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Re: DEP1: Non Maintainer Uploads (final call for review)

Russ Allbery <rra@debian.org> writes:

> It's a single person with indeterminate gender, which is exactly the use
> case for the epicene they.  I believe you're simply wrong here.  This
> supposedly stilted and contrived construct routinely goes unremarked and
> unnoticed by native English speakers who are not concentrating on
> applying prescriptive grammar rules.

I did some more research and I now feel even more comfortable with my
position.  "The Rise of Epicene They" by Mark Balhorn (Journal of English
Linguistics, Vol. 32, No. 2, 79-104) [1] [2] seems fairly comprehensive
here.  Abstract:

    A pronoun pattern that is common in both spoken and written English is
    some form of they with singular, generic antecedents, as in, "Everyone
    was so pleased with themselves." This article addresses the question
    of how long such a pattern has been in the language and how a pattern
    that clearly violates number agreement could become so ubiquitous. An
    examination of recent scholarship as well as the historical record
    reveals that the origins of this usage rest in the fourteenth century
    and that its frequency has increased since then. Using current
    theories of agreement, the author presents a hypothesis for how and
    when this pattern could have entered the language. Further examination
    of the historical record supports the hypothesis that loss of
    grammatical gender in the thirteenth century was crucial for the
    introduction of generic they into the language.

Further quote from the paper:

    Despite such consistent and nearly universal proscription over the
    past three centuries, there is overwhelming evidence, both anecdotal
    and statistical, of the ubiquity of generic they in Modern English
    speech and writing and the existence of this structure for hundreds of
    years.  To begin with contenporary English, two recent studies of
    modern spoken English indicate that they with singular, generic
    antecedents is more common than he in the spoken language in both
    familiar and formal contexts (Matossian 1997; Newman 1997).

To be fair, there is some ambiguity due to the concentration on sentences
involving "everyone" and similar constructs, but the the paper also uses
the sentence:

    If a student is getting a low grade, they might want to go talk to the

as an example of the type of usage being discussed, which seems parallel
to the case that we're discussing here.

[1] http://eng.sagepub.com/cgi/content/abstract/32/2/79

[2] I have access to the full paper due to my affiliation with Stanford
    and our institutional journal subscriptions.  I have skimmed it,
    although not studied it in detail.

Russ Allbery (rra@debian.org)               <http://www.eyrie.org/~eagle/>

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