Examples of singular "their" etc. from the OED and elsewhere

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Entries: they, them, themselves, their, nobody, everyone, everybody, one, each, who, whoever, whoso, Non-OED examples, Examples from Lewis Carroll's Alice books.

Here's a posting, preserved from the antediluvian days of USENET, that gives examples of the singular "their" etc. construction. Some further collating with the first edition of the OED (the second edition contains little if any new material on this topic), as well as the addition of the Lewis Carroll quotes and the entries under non-3rd.-plural-pronoun words, was done by myself (Henry Churchyard, churchh@crossmyt.com):

From: Steven Pemberton
Newsgroups: net.nlang
Message-ID: <6808@boring.UUCP>
Date: 3 Mar 86 17:12:09 GMT

Here we go again. Last June I posted an article quoting the Oxford English Dictionary, and tens of worthy authors through the ages from the 1300's to the present day, who have used `they', `them', `theirs', etc as singular gender-unspecific words. It is correct English. It was only later grammarians who tried to enforce the rule that they are plural words, and force us to use `he', etc. Luckily, most people have not followed their dictates.

Illiterate? Shakespeare was just one of the many to use the form. Let history be the judge. Here are the quotes from the OED again, for the doubters:

Examples from Lewis Carroll's Alice books

Other quotes (not OED)

King James Version (Authorized Version) translation of the Bible, Philippians 2:3
Let nothing be done through strife or vainglory; but in lowliness of mind let each esteem other better than themselves.
God send every one their heart's desire!
[Much Ado About Nothing, Act III Scene 4]
There's not a man I meet but doth salute me,
As if I were their well-acquainted friend.
[Comedy of Errors, Act IV Scene 3]
No one prevents you, do they?
George Eliot
I shouldn't like to punish anyone, even if they'd done me wrong.
Walt Whitman
...everyone shall delight us, and we them.
Elizabeth Bowen
He did not believe it rested anybody to lie with their head high...
Lawrence Durrell
You do not have to understand someone in order to love them.
Doris Lessing
And how easy the way a man or woman would come in here, glance around, find smiles and pleasant looks waiting for them, then wave and sit down by themselves.
C. S. Lewis
She kept her head and kicked her shoes off, as everybody ought to do who falls into deep water in their clothes.
[Voyage of the ``Dawn Treader'' Chapter I]
Oscar Wilde
Experience is the name everyone gives to their mistakes.

From: Benoit Evans
Newsgroups: alt.usage.english,sci.lang
Subject: Re: 3rd pers. sg. gender neutral pronoun
Date: Thu, 10 Jul 1997 08:28:07 -0500

The use of plural pronouns as substitutes for non-existant singular gender-neutral forms is not new. Here are some examples through the ages:

This was the usage for four centuries until 18th century grammarians decided to change the rules. By the way, the use of one plural pronoun for the singular is universal in modern English: "you" for "thou".


This minor lapse into prescriptivism in the OED entry for everybody seems to contradict what is said on the preceding page of the dictionary (in the entry for everyone)! The explanation for this apparent discrepancy is that the entry for everybody lumps together two separate phenomena, that of everybody as the immediate subject of a plural verb (e.g. "I think that everybody love John."), and that of everybody indirectly connected with a plural pronoun that refers back to it (e.g. "Everybody loves their own mother."). These two constructions are quite different, and the first is much more marginal (or "incorrect") than the second.

*Return to Henry Churchyard's linguistics page
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*Go to List of examples of singular "their" etc. from Jane Austen's writings.