemed right to me because of (5a), the reasoning seemed wrong. It seemed like the patterning argument was being applied unevenly—that it was being taken as providing evidence about the status of CDs, but not about the status of DD’s.

  10. I basically agree with everything Susanna said in the last post, but at one point I think she’s being too charitable to me. I wasn’t exactly running a patterning argument.

    I agree that those have force, and I think there’s one here. I don’t think it has a lot of weight, but I’m inclined to regard it as a consideration, and my impression of the field is that there’s no slam dunk argument either way, so adding more minor considerations could be relevant. So anyway, that would have been a reasonable thing for me to do.

    Rather, I was trying to basically cheat. I wanted to say that licensing singular ‘they’ was a sufficient, but not necessary, condition for an NP being quantificational. So I wanted a patterning argument that, if it worked, could only deliver one possible result. Nice work if you can get it, but not really honorable. The funny thing is, there is reason to think that licensing singular ‘they’ is a sufficient, but not necessary, condition for an NP being quantificational, but that’s only because there’s one extra clause for singular ‘they’ being OK – that you don’t know the gender of the denotata of the NP, or you do and they don’t have a common gender.

    (And yep, I’m glossing over all the big theoretical issues about whether there’s one q/r distinction or many, whether it’s exclusive or not, etc. I almost never do big picture stuff – I just muck about in the details and hope and pray that few enough of my presuppositions are false that there’s some point to what I’m doing. If the q/r distinction is nothing like I think it is, then all of this is a bit beside the point.)

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