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

174523651
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.

Advertisement

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.

TODAY IN SLATE

Politics

The Irritating Confidante

John Dickerson on Ben Bradlee’s fascinating relationship with John F. Kennedy.

My Father Invented Social Networking at a Girls’ Reform School in the 1930s

Renée Zellweger’s New Face Is Too Real

Sleater-Kinney Was Once America’s Best Rock Band

Can it be again?

The All The President’s Men Scene That Captured Ben Bradlee

Culturebox

The Simpsons World App Is Finally Here

I feel like a kid in some kind of store.

Technology

Driving in Circles

The autonomous Google car may never actually happen.

The Difference Between Being a Hero and an Altruist

How Punctual Are Germans?

  News & Politics
Politics
Oct. 22 2014 12:44 AM We Need More Ben Bradlees His relationship with John F. Kennedy shows what’s missing from today’s Washington journalism.
  Business
Moneybox
Oct. 21 2014 5:57 PM Soda and Fries Have Lost Their Charm for Both Consumers and Investors
  Life
Outward
Oct. 22 2014 10:37 AM Judge Upholds Puerto Rico’s Gay Marriage Ban in a Comically Inane Opinion
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 22 2014 10:00 AM On the Internet, Men Are Called Names. Women Are Stalked and Sexually Harassed.
  Slate Plus
Working
Oct. 22 2014 6:00 AM Why It’s OK to Ask People What They Do David Plotz talks to two junior staffers about the lessons of Working.
  Arts
Culturebox
Oct. 22 2014 9:54 AM The Simpsons World App Is Finally Here I feel like a kid in some kind of store.
  Technology
Technology
Oct. 22 2014 10:29 AM Apple TV Could Still Work Here’s how Apple can fix its living-room product.
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Oct. 22 2014 10:30 AM Monster Sunspot Will Make Thursday’s Eclipse That Much Cooler
  Sports
Sports Nut
Oct. 20 2014 5:09 PM Keepaway, on Three. Ready—Break! On his record-breaking touchdown pass, Peyton Manning couldn’t even leave the celebration to chance.