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That's what they say

 

One of my colleagues and I get into heated debates in the hall about whether or not the pronoun “they” can be singular. I say it can, and he vehemently disagrees.

What we’re talking about here is often called the “singular generic pronoun question.” In English, we have the pronoun “he” for males, “she” for females, and “it” for inanimate objects; but what do you do when you’re referring to a person of unknown or unspecified gender?

We could take a sentence like, “A teacher should learn _____ students’ names.”

“His” suggests the teacher is male. “Her” suggests the teacher is female. “His or her” seems a bit cumbersome. So what do we do?

In the spoken language many of us would say, “A teacher should learn their students’ names.” We would use the singular “they.” Now some people will retort that “they” cannot be singular. Here’s my evidence that it can. Let’s imagine I say to you, “I was talking to a friend of mine and they said it’s a terrible movie.” For most people, that sentence would go unremarked. I was talking to “a” friend of mine and “they” said something about the movie. I’m clearly talking about one person. Perhaps I don’t want you to know whether that person is male or female, or it doesn’t matter, or the friend’s gender does not fit into a male-female binary. And so I say “they.” A singular “they.”

What about the argument that it’s impossible for a pronoun to be both singular and plural at the same time? Well, I would say we already have evidence in the language that it’s very possible. Let’s take the second-person pronoun “you.” The pronoun “you” can be singular: if I’m talking to one person, I would say, “You are very wonderful.” The pronoun “you” can be plural: if I’m talking to a whole group of people, I would (or could) say, “You are very wonderful.” (Of course, many varieties of English now include new second-person plural forms such as “y’all,” “yinz,” and “you guys.”) And standard varieties of English use the same verb “are” (i.e., “you are”) for both one person and many people.

“They” has done the same thing as “you” in terms of taking on both a singular and plural meaning. And it’s actually been doing that for centuries. Jane Austen used singular “they”; Shakespeare used singular “they.” I have found examples of singular “they” going back into the Middle English period (Chaucer’s era).

So English speakers solved the problem of how to refer to a person of unknown or unspecified gender a long time ago. It was the eighteenth century when grammarians told English speakers and writers that singular “they” was not a good idea, not “correct grammar,” and that we should use “he” as a generic instead. It was the 1970s with second-wave feminism that singular “he” was (accurately) identified as sexist, and many style guides recommended that we use “he or she” (or rewrite the sentence entirely to avoid the construction). And many of us may still use “he or she” or “s/he” when we write. But when we speak, we tend to use “they”; multiple studies have shown that the vast majority of the time most of us use singular “they.”

So it’s a problem that we as English speakers have already solved. The interesting question is, at what point will we be told that we’re allowed to write singular “they” down in more formal, edited contexts? And if you watch closely, you’ll see that singular “they” is becoming more and more common. You’ll now see singular “they” in newspapers and magazines, and sometimes even academic prose, as it slowly makes its way into more formal writing, out of the speech that we use every day.

This video, produced by Rob Hess, originally appeared in LSA Today, where you can find more videos, including an archive of Anne Curzan’s discussions of language.

Comments

  1. Ravensara Travillian - 1987

    You can see a somewhat similar evolution in the German pronoun “Sie”, and the Spanish pronoun “usted”.
    It’s not exactly the same, but it reinforces the point that person and number can be flexible over time, as the needs of speakers call for it.

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  2. Terrell Rodefer - 1961

    It turns my stomach to hear “they” representing a singular person, especially in circumstances when we do know the gender of that person and therefore the use of “they” is totally unjustified. I listen regularly to a talk show here in L.A., and the hosts will say something like this: “Just go up to the guy and tell them if they don’t leave, they’ll face the consequences,” where clearly “he” will make the meaning far more comprehensible. Laziness and poor speaking habits allow this to develop, and there’ll be times when the pluralization of the singular leads to a misunderstanding of just how many people are actually being discussed. Call me a curmudgeon, but “he or she” works fine for me, even in casual conversation.

