18 April 2006

Epicene 'They'

One needn't look to Shakespeare or Jane Austen for examples. These are from an impeccable source:

It is true that no student is ready for the grand project of first philosophy until they have a thorough grasp of natural science or 'second philosophy', including the psychology of the De Anima.

A careful reader should be left gasping with surprise when they find that Z's first explicit enunciation of the thesis that primary substantial being is form occurs in a parenthesis (1032b1-2) about artefacts.


Thornton said...

Hi Michael,

Ok--I'll bite: who's the impeccable source?


Michael Pakaluk said...


I thought you might have guessed from subsequent posts. Anyway, the source is Myles Burnyeat, in his Map.

My 'impeccable' was not tongue-in-cheek. I do regard Burnyeat as an authority on English usage. And these examples are as correct as can be for singular 'they'.

However, I should perhaps say that I tend rather to agree with critics of that usage, and in grading papers I ask students to rewrite into plural forms or with a generic singular pronoun.

My general view is that intelligent distinctions in a language ought to be preserved; also, that rules should be strictly observed where flexibility easily leads to abuse. Burnyeat knows when to use 'they' as singular; hardly anyone else would.