Each one gave their best…………

from The Language Instinct pp. 377-379

Sometimes an alleged grammatical ‘error’ is logical not only in the sense of ‘rational’ but the sense of respecting distinctions made by the formal logician. Consider this alleged barbarism, brought up by nearly every language maven [he uses ‘maven’ ironically]:

Everyone returned to their seats.

Anyone who thinks a Yonex racquet has improved their game, raise your hand.

If anyone calls, tell them I can’t come to the phone.

Someone dropped by but they didn’t say what they wanted.

No one should have to sell their home to pay for medical care.

He’s one of those guys who’s always patting themself on the back [an actual quote from Holden Caulfied in J.S. Salinger’s Cather in the Rye]

They explain: everyone means every one, a singular subject, which may not serve as the antecedent of a plural pronoun like them later in the sentence. “Everyone returned to his seat,” they insist. {at this point I will stop italicizing because the key isn’t cursor isn’t working right]. “If anyone calls, tell him I can’t come to the phone.”

If you were the target of these lessons, at this point you might be getting a bit uncomfortable. Everyone returned to to his seat makes it sound like Bruce Springsteen was discovered during intermission to be in the audience, and everyone rushed back and converged on his seat to await an autograph. If there is a good chance that a caller may be female, it is odd to ask one’s roommate to tell him anything (even if you are not among the people who are concerned about “sexist language”). Such feelings of disquiet = a red flag to any serious linguist – are well founded in this case. The next time you get corrected for this sin, ask Mr. Smartypants how you should fix the following:

Mary saw everyone before John noticed them.

Now watch him squirm as he mulls over the downright unintelligible “improvement,” Mary saw everyone before John noticed him.

The logical point that you, Holden Caulfield, and everyone but the language mavens intuitively grasp is that everyone and they are not an “antecedent” and a “pronoun” referring to the same person in the world, which would force them to agree in number. They are a “quantifier” and a “bound variable,” a different logical relationship. Everyone returned to their seats means “For all X, X returned to X’s seat.” The “X” does not refer to any particular person or group of people; it is simply a placeholder that keeps track of the roles that players play across different relationships. In this case, the X that comes back to a seat is the same X that owns the seat that X comes back to. The their there does not, in fact, have plural number, because it refers neither to one thing nor to many things; it does not refer at all. The same goes for the hypothetical caller: there may be one, there may be none, or the phone might ring off the hook with would-be suitors; all that matters is that every time there is a caller, if there is a caller, that caller, and not someone else, should be put off.

On logical grounds, then, variables are not the same thing as the more familiar “referential” pronouns that trigger number agreement (he meaning some particular guy, they meaning some particular bunch of guys). Some languages are considerate and offer their speakers different words for referential pronouns and for variables. But English is stingy,; a referential pronoun must be drafted into service to lend its name when a speaker needs to use a variable. Since these are not real referential pronouns but only homonyms of them, there is not reason that the vernacular decision to borrow they, their, them for the task is any worse than the prescriptivists’ recommendation of he, him, his. Indeed, they has the advantage of embracing both sexes and felling right in a wider variety of sentences.  – end –

I’ll have to think how other languages to this: Fr. chaqu’un retourne a sa place – where ‘sa’ changes for the number and gender of the noun ‘place’ and does not reflect the number and gender of ‘one’, i.e. sa would be used for his, her, its, their meaning several persons, etc. 

Cada uno regreso a son asiento Sp. – same thing, son used for his, her, its, their, and your reflecting Ud. or Uds. 

Kazhdy vernul k ego mesto Ru. – where ego is used for his, her, or its (their would be ikh (sounds like German ich)

Har aadmi ws kaa jaga vaapas ja gayaa Urdu – where ws is singular, wn would be plural

So the last two, Russian and Urdu, do use possessive adjectives particular to the singular. But French and Spanish use ones which serve both singular and plural, reflecting only the gender and number of the noun they are modifying.

Of course, French and Spanish could have used Tout le monde and Todo el mundo, but the same result obtains. 


  1. 伟思礼 says:

    Another one the prescriptivists hate: “It will break our heart.”
    (“How can we all share one heart?” they whine)

    1. Pat Barrett says:

      All I can say is, “Bless their hearts.”
      Are you familiar with that phrase, used of someone who just can’t get it right?

      1. Sandra says:

        to sept. 4 Commenter:
        just wanted to say – clear & good Point
        our /// heart ///
        would be like saying ‘his’ hearts

        (smiling tho — Who whines ?

        to Pat’s comment
        “bless their hearts” I get what you’re saying But
        I moved from the north to the south … And Bless your heart,
        is really worse than grammatics.
        here in the south , it usually comes as a Dissagreement Or after an insult.
        LIKE : ……. no matter your statement was foolish, Northern Girl, Bless your heart anyway……..
        Just a side-step to the grammatics of it all.

  2. Paul Widergren says:

    For German:

    Duden Grammatik (1973) §716

    MIt jeder, jedermann, ( plus a couple more less frequent or archaic forms) … werden alle Wesen, Dinge usw. einer bestimmten Menge bezeichnet, jedoch nicht zusammenfassend in ihrer Gesamtheit wie mit all, sonder vereinzelnd, als einzelne.

    Sie werden im allgemeinen nur im Singular gebraucht. Die entsprechenden Verneinungen sind keiner oder niemand.