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  3. James Polichak - 2003

    Morton Ann Gernsbacher, a cognitive psychologist at U Wisc presented research 15 years ago showing that use of singular ‘they’ was understood as rapidly as the expected pronoun from the context (he or she) and faster than when the unexpected pronoun appeared.
    “Teacher” is the example used in the abstract.
    Given the growing presence of the cognitive and computational sciences in study of language use, it would seem that humanities scholars should move beyond minor issues of disputes over prescriptive language norms and adapt to the unprecedented availability of language corpora of all kinds and the results of application of statistical modeling techniques to this data.
    Here is the citation, with a link to a copy:
    Foertsch, J., and Gernsbacher, M.A. (1997). In search of gender neutrality: Is singular They a cognitively efficient substitute for generic He? Psychological Science, 8, 106-111
    http://psych.wisc.edu/lang/pdf/Foertsch_Gender-Neutrality-They-or-He_PS_1997.pdf

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  4. Doug Dormer - 1980

    Thanks for the clear statement on a common issue. Adding “he/she” every time, and varying it with “she/he” for some reason, is tedious at best. Logically, I appreciate your approach. Still reading “they” in the singular context just doesn’t “sound” right.

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  5. Al Butzbaugh - 1963 1966

    Ms Curzan, please create a word which includes both genders for he/she and his/hers. That would solve the issue–and you will be recognized as a hero.

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  6. Darrel Walters - 1965, 1968, 1982

    Dear Anne Curzan,
    I agree with the colleague who disagrees with you about use of “they” as singular. The distinction between singular and plural has an important function. If “they” is accepted as either plural or singular, how does one interpret this sentence? “A member of that club will do anything to protect what they have?” Are members determined to protect what the club owns collectively, or are they determined to protect their own possessions? And how would one interpret this sentence? “When employees are unproductive a manager has to do their job.” Does the manager have to do the employee’s job or do a better job as manager?
    A grammatical violation that requires readers to choose from among multiple meanings in some situations can’t be a good move.
    Further, having the crutch of “they” as either singular or plural is now causing many persons to ignore specificity that can be important to readers. “If an NFL player can’t play with pain, they will not succeed.” Probably all readers know that NFL players are exclusively male, but once “he” and “she” become expendable, many writers will ignore opportunities to give their readers helpful specific information. Children learning to write are likely to become altogether unaware of the distinction (a loss that seems to be well on its way now).
    In nearly every writing situation, the gender-neutral problem can be avoided without diservice to readers. In your example, one could simply write “Teachers should use their students names.” In other situations, writers can avoid “If” and “When” clauses to stay out of the trap. (For example, replace “When a person parks illegally, they risk getting a ticket” with “To park illegally is to risk getting a ticket.” There are other elegant ways to write around the problem, too, but occasionally it presents an unavoidable awkwardness. In that case, I believe “he or she” works well. I agree that the double pronoun is annoying when it appears frequently, but wise use of alternatives will make its use infrequent. In my books I have had to resort to “he or she” at an average rate of about once per 100 pages.
    Written language, because of the advantage of revision, generally is more precise and more correct grammatically than is spoken language. I would expect that to be the case here among skillful writers. Some may prefer to avoid the singular use of “they” in their speech as well as their writing, and others may “let it fly however it comes out” in speech while being careful to write cleanly. In any case, all serious writers will do well to avoid carelessness and lack of clarity on paper.
    I’d be glad to hear from you, and from the colleague with whom you have carried on the debate about a singular “they.”
    Darrel Walters

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  7. Marshall Smith - 1962, 1963

    I prefer not to use of the singular “they”, having learned to either be specific about references to the sex of the person or to use “she or he” or even (in writing) “s/he”. But, as a realist, I know that I use “they” when not fully conscious of my speech, though I rarely, any more, use it in writing.
    But notice I used the concept “sex” above, not “gender”. Your use of “gender” in your piece is not following the evolution of these words. I think there is a need for another column on the topics of “sex”, “gender”, and “sexuality”. English never stops…

