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· On Singular They ·

You know the problem: "Everyone has a right to their opinion." Arts & Letters Daily recently linked to an essay recording author Jjoan Ttabor Altieri's (really Joan Tabor Altieri's) gradual acceptance over thirty years of the singular pronoun "they." Everyone does, she thinks in Singular They: The Pronoun that Came in from the Cold, have a right to their opinion. Historically, I grant she's right.

But might Altieri agree that the here-analogical difference between "sense" and "reference" — or Sinn and Bedeutung as Gottlob Frege has taught generations of modern philosophers to think — also blunts her point? Let me explain.

It is true, of course, that "their" means everyone in the sense of a plural group, but might it be the case, too, that "everyone" still refers to the singular verb "has" as does the group's singular "opinion"? Although I grant such matters are trivial as matters grammatical, rhetorical, and logical always are, still, maybe they allow me to express yet another point.

It is that I will continue to remind my students that 1 ≠ 2. While I agree one should perhaps mark no more precision in English than our language allows, I am still allowed, as Frege reminds us — with respect to meaning and to reference — sometimes to be plural and sometimes singular.

Say, "Everyone has a right to an opinion."


I must respectfully disagree. Surely everyone has a right to multiple opinions, not just an opinion. After all, what issue would you pick to grace with your singular opinion? It must be an important issue — more important than any other. Would you be allowed to discard your opinion, if an issue of more importance came along? These and other questions must be pondered....

Posted by Sam Barnes on September 26, 2003 03:52 PM

Admirably said. Yes: "Everyone has a right to many opinions — even their opinions." Since I'm still allowed "sometimes to be plural and sometimes singular," your unpacking of the sense-reference of "right" and mine of "has" do beg more questions still (necessarily). But I don't want to discuss Naming and Necessity here, just to grace our exchange with a nicely-styled version of Paul's lovely, important advice to the Philippians: "Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things. Those things, which you have both learned, and received, and heard, and seen in me, do: and the God of peace shall be with you." My thanks for your kind note.

Posted by Styles on September 28, 2003 09:34 PM

Thanks for this lovely quote from St. Paul!

Meanwhile, I suggest that the example, "Everyone has a right to their opinion," unnecessarily complicates the matter of using "they" as a singular pronoun. Using "everyone" as a plural pronoun is one problem; using "they" as a singular neuter pronoun is another.

How about "The student left their book" or "The suspect left their prints at the scene"? Are we ready for that?

Posted by Mary Lee on October 2, 2003 03:09 PM

If you mean English teachers, of course, "no." Leafing through the set of research papers I graded last June, I found this apt sentence: "The problem arises that unless a person has been there by reading this report they would be misled to believe that the human circle were in close vicinity to the Convention Center."

Apart from its aptness to the things English teachers find conventionally important, the sentence fails to note any persons at stake in the global problem it in fact refers to: the Seattle Police Department's (un?)misleading report of rioting at the WTO meeting (1999).

The larger problem is more the author's catching the very disease he perhaps wishes to avoid: the unconscious substitution of statistical aggregates (corporate "theys") for democracy's "persons."

But don't get me started on American legal anomalies like General Dynamics v. Sleepy Citizens; I'd only refer you then to Ruskin's Unto This Last.

Posted by Styles on October 3, 2003 03:46 PM

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