Brief notice: singular they run wild

A note from Ben Zimmer with this remarkable anaphora in a TPM headline:

Kanye West is taking their “feud” to Jimmy Kimmel’s show tomorrow

This is singular their with a proper name (of someone whose sex is known) as antecedent. Such examples have turned up on Language Log every so often. For example:

from Geoff Pullum on 4/26/07: “Virginia, who said they would come” (link)

from me on 1/24/10: Singular they trudges on (link), with this note:

I generally find definite-antecedent examples comprehensible but grammatically bizarre.  But practice might be changing.

from GP again on 9/1/10: Singular they with personal name antecedent (link), with this example and a note on it::

Dr Gerald Black has applied for a position of Lecturer in the Department of Criminology at the University of Penzance. I would be grateful if you could provide a reference on their suitability for this post.

Startling, didn’t you think? My claim has always been that you just can’t get singular they with a proper name of a person as antecedent. And now, here is an example of it. If you think the letter is unremarkable and fully acceptable English, then we have a counterexample to my claim. On the other hand, if you find their the second sentence jarringly inappropriate, the sentence is just evidence that I’m right. You be the judge.

from Mark Liberman, 7/31/11: “Dan has not filled out their profile yet” (link), with Mark describing this as “another example of extreme singular their

There are enough examples of this sort to suggest that for some people they (and especially the form their) is spreading as the anaphor for singular antecedents of all types.

[Added later in the day: This speculation might be accurate, but as Éamonn McManus points out in a comment, the their might refer to West and Kimmel taken together. That would make it not an example of extreme singular they, but rather of a different anaphoric oddity, name split antecedents; Kanye West is the subject, while Jimmy Kimmel is within the predicate, and their feud is the direct object intervening between them — meaning that anaphoric their looks simultaneously backwards to Kanye West and forwards to Jimmy Kimmel, and the semantics requires that their referents be combined into a single entity.]

4 Responses to “Brief notice: singular they run wild”

  1. Éamonn McManus Says:

    Doesn’t it mean West’s and Kimmel’s feud?

  2. Victor Steinbok Says:

    Odd coincidence. I was reading something today and noticed a similar construct. It clearly stood out, but, at first I thought it might have been a reference to the whole family, although,on second look, I found no markers to reinforce that possibility.
    “We’ll see — but Republicans also point out that McAuliffe certainly waited a long time to divest themselves of Caramadre’s contributions.”

  3. Note on split antecedents | Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] a posting yesterday, I looked at this somewhat challenging […]

  4. Doug Wyman Says:

    In the mid 1960s genderless pronouns were often used when talking about same sex dating and such to hide the gender of the person being referenced in the comment. i.e. “I had a date last night and they want to go out again.”

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