Pronoun Agreement Out the Window?

I exchanged a few e-mails about grammar with a woman I have never met, who I will call Mary, since that is not her name. In one of my messages I happened to make this passing reference to someone:

[1] She would never be acerbic to anybody until they stepped over the line and really deserved it.

To my amazement, Mary’s reply quoted this back and added a comment:

I avoid having pronouns not agreeing with antecedents. I guess this rule is out the window in Scotland too. No way shall I ever be convinced to change this in my writing or listening.

And I thought, wow. (Or words to that effect; I’m not sure you can actually think a wow.) We professors don’t have a corner on arrogance, do we?

Consider Mary’s implied claim. Here’s me, a native speaker with a Ph.D. in syntax, co-author of The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, head of a large department of linguistics and English language; and Mary thinks I can’t even make my pronouns agree correctly in number with their antecedents? Is that plausible?

Where are we supposed to turn for evidence about how to use English correctly if the usage of someone like me counts for nothing? If my 30 or 40 years of writing about English grammar confers no mantle of authority, what exactly would? Is there some certification course I could take? (I’m willing to do night classes.)

Of course, I make typing errors; but my finger hadn’t slipped in this case, and Mary didn’t think it had. And true, her reference to what must be “out the window in Scotland” suggests she might have thought that it was a regional dialect issue; but there isn’t, not here. There are virtually no differences between what Scots and Americans regard as normal syntax and semantics in connection with the morphology and syntax of pronouns (and anyway, I’m an American citizen and I’ve taught grammar for a quarter of a century in the U.S.A.).

She saw me as straightforwardly violating a rule of grammar. But how could there be a rule of grammar that I was still clueless about after 50 years of using the language? I’ll tell you. She has the rule wrong. Nearly all published grammars have it wrong. Mary had been taught an inaccurate agreement rule. It is not true that every antecedent for the pronoun they must be plural (in the sense of requiring plural subject-verb agreement).

Here’s something a lot closer to the truth (I oversimplify only a little). The so-called “third person plural” pronoun is actually used in two circumstances: (i) when the antecedent has clear reference and its number is definitely plural, and (ii) when there isn’t really any number to agree with. So we get clear contrasts like this (where the asterisk marks the string of words that follows it as grammatically impossible if we take Pat to be the antecedent of their):

[2] *Pat doesn’t think the traffic congestion problems in this town are their fault.
[3] Nobody ever thinks traffic congestion problems are their fault.

I’d never use [2]; nor would you, not even if you only knew Pat from email and didn’t know the right sex. But like almost everyone else who uses English normally, I would write [3], where there is no reference and thus no semantic singularity or plurality (nobody doesn’t refer to a person or a group of people), and the pronoun they has a meaning like a bound variable in formal logic (for no person x does it ever hold that x thinks traffic congestion problems are x’s fault). Example [1] above, which I actually did write, is another example of the same type as [3].

Copy editors and style manuals often deprecate morphosyntactically singular antecedents for they. They’re just wrong. They don’t base their position on the literary evidence or any other evidence (I will return to the matter of evidence in a later post). Some of the copy editors are just enforcing an overrestrictive house style at the behest of ignorant masters. Some of the style-manual authors think they are obeying logic or common sense or some kind of rule that comes down to us from time immemorial. They’re just mistaken.

It is hard to teach things like this. Notice that Mary said, “No way shall I ever be convinced to change this in my writing or listening.” And they call me arrogant! When I’m shown good evidence or reasoning, I change my mind about the correct formulation of the rules. Mary’s position is that “no way” will anyone convince her to revise her beliefs regardless of the evidence. She is beyond the reach of reason.

Linguists often find themselves trying to bring reason and argument to bear on topics where standard reactions are based on dogmatic intransigence, incoherent beliefs about logic, unfounded fears of ambiguity, warped ideas of history, blind trust in Strunk and White, or panic over imagined abandonment of standards.

I’m setting a homework assignment for the holiday period. Re-read the first act of The Importance of Being Earnest and tell me the most relevant thing you notice in it concerning the topic of this post. No late hand-ins, please. I will return to this topic in January.

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