MET workshop: grammar pathway minisession

Singular "they": honourable usage or a sign of grammatical incompetence?

Facilitator: John Bates

The use of they (or them or their) to refer to a singular entity has a long history and is regularly found in both common usage and the work of the best writers. For many prescriptivists, however, the use of a syntactically plural pronoun to refer to a syntactically singular antecedent is yet another sign of language degradation and a sad reflection on the grammatical competence of the masses. This workshop takes a look at the arguments of the “grammatical authorities” who denounce singular they for what they feel it is – a barbarism and an affront to the language – and those of its defenders, the descriptivists. The former use such arguments as the generic he, distribution and grammatical number to defend their corner. The latter retort with arguments of indeterminate gender or number, generic they and gender neutrality to defend theirs. Let battle commence!

About the facilitator: John Bates first became interested in grammar when he started learning foreign languages as a young man. This interest was reinforced during his time at the University of Sheffield (Hispanic Studies). When he first stood on the terraces of Sheffield Wednesday Football Club, he realized that the Yorkshire tykes were speaking a language that had little in common with the dulcet tones of his native Surrey. John is the head of the Language Service of the Rovira i Virgili University and responsible for organizing language courses and providing an editing and translation service in Catalan, Spanish and English for university staff. He has been living in Tarragona for the last 30 years.

What participants have said about this workshop: 
“John is a very engaging teacher, and the historical perspective on ‘singular they’ was a good corrective to rigid approaches.”