Monday, June 01, 2009

Father Brown in the Excluded Middle

Happy belated birthday to Gilbert Keith. In his honor, I'll finally write this post I've been meaning to get to for months. It's inspired by an odd coincidence.

My biweekly reading group assignment was "The Blue Cross," the first Father Brown mystery. (Reading that is probably a better use of your time than reading the rest of this post, so if you leave now, I'll understand. Unless you're Anatoly Liberman, in which case, read on.) I had just read the assignment when Anatoly Liberman's Monthly Gleanings popped into my RSS reader. At the bottom of his post, Liberman returned to a well-worn topic, the use of they as a gender-neutral substitute for he.

A little background for those who don't read Monthly Gleanings: Liberman has made what I would call an aesthetic objection to they as a singular pronoun. The particularly ugly sentence he highlighted (from the Minnesota Daily, I assume) was "If a tenant has an eviction on their record, it does not mean they were a bad tenant."

Liberman regards such grammar as "a horror." He also objects that it is inaccurate to defend it as a longstanding feature of good English. In the last two decades, some respected dictionaries (Random House, Heritage, American Oxford) introduced notes that claim a long and respectable pedigree (e.g., Austen, Thackery, Shaw) for singular they. Liberman might accept the example sentences ("To do a person in means to kill them") as good English, but makes a distinction between they with antecedents like person, someone, and anyone and its standing in for tenant, borrower, and fisherman. He challenged his readers to find examples of the "bad tenant" variety that predate the 1960s and 70s.

Still with me? Okay, here's the passage from "The Blue Cross" (1910) that a reader submitted in response to the challenge:

"There was one thing which Flambeau, with all his dexterity of disguise, could not cover, and that was his singular height. If Valentin's quick eye had caught a tall apple-woman, a tall grenadier, or even a tolerably tall duchess, he might have arrested them on the spot."

This is not precisely parallel to the "bad tenant" sentence. Chesterton did not write "If Valentin's quick eye had caught a tall pedestrian, he might have arrested them on the spot." But it doesn't fall into Liberman's other category. Chesterton did not write "If Valentin's quick eye had caught anyone particularly tall, he might have arrested them on the spot." What we have here is a tertium quid, an unjustly excluded middle: them stands in for regular old nouns like apple-woman, grenadier, and (or?) duchess, though not as blatantly as it did for the bad tenant.

Inexplicably, Liberman demonstrated no interest in this fascinating specimen. He dismissed it with a single sentence: "Surely, them does not refer to the apple woman, duchess, or grenadier separately." I was shocked. "On the contrary," I thought, "surely them must refer to these three separately! It cannot refer to them collectively, can it? It is precisely the indeterminacy of the gender (whether because of the mixed group or the possibility of masquerade) that prompted Chesterton to use them in place of him."

A few hours later, as I joined my colleagues—all of them veteran copy editors—to discuss "The Blue Cross," I pointed out the sentence and asked them about it.

"If the nouns were changed, would the sentence still make sense?" I asked. "Let's say it read:

'If Valentin's quick eye had caught a tall apple seller, a tall grenadier, or even a tolerably tall duke, he might have arrested them on the spot.'"

The copy editors wrinkled their noses and shook their heads. "It would have to be 'arrested him,'" one responded. The others agreed.

Notice that this verdict both confirms Liberman's initial disdain for the "bad tenant" sentence (if the copy editors had liked "bad tenant" sentences, they would have accepted my emended "Blue Cross" sentence) and challenges his dismissal of the original "Blue Cross" sentence. There is room for the case against the frivolous extension of singular they, especially when the referent's gender is known. But I believe the "Blue Cross" sentence shows that when gender indeterminacy is forefronted in the speaker's mind, using they is a handy and longstanding tactic, even for ordinary nouns. As Chesterton shows, it can even lend itself to rather elegant writing.

1 comment:

Joanne said...

I enjoyed your article on the apocrypha, especially since I have a few Catholic friends who regard this section of writings as "scripture".
But I wanted to comment on the use of "they" as a gender neutral pronoun. I agree it is not quite right but for the reason of the "or" in the series of nouns. If it had been an "and" it would have been acceptable. This is from someone who has not studied grammar for a very long time.