hjmartin (hatch@RICHMOND.INFI.NET)
Tue, 7 Nov 1995 12:31:50 -0500

Because of several reponses, I (reluctantly) post this:

>Regarding the plural properties of "their," I would like to quote the
>Handbook of Nonsexist Writing (Harper & Row, 1980):
> Present-day linguists, tracing the history of the so-called
> generic 'he,' have found that it was invented and prescribed
> by the [sixteenth and seventheeth century] grammarians themselves
> in an attempt to change long-established English usage. The
> object of the grammarians' intervention was the widespread
> acceptance of 'they' as a singular pronoun, as in Lord Chesterfield's
> remark (1979),
> "If a person is born of a gloomy temper...they
> cannot help it."
> Nearly three centuries earlier, England's first printer,
> William Caxton, had written,
> "Each of them should...make themself ready."
> and the invocation
> "God send everyone their heart's desire"
> is from Shakespeare.
> ....In 1850 an Act of Parliament gave official sanction
> to the recently invented concept of the "generic" 'he.'
>If anyone is interested in the rest of the argument for singular usage
>of 'plural' pronouns, _they_ should check _their_ library for authors
>Casey Miller & Kate Swift.
>Jessie Strader
>Columbia University

In reply:

The fact that an historical precedent exists does not mean that present
usage is, must, or should be affected. Neither does the precedent oblige us
to suppose that current change is acceptable or unacceptable. The example
is instructive, however.

If 'their' now, as in the past, has an unstable use as a singular and a
plural, then ok, study the history and report it.

In the above, we see that academics have been fiddling with pronouns since
at least the 16th century: "linguists, tracing the history of the so-called
generic 'he,' have found that it was invented and prescribed by
the...grammarians themselves in an attempt to change long-established
English usage".

In the case of 'their', if a change is favored by members of an elite who
agree with each other that the usage should change, then how dare they? I
am certain that they do not hope to have their preference ratified by Congress.

The issues involved are not only about an idealized, neutral change but also
about how people think of the change and what position they stake out as
their own -over which they will argue. The grammatical correctness of
'their' as a singular can only be established through its general use as a
singular, not through a committee setting standards of correctness for the
others in the population to ascribe to. In other words, their is singular,
and correctly so, if people use it this way. I don't use it this way because
it sounds wrong to me.

Original text:

>On Fri, 3 Nov 1995, hjmartin wrote:
>> >On Nov 2, Ruby Rohrlich wrote:
>> >
>> >>Why "shamaness"? A shaman is a shaman is a shaman. If you want to
>> >>distinguish a shaman by sex, use the word denoting sex, like "male" or
>> >>"female". We no longer use poetess, authoress, etc., and never have used
>> >>"doctoress." Ruby Rohrlich
>> >
>> >
>> >Hurrah Ruby, I agree! Above applies to words like "mankind" as well.
>> >
>> >
>> Now, if we could only agree that 'their' is a plural pronoun and takes a
>> plural verb...
>> What's more, if we could only agree that 's (apostrophe+s) indicates
>> possession, not the plural...
>> Finally, if we could all agree that 'And' should not be used to begin a
>> sentence...
>> Then what? Would the meaning of what I write be any clearer? Would the
>> grammar police stop giving so many citations? Would my thinking pass
>> inspection?
>> Just a thought.
>> Regards,
>> Jim Martin
>> -------------------------


Jim Martin
901 Pump Rd, 193
Richmond, VA 23233
(804) 740-0170 home
(804) 786-5188 work