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  8. Mark Freyberg - Parent of LSA Sophomore

    Professor Curzan, Your argument that “they” can be singular, as I understand it, is that usage makes it so. That’s an argument the bona fides of which I’ve always wondered about, because it deprives us of certainty about what’s right and wrong. I’m not necessarily disagreeing with you (not that I have the credentials to do so), and support for your position is found elsewhere. For example, most pronounce the word “forte” as “for-tay,” and have done so for many years. Only recently have I observed dictionaries acknowledge this as a secondary pronunciation to “fort.” I appreciate the evolution of rules of grammar, syntax and pronunciation, and especially so when authorities such as dictionaries and professors acknowledge those changes, because I am a fan of certainty.

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  9. Kristin Edmonds - 1988

    I appreciate Prof. Curzan’s discussion of the historical use of “they” as a singular pronoun and of the difference between the written “they” and the spoken “they.” Nonetheless, I agree with her colleague who objects to the use of “they” as a singular. Personally, I do notice it, both conversationally and in writing, and I do not like it.

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  10. Stuart Holland - 1973

    Others have voiced their disagreement with your stance, Professor Curzan, and and I would agree with their arguments. However, if you are looking for a word to use instead of “they,” the transgender community has already coined it. As you may know, some in the trans community do not identify as male or female but as gender neutral. The words they use are zhe and hir. If you wish to un-gender your pronoun, you could consider following their example.

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  11. Norman Andresen - 1976

    How does your sentence \”A teacher should learn _____ students’ names.\” relate to they? As I understand the sentence blank the word to be supplied is \’their\’. If that is the case then the rest of your discourse does not apply to your example. The discussion of when or whether to use they as a singular or a pleural is good but has nothing to do with your example. As for \’you\’. I learned that it was the context which gave the reader or listener the clue as to the \’you\’ being singular or pleural and this was one of the many oddities in the English language that made it a difficult language to learn as English is a very irregular language. Having studied other languages which are regular in structure I learned their are endings applied to words to indicate singular, pleural, genitive, dative, accusative, etc. and the user applies the ending to indicate intent or meaning. I am sure your hallway banter is just some inside humor as both of you know how \’they\’ is used.

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  12. Martin Werner - 1985

    While I fully agree with the view that “they” should be seen as a useful and acceptable term to refer to a group of people or one person (regardless of gender), I am not satisfied with some of the rationales used in the article to support its validity.
    !.) The word “you” (referring to a single individual) and the word “you” (referring to a group of persons) are NOT the same word, even though they look identical on the page. Their meaning (or linguistic identity) becomes clear only in the context in which one or the other word appears. Same goes, for example, for “school” (a place of teaching/learning) and “school” (as in a group of fish) – they are NOT the same word.
    2.) To refer to the generic “they” as the “singular they” is not correct. Even in today’s usage of the term, it is always a plural: “I was talking to a friend of mine and they WERE astonished to hear what I had to tell them.
    Conclusion: the term “they” , in its wider sense, can be used in reference to a group of people as well as to an individual, especially when THEIR gender is not known or not important in a given context.

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  13. Tyler Mann - 2006

    These arguments (or the first, at least) are circular and beg the question. I disagree with the premise that the singular “they” is accepted in speech. It’s like nails on a chalkboard for me. The “People use this word incorrectly all the time. It must be fine!” argument is how we ended up with “nucular,” “comftorble,” and the use of “Which begs the question…” to mean, “Which brings up the question….” Professor Curzan’s “you” example is also useless because “you” isn’t gendered which eliminates the root of the problem. I don’t know if a new word is necessary or there’s another solution, but going with what was once incorrect because everyone now seems to be using it is just lazy.

