Other formats

    TEI XML file   ePub eBook file  


    mail icontwitter iconBlogspot iconrss icon

The Spike [or Victoria University College Review 1961]

A Problem of English Grammar

page 26

A Problem of English Grammar

In Sentences of the type 'Everyone is discontented with his (their?) lot in life', there is in many minds an uneasiness about the choice of pronoun. Those who deliberately attempt to speak well are perhaps even more uneasy about such sentences as 'If anyone has seen this missing person, will he (they?) report the fact to the police?' Their special uneasiness may arise from the close association of this type with the indefensible 'Anyone willing to give two hours to worthwhile work would they please give their names to Mr X' — which, by the way, is not a figment of my imagination, but has appeared in unambiguous writing on a public notice-board.

Leaving such horrors aside, one can still discern a problem, or rather several problems, which are usually waved aside with some curt statement of prescriptive grammar like 'Antecedents in the singular must be followed by pronouns in the singular'. Such curtailment of theoretical argument by a practical aphorism of dubious applicability could be paralleled in such other public discussions as that of the raising of Lake Manapouri; but the national character is too large a subject for a short contribution.

The aphorism in question here is dubious, of course, because it is by no means clear that everyone' is a singular. From the formal aspect there is certainly no doubt about it : both elements in the word are necessarily singular. But English is not among the languages in which form is syntactically decisive, as, for example, French is. In French one must say 'Les Châtiments sont . . .'; in English one says Departmental Ditties is . . .', looking beyond the formally plural words to the single book of which they are the title. Likewise it is a commonplace of English grammar — and one of which we are sometimes invited to be proud, as of a sign of robust commonsense — that collective nouns take a singular or a plural verb at choice. On the face of it there seems no reason why the same liberty may not be extended to what is virtually a collective pronoun.

It is a liberty of which writers have apparently always availed themselves. The quotations under 'everyone' and everybody' in the Oed show a steady sprinkling of plural pronouns associated with the words, from 1530 to the present day. The usage is more frequent with 'everybody', doubtless because no distinction is made between cases where the one' of 'everyone' is emphatic and those where it is a true synonym of 'everybody'. The American grammarian G. O. Curme, while admitting that a plural pronoun may be justified by the plural sense of everyone', describes this usage as obsolete, while the Oed (under 'everyone') says it is sometimes unavoidable. It seems possible that the American attitude may have been affected by the more rigid syntax of other languages, in view of the influence that German syntax in particular has exerted on American English.

Those languages, however, do not face quite the same difficulties that arise in English if the plural pronoun is proscribed. In choosing a singular pronoun they certainly face a conflict of gender, but it is a conflict not unparalleled in their syntactical systems and provided for in their rules, which usually specify that precedence goes to the masculine. (E.g., Fr. 'Les cris, les prières, sont écoutés sans émotion.)

page 27

No parallel conflict of genders seems to arise in modern English, and there is, in addition, the special character of gender in modern English. It is not merely a grammatical category, but is deeply associated with the ideas of sex. To use a masculine or feminine pronoun of a mixed group of people would cause embarrassment partaking of the nature of that which would be felt if one accidentally addressed a man as 'madam'. The psychological need for an epicene pronoun is correspondingly stronger in English than in languages that have preserved grammatical gender. The fact that 'they' is the only epicene pronoun in the third person no doubt accounts for the persistence of its use in sub-literary English, not only with 'everyone', but also in such other constructions as were mentioned in the first paragraph.

As regards its construction with 'everyone', the verdict seems inevitable. If it is a solecism at all, it is one (like different to') only in the minds of certain nineteenth century pedants and never in the usage of good authors. But the case is a little different when the construction is extended to anyone' and 'anybody'.

In logic, what is predicated of any single member of a class is predicated of all members of the class; 'any' thus implies plurality just as much as 'everyone'. But 'anyone' often implies that a predicate which is potential for a whole class is actualized for one only. When we speak of inanimate objects in such sentences, there is no doubt about the pronoun usage. Faced with such a choice as this: 'Any ship may sink in a storm, and if it does (they do?) lives may be lost', anyone will choose the first form, whatever his (their?) training in logic or grammar may have been.

But it does not follow that anyone will choose the first form in the second pair of alternatives in the last sentence, where there is a reference which is ambiguous as to gender. In sentences like the missing-person example in the first paragraph, which are precisely analogous to the example just given, the Nzbs (or the Police Force, if it words its own announcements) seems to opt for 'they' invariably. A little well-directed attention will demonstrate to anyone that this construction is as vigorous, in sub-literary English, as that with 'everyone'.

The only conclusion from these observations seems to be that the popular tongue, in a manner not yet officially sanctioned, has in reality supplied English with what it has long been agreed to lack: an epicene singular pronoun in the third person. In a construction where by universal consent it' is used of inanimate objects and 'he' or 'she' of classes exclusively masculine or feminine, it inserts 'they' wherever the class concerned embraces both sexes.

The contention that 'they' here functions as a singular pronoun may be questioned. Admittedly it is followed by a plural verb. Admittedly, too, as the construction is not recognized and understood for what it is, its nature may not be clear to many of those who use it. But both German and French offer examples of pronouns which have developed a singular meaning in certain contexts without losing their original plurality and both are followed by the plural form of the verb (Germ. Sie sind; Fr. vous êtes). In spite of this they are clearly felt as singulars on appropriate occasions. There is no necessary reason why 'they' should not be so felt too, if the construction were allowed to emerge from the twilight in which all linguistic innovations begin.

The final contention of this paper is that it ought to be allowed to emerge into the page 28 official language. Look at the alternatives. 'He', traditionally correct, is rejected by that great majority unacquainted with the classics because it is felt to exclude the female of the species, no longer a mere dependency on the male. 'He or she', beloved only of pedants, is intolerably clumsy. A made-up pronoun like heshe '(apart from sounding Japanese) seems to stand no chance of being received into the, as it were, most intimate stratum of the language.

I end by hoping that anyone who has read so far will find themself convinced.

Donald Anderson