Olympic Diver Tom Daley Comes Out in Favor of Singular They

Lexicon Valley
A Blog About Language
Dec. 4 2013 3:03 PM

Olympic Diver Tom Daley Comes Out in Favor of Singular They

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Tom Daley on the 10-meter platform at the FINA World Championships in 2013.

Photo by LLUIS GENE/AFP/Getty Images

When British Olympic diving star Tom Daley decided to come out as bisexual, he made a statement with a charmingly clever use of singular they:

"In spring this year my life changed massively when I met someone, and they make me feel so happy, so safe and everything just feels great," Daley said. "That someone is a guy."

His use of "they" for the first reference to his new romantic interest has "someone" as its antecedent, and rather than being a bound variable semantically (as in Everyone should look after their own gear), it's just a free pronoun meaning "he or she, as the context may dictate." Indeed, he could have used he, as typical conservative usage guides recommend. Except that it would have utterly ruined his rhetorical design.

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That design, as pointed out by Ben Zimmer, was to ensure that his "big reveal" about dating a man would come at the end of the two-sentence paragraph, rather than be spoiled by a pronoun choice early on.

So score two for Tom Daley: one for coming out and one for championing the gender-neutral singular they. Both require courage.

A version of this post originally appeared on Language Log.

Geoff Pullum is professor of general linguistics in the School of Philosophy, Psychology and Language Sciences at the University of Edinburgh. He is co-author of The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language.

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