There is a noticeable difference between the way we write and the way we speak. One is called formal writing, which many rules of grammar; the other is called informal speech or vernacular. There are many handbooks on the English language that give detailed rules; they no doubt have their purpose. Yet, if the chief purpose of language is to communicate, all else is secondary or commentary. For example, all English speakers understand the meaning of this essay's title; and I am sure most would answer with a "yes." Many excellent writers have little or no knowledge of the rules of grammar, yet they communicate well without ever turning to a handbook. Prof George Jochnowitz writes:"Handbooks are designed to help people write formal English. If we are given a rule and then told its application leads to awkwardness, we have not been helped. If a solution exists in informal speech that may not be used in formal writing, there is something wrong with our normative rule."
by George Jochnowitz
While Reading Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind, my younger daughter found what she called a grammatical error in the text of the 1940 edition: "Everyone was very polite and kind to her because he felt sorry for her.. ." (p. 36). When I decided to write an essay arguing that they is grammatical with indefinite antecedents, I checked the text of the original (1936) edition. This time, the passage read "Everyone was very polite and kind to her because they felt sorry for her..." (p. 94). Apparently between 1936 and 1940 some anonymous copy editor decided to correct Mitchell’s prose, and in doing so created the jarring phrase that had offended my daughter.
What makes the 1940 version of the sentence sound so unnatural? J. J. Lamberts (1972, p. 334) says that "if the singular-congruent form immediately follows the indefinite, number forms will be consistent throughout the sentence." On the other hand, "at some distance from either everyone or everybody, notional plurality rather than the strict singular form is likely to dictate the reference." In other words, it is correct to say Everyone has had his Wheaties; it is likewise proper to say Everyone in the crowd must have had their Wheaties.
Lamberts’ rule of thumb does indeed explain why he sounds wrong in the 1940 citation from Gone with the Wind. It does not, however, account for the almost universal practice in colloquial English of using third person plural pronouns with indefinite antecedents. Lamberts introduces the concept of notional plurality to explain this phenomenon: the indefinites everybody and everyone, although they require a singular verb, refer to more than one person. Notional plurality is irrelevant in the case of anyone and anybody, yet here again colloquial English uses they, their, and them in sentences of the type Has anyone forgotten their briefcase?
The unknown person responsible for “Everyone was very polite and kind to her because he felt sorry for her” was simply conforming to a rule of normative grammar found in almost every handbook. George O. Curme gives us the following rule: "The masculine pronouns and possessives are usually employed for persons without regard to sex wherever the antecedent has a general indefinite meaning" (1947, p. 221). Another widely-used text agrees with Curme's handbook, yet recognizes that obeying the normative rule leads to problems: "Use of a singular pronoun to refer to a singular antecedent is sometimes awkward" (Watkins, Dillingham, and Martin 1978, p. 28). The awkwardness is illustrated by this example: "Everybody cheered. I was pleased to hear him" (p. 29). The handbook tells us that to hear them is acceptable in informal speech, but offers no alternative for formal English.
Handbooks are designed to help people write formal English. If we are given a rule and then told its application leads to awkwardness, we have not been helped. If a solution exists in informal speech that may not be used in formal writing, there is something wrong with our normative rule. Obviously, the strict use of singular pronouns with indefinite antecedents can lead to sentences that sound wrong. The example described as awkward by Watkins, Dillingham, and Martin and the quotation from Gone with the Wind (1940) cited above are not merely clumsy; they are ungrammatical in that they offend our native speakers' instincts. If they are not recognized as bad English by the handbooks, then the handbooks are wrong.
Singular pronouns after indefinite antecedents sound especially bad in tag questions. Consider this example: Everyone likes pizza, doesn't he? D. Terence Langendoen asked a group of forty-six high school and junior high school teachers of English to provide tag questions to a number of statements. One of them was Everyone likes me. Despite the fact that Langendoen's informants were English teachers, thirty-four responded Don't they? and only twelve supplied the normative Doesn't he? (1970, p. 19). I suspect that few if any of the twelve teachers choosing he would have done so in spontaneous conversation. It is just not found in spoken English.