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  14. Matthew Kita - N/A

    Is it also acceptable to write, “a whole nother” instead of “another whole”? After all, it is fairly common to hear someone say, “That pie was so good! I went and got a whole nother slice!”
    The answer, I assume, I is “of course not.” For the same reason, it is unacceptable to use “they” as a singular pronoun. The fact that people are often lazy when *they* speak is no excuse to write lazily. If anything, it should be incentive to learn to speak correctly.

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  15. Brock Swanson - 2007 (Law)

    From a prescriptive vantage, I cannot see any reason why someone would advocate for the use of a plural pronoun, “they,” to also represent a sexless singular. Why unnecessarily conflate those two concepts? If we have to choose an existing word, rather than coining a new one (or simply saying “his or hers”), “its” seems much more logical. While some of the distinction between person and object currently embodied in that term is lost, we already do without that information in the plural context, using the generic “they” for objects and persons alike. And while “you” can unremarkably become “all of you” or “the two of you” if a plural meaning is imperative, I cannot readily discern a way to reclaim the plurality of “they” should it be lost.
    From a descriptive vantage, both “its” and “they” are used colloquially as sexless singular pronouns. When describing the room of a baby or pet, sex unknown to the speaker, it is often “its” room, never “their” room. But more significantly, even from a descriptive vantage, good writing of any significance should not use the language in a way that has not yet been generally accepted. And despite increased usage, the use of a singular “they” has not yet reached general acceptance. Use “they” that way and a not-insignificant portion of your readers will pause as their brain questions, consciously or unconsciously, whether it missed some plural reference. Or worse yet, the thought will simply be, “that’s not right; this author does not know how to write.” Is that what you want people thinking about when you write your work? Someday, perhaps, the singular “they” may reach the level of general acceptance that the plural “you” has. But I’d agree with your colleague that the day has not yet arrived.
    In any event, I personally find nothing at all offensive or inconvenient about simply writing “he or she” or “his or hers.” Just my two cents.

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  16. Donald Barnett - 1960, 1966

    Having read all of the comments up through Brock Swanson, I was surprised (perhaps even amazed) that some alternatives which are readily available were not even mentioned. I believe one commenter did mention that the \”teacher\” example could be broadened to teachers since it is not one particular teacher who is being \”singled\” out which then makes the plural pronoun correct according to the so-called rules of grammar. \”Who\” as a relative pronoun works regardless of gender or number. Admittedly, it is much easier to paint oneself into a corner when speaking by not actually having composed the complete thought as correct grammar in one\’s head. Just as many choose words they can spell when actually preferring a word they can\’t spell, we can substitute words we do know to be correct when we get to number and gender problems. Speaking and written language will always have differences because speaking does not allow us the advantage of an edit before we turn loose of what it is we intend to say. But I am not sure that because we forgive \”error\” in speaking means that the same usage should be considered correct in writing. Living language has always been altered over time by usage, and most usage is spoken. Perhaps those who are scandalized by \”incorrect\” things creeping into written language should take a broader and longer historical view of what our English language has become. Fewer ulcers is the result.

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  17. Tim Athan - 1994

    I weary of the argument “Some regard this as improper grammar, but back in the 16th century it was common, so what’s the problem?”

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  18. Judith Ivan - 1975

    I don’t see a need for they to be singular. To me, it’s an example of lazy or ignorant speech. I was raised with a mother who corrected my grammar when I spoke, so that it would more likely be correct when I wrote. I used the same technique with my own son, with success. Finally, I often corrected the spoken grammar of my students, always lightheartedly, always telling them that it would help their writing. I spent too much time teaching subject, verb, pronoun agreement to let this slide. To me, the singular they is simply evidence of an unnecessary weakening in standards of speech and oral communication.

