Epicenes and Singular They

My interest in singular they and what has come to be called epicene pronouns comes from my rebelliousness as a 7th grader, when an English teacher told my class that the correct pronoun to use with a singular human when we didn't know if it was male or female was he. It was not fair, she said, but it was more important for a pronoun to agree in number with the noun. What bugged me was that she said you couldn't use they because it did not agree. This seemed ridiculous because if you couldn't use it, how come everyone did. This prohibition was part of her general campaign to replace the "it sounds good" rule to decide whether a form was correct or not with the rules in grammar books. We had to know those rules. That's why we also shouldn't say "it's me." I didn't believe her and I became an ant--prescriptivist, even though I didn't know what that meant at the time. I was definitely having a pretty geeky teenage rebellion, and if I had run into the right person at the time, they could have made sure that I went into linguistics a lot earlier than I did. Instead, the rebellion went off into a number of less healthy ways.

Anyway, this was my first major research topic. It became my dissertation, published in Garland's "Outstanding Dissertations in Linguistics Series" as Epicene Pronouns, the linguistics of a prescriptive problem.

The basic idea is that they is less about avoiding a choice between genders than about the genericness versus the individuation of the referent. Individuated referents are those which are more like individual concrete humans. Generic ones are more like types. The more individuated the referent, the more likely a singular pronoun will be used, he usually but sometimes she, and even it with babies or small children. The more generic a referent, the more likely they will be even if we know the sex. So we can say:

"You can't trust a male prostitute because they're only in it for the money."

But not:

#"Was that before or after Sandy had their sex change?" (the # indicates that it is not pragmatically felicitious)

However, as Larry Horn, who was kind enough to publish my dissertation (among others), has pointed out, this is almost right, but not quite.

Some people do say things like "This suitcase belongs to some passenger named Chris Fowley. Could you tell them to pick it up." or

—My cousin from Connecticut is coming?
—Oh, when are they arriving?

Each of these cases, there is a single individual person not a type of cousinity or Chrisishness.

My closest approach was published in “What pronouns can tell us: a case study of epicenes in English,Studies in Language, 22: 2, 353-390 (1997). The important idea there is less concerned with epicenes, per se, as much as pronoun theory, particuarly the idea that pronouns provide information about a referent, not just point at it, what is sometimes called ostensive reference. In this case the information includes individuation or lack of it. On this view, agreement is a source of information under grammatical constraints. Anyway, I solved the problem to my own satisfaction and leave it to someone else to improve upon it.

Return to Michael Newman's home page Send an e-mail