Although the use of he after indefinites is jarring when it occurs in tag questions or at a distance from the antecedent, many educated Americans do in fact spontaneously use he in sentences of the type Everyone put on his coat. It was not always so. The earliest (c. 1530) attestation of everybody listed in the Oxford English Dictionary is "Everye bodye was in theyr lodgynges." Indeed, the OED, in Definition 21 of the word one, states, “The pl. prons. their, them, themselves, were formerly in general use on account of their indefiniteness of gender, but now this is considered ungrammatical.” It is astounding that a construction both older and more frequently used is considered wrong, for normative grammar is typically conservative. If there is a difference between formal and informal usage, as in the case of whom, the formal variant is usually older. When it is correct to use a newer form, such as cows rather than kine, the innovation is supported by general usage. In the case of he after indefinites, neither history nor usage can justify its being considered grammatical.
Feminists have objected to the use of masculine pronouns to refer to antecedents of unspecified gender. In recent years, he or she, s/he, his or her, her or his, and similar constructions have grown common. Handbooks on usage have generally condemned this practice. H. W. Fowler characterizes it as "so clumsy as to be ridiculous except when explicitness is urgent, and it usually sounds like a bit of pedantic humour" (1965, p. 404). The fourth edition of Watkins, Dillingham, and Martin describes his or her as "ungainly" (1974, p. 29). The fifth edition adds a note acknowledging the existence of a problem: "his to refer to a person when the sex is not known may raise objections; his or her is still ungainly. The best practice may be to avoid the problem" (1978, p. 28). A handbook written by three women (Butler, Hickman, and Overby 1980) advises us to "recognize that no completely satisfactory solution exists," and suggest that we "avoid the problem by rephrasing the sentence" (p. 127).
Robin Lakoff's "Language and Woman's Place" is written from a feminist perspective, yet the author does not advocate abandoning indefinite he: "My feeling is that this area of pronominal neutralization is both less in need of changing, and less open to change, than many of the other disparities that have been discussed earlier, and we should perhaps concentrate our efforts where they will be most fruitful" (1973, p. 75). Lakoff is apparently unaware that student compositions all over the country are marked wrong every day because their is used instead of his. Indefinite he has ALREADY been abandoned; teachers try to get their students to replace the genderless their with the masculine his. Because Lakoff does not realize that the status quo is on the side of a genderless pronoun, she therefore does not oppose teaching a form that is not only anti-feminist but an innovation to each new generation of students. Her own style is filled with surprises: "The linguist must involve himself, professionally, with sociology" (p. 78) contrasts with "It is also important for a teacher to be aware of the kind of language he or she is speaking" (p. 76). The linguist is male, but the teacher's sex is left unspecified.
The opposite view is taken in a different feminist work: "Despite grammarians' efforts to restrict it to plural antecedents, they is already commonly used both in speech and writing as an alternative to the awkward 'he or she' " (Miller and Swift 1976, p. 135). In fact, "plural pronouns with singular antecedents can be heard any day of the week on the august BBC" (Lawson 1980, p. 129).
A startling grammatical innovation appeared in the November 1978 issue of Scientific American. Breyne Arlene Moskowitz, in her article "The Acquisition of Language," uses only she and her as common-gender pronouns. Thus, she writes, "The task of acquiring language is one for which the adult has lost most of her aptitude" (p. 92). If Moskowitz avoided their because she considered it incorrect, she nevertheless ignored the fact that the use of a function word in a novel way is necessarily ungrammatical in an important technical sense. New nouns, such as ayatollah, may be acceptable the first time they are used, but a change in the use of a pronoun is always wrong the first times it occurs because it is a grammatical as well as a lexical innovation. She might conceivably become correct in a generation or two, but they is already good English; it simply has not been recognized as such. For a discussion of other attempts to change the English language, see Baron (1981).
There is internal evidence in English grammar that they is correct with indefinite antecedents. Consider Definition 3 of they in the Oxford English Dictionary: "As indefinite pronoun: People in general; any persons, not including the speaker; people. ... Much used colloquially and dialectally instead of the passive voice." Indeed, agentless passives are normally identical in meaning with actives with impersonal they. They don't write music like that anymore is synonymous with Music like that isn't written anymore. (Impersonal you, we, and they are treated by Bolinger  in some detail.)