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  19. Paul Schwankl

    The growing use of singular “they” in speech doesn’t guarantee that it is a superior way to communicate in writing, even if some authorities call it acceptable. When we edit, we take advantage of the extra time we have in producing the written word to weigh alternative ways of presenting a message, and we try to pick the most effective. Singular “they” makes some readers stumble and is, in my experience, very rarely the best alternative. Philip Corbett, the standards editor of the New York Times, is a holdout against singular “they” (see http://topics.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/03/06/the-trouble-with-they/); so is “The Chicago Manual of Style” (16th edition, 5.46; it changed its mind in an earlier edition and then changed it back). And so are an awful lot of people commenting in this space.
    These problems with singular “they” persist:
    1. In the second person, “you” and “are” can be either singular or plural now that “thou” and “art” are obsolete. “They,” however, even if it may be used with a singular meaning, is syntactically plural: it always takes a plural verb (“have” rather than “has,” “give” rather than “gives,” and so on). So there’s a discontinuity when it’s used to refer to a singular antecedent.
    2. Along with first-rate writers (Jane Austen, Shakespeare, Thackeray, Shaw, Ogden Nash) who occasionally used singular “they” (and in most of the instances I’ve seen cited, these authors’ CHARACTERS are using it in speech), there are loads of first-rate writers who avoided it.
    About Anne Curzan’s two examples:
    1. “I was talking to a friend of mine and they said it’s a terrible movie.” Even in speech, we could (if we wanted to be unpleasant) rejoin, “They said that, did they? All one of them?”
    2. “A teacher should learn [fill in the pronoun] students’ names.” Which pronoun should go in there—“He or she”? “He”? “She”? “They”? I don’t think any of them yields a written sentence that communicates as effectively as “Teachers should learn their students’ names.”

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  20. Thomas Wayburn - 1956

    The use of the singular \”they\” hurts my ears. The pronoun that should be used is \”he\”, which means \”he or she\”. The singular \”they\” carries the stench of political correctness with it. By the way, sexism is clearly a very bad thing unless, of course, sexist attitudes are actually correct. I have always supported equal rights for women. Could I have been wrong?

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  21. Ethel Larsen - 1972

    I side with the gender-specific singular. Perhaps it is because I was brought up on “he” and so happy to see “she” become included as significant (FINALLY). The use of “they” in the singular, in written language particularly, is like a speed bump. It slows me down until I sort out if the writer intended it in the plural (did I miss someone?) or the singular. Using “they” in the singular is grammatical laziness. Disclaimer: I am not an English teacher,

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  22. Timothy Goodman - 1989

    To be a living language English must adapt. The timescale for that adaptation depends on the strength of resistance to change and persistence of deviance. Given the influx of users having other mother-tongues and supposing that one main purpose of using a language is to be understood, the adage ‘know your [intended] audience’ might guide our usage of ‘they’. The comments here suggest that the use of ‘they’ might allow one to know a little bit more about ‘his’ ‘her’, or ‘their’ audience.

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  23. arthur orme

    The obvious solution is to change the original referent to plural. Instead of \”the teacher\” just say \”teachers\” then \”they\” would be appropriate. Its called revision and all good writers do it.

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  24. Richard Zeile - MA 1980

    “They” can be used as a singular in the same way that accusative pronouns can be used as nominatives- “Me and him went to the movies.” It is just as clear, and with repeated hearings, just as smooth. Need I add, just as wrong? This is because said usages blunt the meanings of pronouns so that their meanings become less clear in contexts where their here-to-fore meanings/usages may make a difference. “I showed my friend my dogs’ new house who said they liked it.”

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  25. Ruth Barshaw

    Teachers should learn the names of their students.
    I was talking to a friend of mine who said it’s a bad movie.
    We don’t need a singular “they.”

