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We Do Not Seek to Rule

A recent article on the BBC News Web site mentions a wearable self-defense accessory: a bra designed to deliver a 3800 kv electric shock to would-be rapists. It was brought to my attention by an e-mail correspondent whom I will call KR. He pointed out that the following text (which raises a very reasonable question) contains an interesting example of the syntactically singular use of the pronoun they:

The bra is fitted with a pressure sensor connected to an electric circuit. So how can the wearer be sure they won’t be on the receiving end of a hefty electric jolt?

The article is about combating the very unpleasant practice that in India is casually called “Eve-teasing”: sexual harassment and assault targeted on young women. It is presupposed that the users of the electric taser-cum-brassiere are going to be female. The article could thus easily have used the feminine: So how can the wearer be sure she won’t be on the receiving end of a hefty electric jolt?

However, it is extremely common and entirely natural for English speakers to employ they in what logicians call bound variable contexts. For example, Nobody imagines they can live forever means “No person x is such that x imagines x can live forever.” Gender is grammatically beside the point—and in this case no gender choice seems appropriate.

Singular they is particularly natural and frequent in cases where the antecedent is a quantifier like nobody or everyone, but it also occurs in cases of reference to an arbitrary individual whose identity is not fixed. The latter is what we see in the BBC example: It means, in effect, “How can some arbitrary wearer x be sure that x won’t be on the receiving end of a hefty electric jolt?”

I was grateful to KR for the instructive example. But his e-mail went on to say something else that was a little bit brow-crinkling:

I read your post on Popes and Prophets (http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=4475), and this seems to be a similar case. Call me a dumb usage pontificator if you will, but I find it jarring to use a "singular they" when referring to the next pope or the wearer of a bra. In the case of the pope, it should be "he", and if the hacks at the BBC really want to avoid "she" it would be so simple to make the wearer plural.

The Language Log post referred to noted a case where singular they was used in a reference to whoever the next pope might be, ignoring the obvious fact that the next pope would certainly be male. KR would have preferred he in that case, and she in this new one, and wanted to tell me so.

So it seems I need to clarify something that I would have hoped KR, a regular Language Log reader, might already appreciate. It is this: If you find it jarring to use singular they, then it is your prerogative to simply not use it. Linguists like me who take an interest in deconstructing and deriding prescriptivist pontification do not want to boss you around. There’s nothing wrong with using he or she with quantified or arbitrary-reference antecedents when the sense permits; use them whenever you wish.

The point linguists will draw from the electric-bra example is not that this is how you should write, but that this is how at least one experienced writer at the BBC chose to write, and that typical fluent users of English understand such sentences, seeing nothing odd about them.

We linguists are interested in drawing from the data a better understanding of what English permits. We are happy for you to avoid singular they if you want to. We may warn you against the charlatans and witch doctors who peddle nonsense about grammar and claim that singular they is “an error,” but what we care about most is discovering evidence bearing on the principles governing the speech (and writing) of your fellow English users.

Like visiting extraterrestrials of a friendly kind, we will not harm you. In our explorations of your planet we seek merely enlightenment; we do not seek to rule.

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