July 26, 2011

Tom Coburn's plurals problem

Oklahoma senator Tom Coburn was unflatteringly quoted in this Sunday's New York Times. He seems deeply affected by the lack of a gender-neutral third-person pronoun in English. "There isn't a senator or a member of the House that at some time doesn't get a little too full of themselves."

"A senator or a member" should guarantee "full of himself," "full of herself" or "full of him- or herself" in that last clause. However, English doesn't afford an epicene plural pronoun that would succinctly convey both sexes, and so speakers and writers use "they" or "their" even when one person is meant; Coburn knows "themself" is not a word; so he gets stuck using "themselves."

Coburn's problem gets worse.  "'The No. 1 thing people should do in Congress is stay true to their heart,' Mr. Coburn said." That should be "hearts"; but the senator is so accustomed to using "their" as a singular pronoun that he forgets the subject of his sentence was plural.

The article referred to is Jennifer Steinhauer, "A Rock-Solid Conservative Who's Willing to Bend," New York Times, July 24, 2011, p. 15.

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