Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Adam Discovers Singular They

Posted by Neal on December 16, 2009

For the past six months, Doug has been keenly interested in birds and other wildlife. He’s had us take him to local (and not-so-local) nature centers, installed with our help an elaborate configuration of bird feeders in the back yard, and been reading his collection of field guides (acquired mostly in one go, for his birthday) more or less cover to cover. He and his mom will have conversations about what they saw at the birdfeeder during the day.

“I saw a hairy!” he’ll say.

“And I saw a downy and a red-bellied,” his mother will tell him.

“And I saw a couple of woodpeckers!” I’ll put in. Other birds than woodpeckers come, too. We’ve had mourning doves, juncos, starlings, purple finches, nuthatches, titmouses, cardinals, and sparrows, which I’m slowly learning to identify. But more often, if I see something interesting at the feeder, I’ll say, “Look at that!”, and Doug will say, “What is it?”, and I’ll say, “A bird!”

Meanwhile, last week we got our annual letter of concern from Adam’s school, notifying us officially that he’d missed more than ten days of class. This happens just about every year, because Adam gets sick so much. As if to celebrate the occasion, Adam announced on Sunday afternoon that he felt bad, and had a fever of 100.5 to back it up. So now he’s spent two more days home sick, and I’ve been prompting him at every turn to get through some more of the makeup work he still has stacked up from his earlier absences, especially now that I’m picturing two more days’ worth piling up on his desktop at school.

As he was completing the questions on his worksheet about the prefix dis-, he suddenly said:

Sometimes they can be singular.

“Oh?” I said, trying not to divulge anything. “Give me an example.”

Adam showed me the question: “What might cause you to distrust someone?” His answer was, “One thing is if they let you down.” Someone was singular, and the they was talking about that someone, so they was singular here.

“You’re right, Adam!” I said. This was amazing to me. It was only a few weeks ago that his teacher gave them all a worksheet on personal pronouns, summarizing facts for case (e.g. I vs. me), person (e.g. I vs. you or he/she/it), and number (e.g. I vs. we). I’d gone over the worksheet with Doug and Adam during supper one night, and I suspect Doug forgot about it as soon as he knew he wasn’t in danger of me asking another question about it during the next five minutes. But Adam had evidently kept the information, and was now realizing that it didn’t completely match what he knew about his language. He made my day!

“You’re thinking like a linguist!” I told him. Doug, meanwhile, was just as amazed that Adam could notice this kind of stuff as he was that I could.

“You know what I think of when I think about me and sentences and pronouns and stuff?” he asked me. “I think of you and birds!”

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3 Responses to “Adam Discovers Singular They

  1. Well, if that wouldn’t make a papa proud, I don’t know what would.

  2. Stan said

    Good for him! Some people go a lifetime without discovering this. Also, he expressed it very plainly and succinctly.

  3. The Ridger said

    A very perceptive son indeed. Your pride is well-placed. (Doug’s comparison of himself and pronouns to you and birds, though funny and also perceptive, must be a bit worrying, though (grin))

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