Textbooks on transformational grammar usually say that agentless passives "may be accounted for by deriving them from deep structures that have an indefinite pronoun someone as the subject noun phrase" (Baker 1978, p. 107). I disagree. Even if someone is meant to be a grammatical token rather than a lexeme, it is an inappropriate choice. It is easy to accept He was taken away as equivalent to Someone took him away. But is When will Bruckner Boulevard be finished? really the same as When will someone finish Bruckner Boulevard? Certainly not.
Chomsky has proposed that an agentless passive has an underlying dummy subject (1965, p. 137). Langacker and Munro reject the idea of dummy nodes and propose instead that unspecified subjects, or UNSPECIFIED ARGUMENTS, are the underlying subjects of agentless passives. Unlike a dummy subject, "an unspecified argument is always one that is semantically implied by a predicate; it is a genuine subject or object that is semantically 'there' but happens not to be elaborated by lexical or ref- erential context" (1975, p. 819). This UNSPECIFIED ARGUMENT seems quite similar to a word defined by Halliday and Hasan as follows: "persons adequately specified for purpose of discussion by the context" (1976, p. 53). What is the word described in this way? They, of course!
I conclude, therefore, that the UNSPECIFIED ARGUMENT which is the underlying subject of passive sentences is identical with the indefinite they. Although plural at the surface level because it is identical in form with the third-person plural pronoun, it is unmarked for number in the deep structure. This very they is the correct pronoun with indefinite antecedents. Indefinite they and agentless passive they are the same word, in both form and meaning.1
Maurice Gross has suggested that inconsistencies in the use of liaison in French are the result of whether or not particular examples were taught in school (1979, pp. 868-69). Could the same thing have happened in English? Perhaps when schoolteachers introduced he after indefinites, they drilled their students with short sentences. Thus, Everyone put on his coat became familiar. Long sentences, examples involving sentence boundaries, and tag questions do not readily lend themselves to classroom drill. That is why indefinite he sounds so jarring in these cases: no one has ever heard it used.
1. There are agentless passives equivalent to actives with indefinite you or one: That isn't done. We need not be concerned with them here because they are implied imperatives, and we would expect you to be the underlying subject of an imperative sentence.
Baker, C. L. 1978. Introduction to Generative-Transformational Syntax. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall.
Baron, Dennis E. 1981. "The Epicene Pronoun: The Word That Failed."
American Speech 54: 83-97.
Bolinger, Dwight. 1979. "To Catch A Metaphor: You as Norm." American Speech 54: 194-209.
Butler, Eugenia; Hickman, Mary Ann; and Overby, Lalla. 1W80. Correct Writing: Form 3. 2d ed. Lexington, Mass.: Heath.
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Gross, Maurice. 1979. "On the Failure of Generative Grammar." Language 55: 859-85.
Halliday, M. A. K., and Hasan, Ruqaiya. 1976. Cohesion in English. London: Longman.
Lakoff, Robin. 1973. "Language and Woman's Place." Language in Society 2: 45-80.
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Langacker, Ronald W., and Munro, Pamela. 1975. "Passives and Their Meaning."
Language 51: 789-830.
Langendoen, D. Terence. 1970. Essentials of English Grammar. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston.
Lawson, Sarah. 1980. "Words and Women: A Transatlantic View." Review of Miller and Swift (1976). American Speech 55: 129-31.
Miller, Casey, and Swift, Kate. 1976. Words and Women. Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor/Doubleday.
Mitchell, Margaret. 1936. Gone with the Wind. Reprint (Motion Picture Edition). New York: Macmillan, 1940.
Moskowitz, Breyne Arlene. 1978. "The Acquisition of Language." Scientific American 239: 92-108.
Watkins, Floyd C.; Dillingham, William B.; and Martin, Edwin T. 1974. Practical English Handbook. 4th ed. 5th ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1978.
George Jochnowitz was born in New York City, in 1937. He became aware of different regional pronunciations when he was six, and he could consciously switch accents as a child. He got his Ph.D. in linguistics from Columbia University and taught linguistics at the College of Staten Island, CUNY. His area of specialization was Jewish languages, in particular, Judeo-Italian dialects. As part of a faculty-exchange agreement with Hebei University in Baoding, China, he was in China during the Tiananmen Massacre. He can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.
Copyright ©2012. George Jochnowitz. All Rights Reserved. This article appeared in American Speech 57.3 (1982); it can also be found on George Jochnowitz. It is published here with the permission of the author.