They/their/them

No problem.

Dear Word Detective: I realize that you are the Word Detective and not the Grammar Detective, but a friend took me to see “The Prestige” last night, and I was thrown off by what I believe are a couple of linguistic anachronisms that occur early in the film. I was hoping you could shed some light on when these uses came into the English language. At the very beginning of the film, Michael Caine’s character says something like “I saw someone run on the stage and followed them [sic] backstage where I saw him….” The second, which occurs a few moments later, involves a character saying “He’s a better magician than me.” Correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t think that “they/them/their” were used as third-person, singular, neuter pronouns in the late 19th century, nor was “than me” used in comparisons in place of the grammatically correct “than I.” Any thoughts? — Jackie.

Hmm. Grammatically correct? Oh, you’re looking for an argument. Sorry, this is Abuse. Argument is down the hall, Mr. Barnard in Room 12. (Persons not Monty Python fans may find Googling “Argument Clinic” helpful in decoding that.)

Much as I love pointing out anachronisms in movie scripts (“Telephone for you, President Lincoln”), I’m afraid that in this case we’re dealing with what the linguists over at Language Log call the Recency Illusion: the understandable but erroneous conviction that a usage one dislikes must be new because no one in The Good Old Days would have put up with such a barbarism.

In the case of “they/them/their” used as third-person, singular, neuter pronouns, writers as notable as Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, and Jane Austen have employed the construction. Even the King James Version of the Bible uses it: “Then shalt thou bring forth that man or that woman, which have committed that wicked thing, unto thy gates, … and shalt stone them with stones, till they die” (Deuteronomy 17). The use of “than” as a preposition (requiring the objective “me” rather than the nominative “I”) has a similarly long history.

The objections to both constructions are the legacy of misguided 18th century grammarians who tried to force English to conform to the rules of Latin. While these spurious “rules” have been perpetuated by popular grammar books for more than 200 years, their disregard by English speakers has been so natural and so common for so long that the examples you cite from “The Prestige” would probably not have even raised an eyebrow in the 19th century.

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