    (A specific subset of people, things, etc. can be signified using “jeder” (etc.). This use does not include all members of the subset, but treats each one individually, viewed separately.

    Jeder (Each, everyone) generally is only used in the singular. The corresponding The negative forms are “keiner” or “niemand”.)

    Using Pat’s Example:

    Singular Usage:
    Jeder kehrte an seinen Sitzplatz zurück.
    (Everybody (viewed as separate individuals) returned to their seats).
    Keiner kehrte an seinen Sitzplatz zurück.
    Niemand kehrte an seinen Sitzplatz zurück.
    (Nobody returned to their seats).

    Some German proverbs using Jeder (Duden 12 Zitate und Aussprüche, pp. 245-247):
    Ein jeder kehre vor seiner Tür. (Everyone should sweep in front of their own door, ie. mind their own business.)
    Jeder muß nach seine Fasson selig werden. (Everyone has to find salvation in their own manner.)
    Jedermann klagt über sein Gedächtnis, niemand über seinen Verstand.
    (Everybody complains about their memory, nobody (complains) about what they know.)

    Plural Usage: (Plural subject – plural possessive adjective)
    Alle kehrten an ihren Sitzplatz zurück.
    (Everbody (taken as a group or as a whole) returned to their seats).

    English has developed in a manner that does not seem to have affected German grammar books yet, at least in my ideolect (witness my translations). “Jeder kehrte an ihren Sitzplatz zurück.” sounds odd to my non-native ears, perhaps because of the dissonance caused by the usage of a Masculine singular subject with an ambiguous “feminine singular” or “plural” possessive adjective. Like Spanish, IHR can be feminine singular (her), plural (their), or 2nd person Formal (sg. and pl. – your).

    I can conceive of the sentence:

    Jede kehrte an ihren Sitzplatz zurück, if the context made it clear that everyone was clearly female.

    In addition, perhaps by extention (the possiblility of inclusive use)

    “Jeder/Jede (or Jede/r) kehrte an seinen/ihren Sitzplatz zurück” might be more common nowadays among some writers in the interest of being inclusive,
    but my old grammar does not give any hint of that for this particular example.

    Note on Swedish:
    This occurence is unproblematic in Swedish because the reflexive possessive adjectives are the same both in the singular and plural (sin, sitt, sina) so their need be no agreement (sg. or plural) with the subject.

    Var och en gick tillbaka till sin stol
    Var och en gick tillbaka till sin plats.

    As, at least Pat probably already is aware, Swedish has two sets of possessive pronouns. One set is reflexive and refers back to the subject. The other does not.

    Per har en bil. Per tvättar sin bil (Peter has a car. Peter washes his (own) car.
    Peter har en bil. Jag tvättar hans bil. (Peter has a car. I wash his (Peter’s) car.

    Only the reflexive possessives come into place here, but there is no need to make any changes as the choice of the pronoun would also just be sin, sitt, sina … depending on the gender and number of the noun for both neuter, non-neuter, singular or plural.

    Off-topic but something that plagues me as someone who has also worked with multiple languages over the years is the struggle with language interference patterns. I notice that in one the small errors in your Spanish example, coming as it does directly after your French example. Happens to me all the time.

    Better start raking some leaves.

  3. Paul Widergren says:

    FWIW: Did find this on the Internet for German with Somebody …. they….

    JEMAND hat mich von der Nummer 02***64 angerufen. Nachdem das Telefon aufgehört hatte zu klingeln und zur Voicemail gegangen war, LEGTEN SIE AUF und hinterließen keine Sprachnachtricht.

    SOMEBODY called me from the Number 02***64. After the Telephone stopped ringing and went to voicemail, THEY HUNG UP and did not leave a message.

  4. Pat Barrett says:

    Thanks, as always, for the German and Swedish. It pushes me to return to regular language study – in my Scandinavian case, Norwegian. Who knows why Norwegian but it is only recently that I learned to spell Scandinavian with an i and not an a. Spell check and google keep me appearing learned.

    Now, how to excuse the ‘son’ for ‘su.’ Just as you spotted, the cursed French confounded me. I used it not once but twice. When our ‘milusos’ can get back over the border, I’ll run the whole thing (including ‘son asiento’) by him. I know he’ll be exceedingly polite and try to make sense out of ‘son’.
    Your second comment reflects that sort of grammatical and syntactic borrowing that seems to strike at the heart of the receiving language. Norther Italian (I’m onto Italian now b/c of looking at going over there to at least visit) has shifted toward the tiempo compuesto like French for the simple past but used for both the senses of English simple past plus perfect.(the South uses the preterit). I understand Peninsular Spanish is doing the same while Latin-America holds steadfastly to the preterit in contrast with the perfect. I wonder how this happens; a lot of bilingualism? Universal education? What gives?
    To go really deep, I find myself saying, “I got it done,” when the situation clearly calls for “I’ve got it done.” E.g. “Do you want me to help you with that? No, I’ve got it done now.” vs “No need. I got it done yesterday.”
    I wish I could find a blog for people like us who are not academics but simple old language nerds raking our fall lawns.

  5. Paul Widergren says:

    Re: the need for a reflexive pronoun to disambiguate.


    Nella frase “Aldo ha parlato con Ivo di sua moglie”, si parla della moglie di Aldo o di quella di Ivo? In casi come questi, l’aggettivo proprio aiuta a capire meglio.

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