Monday, 11 December 2017

They's using singular verbs as well now

There's been a bit of a flurry of discussion about the use of pronouns for nonbinary people in linguist twitter lately, because of a blog post by the well-known Geoff Pullum on the well-known platform Language Log (so, a person using their position of power and privilege to complain about something that is far less onerous than constantly being misgendered). Kirby Conrod has written a good response and it was posted on Language Log, so no need to add my own comments here, especially as I'm cisgender and so don't really have anything to contribute to the debate.

What has been interesting to me is something that I hadn't seen before: people using they+3rd person singular verb, so They is joining us later. I would have always assumed that singular they took the unmarked verb form, same as all the other pronouns apart from the third person singular he, she and it, and crucially, the same as the plural they. Then the verb form follows the pronoun form, and in this sense it's the same as you, which takes the same form in singular and plural. Similarly, in German the polite form of you is identical to they and takes the same verb forms. Using the -s form, is, is logical if we think that verb form is attached to the semantic (person and) number, rather than just the form of the verb, so it shouldn't be so surprising, but nevertheless I was surprised by it. I think we haven't settled down on this yet, so I will watch developments with interest.

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