he or she are

In my note on verb agreement with disjunctive subjects, I googled up some examples with “either he or she are” (and some with “either of them are”; and you can also find some examples with “neither he nor she are”). It occurred to me that either might be a crucial ingredient in these examples, so I tried searching on {“he or she are” -either}, expecting to find fewer examples. Instead, I found more, but mostly of one type — with he or she used for generic reference.Start with this  example, from a site on “Loss and Separation”:

To prepare for the anger stage, have the child practice those ways of being angry when he or she are not angry, ideally during the first stage of … (link)

This comes partway into the site, which begins:

Whenever a person loses or is separated from someone or something, they can go through a grieving process.

(with “singular they“, that is, the pronoun they — which is grammatically plural — used for generic singular reference, here with the antecedent a person).

A few sentences later comes:

It is believed a person can become stuck in any of the stages until she or he has worked through it.

(with generic she or he and with singular agreement).

And then later:

Here, the child tends to isolate his/her reality from his/her true feelings.

(with his/her).

Further along:

… when a foster child comes into your home, you need to help them create what it is they are going to say about themselves in the society at large

(returning to singular they, in themtheythemselves).

Eventually we get to the “he or she are” example I started with. The site is all over the map with schemes of generic reference.

Now, from a sample compare-and-contrast essay on a site offering essays and term papers for sale:

An only child has no responsibility of money. He or she are not used to using a budget.

Just as an only child may be spoiled, an only child has problems interacting with other children at a young age. Since he or she spend a good amount of their time with their parents, they are more mature that other children are.

Note again an alternation between he and she (with plural agreement) and singular they.

There are many more examples. These are two that came up early in the search and have some entertainment value. It seems pretty clear that some people can use he or she, at least some of the time, as an alternative to singular they, and with the plural agreement appropriate for they. No doubt a testimony to the durability and naturalness of singular they. (Language Log has looked at singular they and other methods of generic reference dozens of times over the years, and there’s a sensible discussion in MWDEU.)

4 Responses to “he or she are”

  1. Emily Says:

    The alternation with “they” makes me wonder if these writers originally wrote “they are”, and then incorrected “they” to “he or she” without changing the verbs.

  2. The Ridger Says:

    I was going to say the same thing. Maybe a “change all” without paying attention to the rest?

  3. Frederic Says:

    Dear Mr Zwicky

    Thank you for your interesting entry on disjunctive subjects.

    Could you possibly devote one on the use of the unmodified quantifier many in affirmative statements?

    The traditional rule states that this use belongs to formal style. But what about the following sentences extracted from the COCA American Corpus? Aren’t they neutral in style?
    Cryptochromes were discovered in plants many years ago.
    In many ways, my family’s story is universal.
    There are many risks for any outside company.

    Could it be that the formality of many differs according to whether it is subject, object etc.?

    I am looking forward to your thoughts on this not so straightforward use of many.

    Best Regards


  4. sg or sg = pl « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] in my postings “More variation than expected” (here) and “He or she are” (here): subjects of the form (either) he or she can work, for some people, just like “singular […]

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