Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Day Job: "They" is not singular, and a link on film narrative

We're doing a little experiment here at PV. This is primarily a sports blog, but I'm thinking of incorporating a bit of non-sports chatter into the routine. If I write a non-sports post, I'll always include "Day Job" in the title (so that if you are here to read only about sports, you know what to gloss over). They won't be all this boring, I hope.

Despite the insistence of stubborn English teachers, the plural pronoun is becoming a singular genderless pronoun. This is used not just in everyday English speech, but by the mainstream media. More and more often I hear somebody on TV use "they," "their," or "them" as a pronoun to refer to a singular subject. You know: "A person shouldn't take their work home with them." Something like that, where the plural pronouns "their" and "them" are used to refer back to the singular noun "person." It's easy to fix this agreement problem: either make the noun and pronouns all singular, or make the noun and pronouns all plural. But to many people it doesn't sound wrong, so nobody seems to be fixing it. And I'm not just talking about live broadcasts--I'm talking about narration in which there should have been time to proofread and revise.

Every time I hear it, I grit my teeth and squint as if somebody has just poured hot wax over my head. I just can't stand it.

I see it less often in professional writing, as there's a higher standard of grammar in writing (though I rarely read a freshman paper without the same error).

Help me, people. On issues of grammar, English teachers are among the most conservative people on earth. Language always evolves: what is grammatically correct today may not have been grammatically correct a century ago, and may not be grammatically correct a century from now. But help me prevent "they" from becoming the genderless singular pronoun.

Thanks for your time. I'd also like to provide an interesting link for you to check out:

"The New Disorder: Adventures in Film Narrative" by David Denby (The New Yorker)

Denby explores why films seem to be playing around with chronology so much. My theory: film is just slower than literature, and mainstream film is now doing with novelists and poets have been doing a long, long time. If you want fragmented narrative, just try T. S. Eliot's "The Wasteland" or William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury." Film just takes a little time to catch up to what is going on in fiction (this is also my theory for the rise in meta-fictional film. If you'd like to read perhaps the best model of metafiction, try John Fowles' The French Lieutenant's Woman). But Denby gives the recent film trend of fragmentation and re-ordering some insightful treatment.


  1. You should call this series "Grammar Police."

    What is the correct sentence?

    "A person shouldn't take his or her work home.."?

  2. Or "People shouldn't take their work..."

    I've found the most liberal English profs can be tyrannical arch-conservatives when it comes to some grammar rules.

  3. Anonymous10:11 AM

    Don't stick to your day job.

  4. I just noticed the contrast in our avatars.

    I think I'm against everything you stand for :)

  5. As a non-native English speaker whose my language as well as a lot of other languages use the translation of ‘They’ as a singular pronoun.

    It’s natural and obvious to me, so much so that, I end up using the same in English as well.