Spurious Grammatical “Rules” of Every Sort Are My Abhorrence

Earlier today, I posted quotes from prominent authors who use “them” with formally singular terms such as “everyone.” A commenter had earlier complained that “Already constructions like these are ubiquitous among high-school age writers, and sanctioned by their teachers.” I pointed out that they were apparently sanctioned by leading writers as well.

A commenter suggested that perhaps the quotes given above were just isolated errors on the authors’ part: “Even great writers commit infelicities on occasion. If you are telling me that Jane [A.] did this all the time, that would be meaningful.” Feeling the desperate need to procrastinate this morning, I decided to put that theory to the test, by doing some Google Books searches through the works of the notorious language-mangler Jane A., whom I mentioned above.

I won’t bore you with all the details and citations, which you yourself can uncover by searching for “everybody” with author Jane A. (despite her obvious inability to grasp the inexorable logic of the English tongue, she’s pretty famous, so you can probably deduce her last name). But suffice it to say that I found not one “everybody” matched with a singular pronoun — maybe there were some, but in that case I missed them — and several matched with “them.” “Everybody had a right to be equally positive in their opinion.” “Everybody had their due importance.” “If everybody was to drink their bottle a day.” “Their new dining-room prepared everybody for their keeping dinner-company.” “Everybody said, they never saw so fat a haunch.” “Everybody has their taste in noises as well as in other matters.” And there are more.

Incidentally, Jane A. consistently uses everybody with the singular forms of verbs, e.g., “everybody is.” Yet she apparently sees nothing wrong with at the same time using the pronoun “they,” including in the line, “But everybody is to judge for themselves.” That’s precisely the sort of “jarring (I hope!) juxtaposition of the singular verb with the plural pronoun” that my original correspondent complained about. Maybe it’s jarring to that commenter, but many readers of P. and P. seem to have enjoyed the novel quite well despite it.

If you think that Jane A. was an outlier in consistently using “them” with “everybody,” and the other examples I gave were (unlike with Jane A.) themselves outliers in those authors’ bodies of work, then by all means provide some evidence of it. But I like to think that what I’ve posted so far at least shifts the burden of proof to those who want to argue that this phenomenon is somehow the special province of modern high-school age writers and their decadent loosey-goosey modern teachers.

UPDATE: Someone — whose need to procrastinate was apparently even greater than mine — actually has a much longer list of examples, all from Jane A.’s work. The page also discusses the quotations vs. narration question, and more broadly goes into this in a great deal of detail; the detail, I think, amply supports the assertions I make above.