27 October 2008

One Story: Respect for Tradition

One Story is a marvelous magazine (and not just because they published me -- that should, perhaps, be held against them...) and I can testify that it makes a great gift for people who like to read but generally feel too busy to do so, because receiving a nicely-produced story every three weeks or so in the mail is great fun.

One Story now and then asks for donations, because the magazine is a non-profit and doesn't run ads. Clifford Garstang pointed out that a recent solicitation included this description of the "Editor" donation level:
Editor: $100 – I’ll pay one author for their story
Mr. Garstang notes that there is, according to certain interpretations of English usage, a problem with agreement between the one author and the plural pronoun their.

What he doesn't say, though, is that One Story is simply showing their respect for the history of English literature and the language itself. According to the indispensible Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage, here are some of the writers who have used this construction:
Chaucer: "And whoso fyndeth hym out of swich blame,/They wol come up..." ("The Pardoner's Prologue")

Shakespeare: "And every one to rest themselves betake" ("The Rape of Lucrece")

The King James Bible: "...if ye from your hearts forgive not every one his brother their trespasses"

Jane Austen: "I would have everybody marry if they can do it properly" (Mansfield Park)

Thackeray: "A person can't help their birth" (Vanity Fair)

W.H. Auden: "...it is too hideous for anyone in their senses to buy" (Encounter, Feb. 1955)
For further exploration of this fine tradition, click here.


  1. Bah, humbug. It's always possible to rewrite to avoid such ugliness.

    In the current case: "I'll pay one author for one story."

    "They" is used, and understood, by the vast majority of English speakers to be third person plural, and making that word less useful and distinctive does not seem to me to be a worthy goal. Many writers have used individual words idiosyncratically, or in a non-standard manner, but that doesn't mean that all of the things a word has ever been thought to mean in the past are equally valid as meanings today.

    (I pick on James Nicoll for this a lot; it's one of my pet peeves.)

    There are many good ways to communicate that a singular third-person has an unknown (or unimportant) gender; making a myriad of other sentences less intelligible along the way is not one of them.

  2. Andrew, I'm not sure that eliding the possessive is going to do it. I would say that your "one/one" construction creates an expectation that the sentence isn't complete, e.g., "..and I'll pay the rest for theirs, too." Doesn't the parallel construction stick in your craw, here?
    I suppose I agree that there's always a way to write around the lack of a singular pronoun of undefined gender, but in practice such efforts usually wind up in the territory of the clunky (his or her) or the elliptical, as in your example.
    Matthew's historical counterexamples are interesting. I've heard many times of grammatical rules added to English by prescription (e.g., prohibition on terminal prepositions by analogy with Latin), but I wasn't aware that pronoun/antecedent agreement was among those.
    David Foster Wallace wrote a brilliant essay on the political roots of prescriptivist/descriptivist grammatical preferences. I think it's in Consider the Lobster.

    I gave in on the indefinite 'their' a long time ago.

  3. I'm with you on this one, Matt. :-) "Their" results in the most natural sentence structure, prescriptivism be damned.

  4. As I noted in my comment, the Garner rule is that the disagreement should be avoided if possible; sometimes the correct alternative is just too "clunky." As for these counter examples, I see that they are British (except, sort of, for Auden) and Garner notes that disagreement in number is "surprisingly common in British English"--and he cites contemporary British examples to prove it.

    I certainly disagree that "their" results in a "natural sentence structure." To me it seems quite unnatural to pair a plural pronoun with a singular noun, just as it is unnatural to use a plural form of a verb with a singular subject.

  5. Clifford, there is often a difference between what is natural and what is prescriptively correct. Split infinitives are entirely natural in English, and yet prescriptivism still argues against them for the ridiculous reason that they were impossible to achieve in Latin.

  6. Deanna,
    Sorry to be coming back to this discussion so late, but I did want to say that I wasn't the one who raised the issue of what's "natural"--and I don't think I'd fall into the "naturalism" camp of English grammar, if there were one. Grammar rules exist to avoid confusion. Which is why split infinitives are acceptable--proper, even--when there is no confusion or ambiguity. Again, I rely on Garner's practical advice on this subject.