LINGUIST List 4.608

Sat 14 Aug 1993

Sum: 3pl with singular antecedent

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  1. Rachel Lagunoff, summary: 3pl

Message 1: summary: 3pl

Date: Sun, 08 Aug 93 21:57 PDT
From: Rachel Lagunoff <IHW1009MVS.OAC.UCLA.EDU>
Subject: summary: 3pl

At the end of June I posted a query, soliciting examples of third person plural
pronouns or agreement with singular antecedents. I received several replies,
but have taken so long to post the summary since I then went on vacation.
For anyone who missed the original query, please free to respond now.

If anyone would like more details, including the email addresses of those who
contributed, please let me know directly.
I thank everyone who responded, and encourage you to respond again if I have
somehow misrepresented what you sent me.

First, some examples in English. I already have a large number of these, but I
am still collecting them, so please feel free to send on any you find,
especially those in print.

Ellen Prince remembered a line (without exact citation -- can anyone track this
down?) from Catcher in the Rye, something like:

 "He's one of those guys who's always patting themself on the back."

and notes: <what struck me then was that I wouldn't have thought 'themself'
could be a word, yet I realized that's what I'd say.>

Contemporary examples of 'themself' have been noted in at least one article
I've seen, and I've found examples myself, especially in British sources.

And now I would welcome ideas on what the antecedent of 'themself' is:
'he', 'one', 'who'?

>From Elise Morse-Gagne:

"'They will not close us down. If a patient wants an abortion, we will figure
out a way to get them in the clinic,' said Jeanie Hollis, spokeswoman for the
Mississippi Women's Medical Clinic in Jackson." (Herald-Times, Bloomington,
Indiana, July 6, 1993, p.A3)

Along with me, she finds it interesting <because the gender of someone who
wants an abortion is really not in question.>
For me this shows that, while singular 'they' is certainly useful as a way to
avoid attributing a sex to a referent, this is clearly not its only reason for

John Lawler sent the following:

<One more type of situation (in English, at least) is pluralia tantum.
A favorite example is the following, recorded 20 years ago:

 Your family is still in Hungary, aren't they?>

In my research on the "singular they" question so far, I have not been consider
ing collectives, since they clearly have a plural notion. (In British English
this even extends to plural verb agreement in some cases.) However, I'm not
sure how this "double number feature" is represented in the grammar, and that
may be a clue to other uses of the 3pl, for example with 'everyone'.

Wasn't there are query about the number feature of collectives a while back?
Responses to this problem would be appreciated, either as general discussion,
or to me personally.

And, by the way, examples such as the above do exist in other languages:
Michael Barlow has noted it for Hausa (as in "The group ... they are

Second, Russian.

Robert Beard notes that with null subjects, 3rdSgNeu verb agreement <refers to
an inanimate indefinite Subject, while the 3rdPl (no gender in the plural)...
refers to an animate indefinite Subject ... The referent is not necessarily
singular, but it may be. It is simply indefinite but animate.>

 _Menya sbil-o s nog_
 me from legs
 'I was knocked off my feet (by something)'

 _Menya sbil-i s nog_
 me from legs
 'I was knocked off my feet (by someone)'

And from Tim Beasley, cases in 19th century usage of a person of lower social
status using the plural to refer to someone of higher social status. (I've
noted examples of this in other languages, and could look up the references
for anyone who's interested.)

Third, 13th cent. Norwegian (possibly).

Elise Morse-Gagne also sent a possible example in 13th Century Norwegian.
Since there was a problem with sorting out homophonous pronoun forms, I will
not cite it here, but am mentioning it since I am interested to know if this
usage is possible in present-day Norwegian. Anyone who wants more information
on this, please let me know.

Once again, I would like to thank everyone who responded, and extend thanks in
advance to those who may respond to the summary and new questions.

Rachel Lagunoff (internet)
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