Towards A Good Samaritan World

Thursday, July 13, 2006

SINGULAR "THEY"

Tyler Cowen links to this list of "non-errors" in English: usages that people say are wrong but are actually standard. One that didn't make the list is the singular "they," as in, "If someone finds a newspaper on the metro with no apparent owner, is it all right for them to keep it?" The correct pronoun used to would have been "him"-- "is it all right for him to keep it?" But feminists find using the masculine pronoun as generic is offensive, and it also does seem a bit odd. You can use "him or her", but that's a bit unwieldy. "It" is gender-neutral, but cannot be used to refer to people.

The singular "they," which is part of normal speech for many people, is personal, gender-neutral, and short. It's an excellent linguistic innovation, and should be kept.

"Used to would have" also did not make the list. I like it myself, since it allows a meaning-- it adds a conditional angle to the "used to" tense-- that is hard to convey otherwise. But "would" is one of those modal verbs that, inconveniently, does not have an infinitive.

I'm also a fan of another prohibited usage, the double comparative, as in "My dad is taller than my mom, but I am more taller than my wife than my dad is than my mom." Why not?

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