April 03, 2003
Correcting The Correctors

In today's Impromptus (last item) Jay Nordlinger of NRO quotes a reader who impugns the regrettably common use of 'they' with a singular antecedent:

"Dear Mr. Nordlinger: In my three-year-old daughter's music class, the teacher sings, 'Someone is hiding, hiding, hiding, hiding. Someone is hiding, where can they be?' This grammatical incorrectness comes from political correctness: We can't say, 'Someone is hiding, where can he be?' Also, I've seen a bumper sticker that says, 'If you can read this, thank a teacher. And give them a raise!' Ugh. (Also politically incorrect, since it defames Native Americans!)"

I have to disagree about the cause of this repulsive usage. It may be encouraged by political correctness, but it cannot have been inspired by it, since it is at least thirty years old, probably more like fifty or sixty years, if not more. In 1925, Bessie Smith sang:

It's hard to love some man
When he don't care for you.

Bob Wills sang the same song ('I Ain't Got Nobody', by Roger Graham and Spencer Williams) with slightly different words:

It's awful hard to love someone
When they don't care for you.

I suppose he felt uncomfortable singing about loving a man, but it's odd that he didn't just reverse the genders to 'some girl' (or 'some gal') and 'she'. Apparently he found the use of 'they' for a single person of indeterminate gender acceptable. The album (Bob Wills, 24 Greatest Hits, Polydor 827573, 1977) provides no dates, but most of the tunes naturally come from his period of greatest popularity, so his rewriting was most likely done in the 1940's or 1950's, long before the advent of Political Correctness. Wills retired in 1969 and died in 1975.

Posted by Dr. Weevil at April 03, 2003 11:58 PM