Thursday, September 18, 2008

The theys have it

Last night, I came across this passage from midway through A Clash of Kings.
It took him [Weese] only three days to earn the place of honor in her nightly prayers. "Weese," she would whisper, first of all. "Dunsen, Chiswyck, Polliver, Raff the Sweetling, The Tickler and the Hound. Ser Gregor, Ser Armory, Ser Ilyn, Ser Meryn, King Joffrey, Queen Cersei." If she let herself forget even one of them, how would she ever find him again to kill him?
(Ser is "Song of Ice and Fire" speak for a knight's honorific.)

The first time I read the passage, I interpreted both him's as referring to Weese. It was only the oddity of that interpretation that made me realize the pronouns were the generic masculine. Until that line, I had already known that my dialect was incredibly permissive of singular they. Just this morning I found myself using they in a reply to an email which specified the gender of the student I meant to refer to. (I fixed it only to make sure it didn't look like I hadn't read the original email closely.) What I hadn't realized is how much I had come to expect it and what that meant for anaphora resolution. Even removing Queen Cersei from the list doesn't seem to salvage the sentence for me. A generic person - even from a list of guys - is still they to me.

Although it should be said, "how would she ever find them again to kill them" in that context is equally odd because of the them in the preceding clause. The first reading I get is that forgetting just one would mean that the girl would fail at killing everyone on her list. I would have to change the line to something like "how would she ever find that one again to kill them" so that that one intervenes between the two them's.

Ah, the foibles of English, as a German-born violinist I once knew might say.