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  26. Rick Baum - 1986

    Though I disagree with using \”they\” as a singular, an equally big gaffe appears in your very first sentence (caps added): \”One of my colleagues and I get into heated debates in the hall about WHETHER OR NOT the pronoun \’they\’ can be singular.\” You should have used only \”whether\” here. The term \”whether or not\” is appropriate only where one is trying to say \”regardless of whether,\” as in, \”whether or not they win the championship, they will have had a great season.\” In your use here, however, the \”or not\” is superfluous: \”whether\” would have sufficed, as in \”\”One of my colleagues and I get into heated debates in the hall about WHETHER [no \”or not\”] the pronoun \’they\’ can be singular.\”

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  27. Grammar Rex - 1982

    Prof. Curzan’s students should of went to a better college.
    I like the idea proposed in a previous comment of expanding the use of zhe and hir until it is widely accepted. We (American society) invented Ms. for professional correspondence to replace Miss/Mrs. about 30 years ago. The key will be to get the feminists to go for it. Singular they is in place to avoid their wrath at he/him/his. If we can get them to be as offended by plural inconsistencies as they are by gender presumption then it will done by 2015.

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  28. James Goodman

    Al Butzbaugh comments, “Ms Curzan, please create a word which includes both genders for he/she and his/hers. That would solve the issue–and you will be recognized as a hero.”
    I suggest we already have a perfectly good word that could easily be used for the person of indefinite gender: it. We could even call it the “indefinite pronoun.”
    Oops! That’s already used for something else….

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  29. Sandra Corr - 1983

    This proposition that “they” should be used as either singular or plural is just another example of how the language is becoming bastardized due to people’s not knowing or caring about the rules of grammar. A teacher should know HIS students’ names is acceptable and implies his or her as it always did before the women’s liberation movement, just as “All men are created equal” implies men and women. So all this discussion about his or her being cumbersome, which it is, is a moot point now that the women’s liberation movement has succeeded and is passe. The more we who “know” allow these bastardizations of the language and then even promote them, the more our language will be prone to all of the inanities of text-speak. And one more thing: “You are VERY wonderful” is a little redundant, wouldn’t you say?

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  30. Chris F - 1995

    I hope all the supposed purists also insist on the singular “thou art” and never say “you are” in the singular when it was originally intended to be plural only.
    The graduation years of the opponents of singular they/them/their speaks volumes in that many grew up in a time of strict grammar rules (many incorrect, like the prohibition of split infinitives) and rigid gender roles. Grammar was simple because only he/him/his was needed: women were not allowed to be the subject of sentences! 😉 Fear of parents’ or former teachers’ wrath is hardly a defense for an increasingly archaic grammatical construction.
    When speaking generally of a person, why is it necessary to identify their gender? The subject’s gender has nothing to do with their role in this sentence.
    While some made a few arguments in support of clarity, few of the examples are actually unclear, and the attempts to work around by rephrasing are admirable but not nearly as simple. One of English’s limitations is being stuck with this awkward old Germanic grammar, and yet now it is a modern language spoken around the world. As Professor Curzan has shown us over the course of these videos, English is an ever-evolving language, and its flexibility is its greatest strength.
    “Some regard this as improper grammar, but back in the 16th century it was common” is not an argument in itself but a reminder that English has changed and will continue to do so. It’s also a bit of a wink at those who believe in some sort of “original intent” or “strict constructionist” theory of English in which the Founding Fathers (Bede, Chaucer and Shakespeare?) sat down and wrote the rules of English grammar.
    Furthermore, the migratory patterns of the Angles, Saxons and Jutes who brought their language to Britain generated many independent regional versions of English for centuries (not just dialects), and the attempt to adopt a “standard English” is a relatively recent development. There is no authoritative Academie Anglaise dictating English rules from a secret bunker below London. This does not mean that anything goes, only that useful distinctions will tend to survive while stylistic and nonessential constructions will fall away. I encourage those concerned with the mortal peril of English to focus their energy on supporting the worthy cause of the Apostrophe Protection Society instead!
    A parting thought: in the coming years, the community of global native English speakers will be dominated by people born in south and east Asia who are already developing their own variations of English just as Americans, Canadians, Australians, and others did. In the future, who is to say that their idioms and new constructions are “wrong” if they are understood conventionally and used by billions of people without confusion?

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  31. Benita Whitehorn

    “They is right.” Sorry, can’t do it.

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