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I can always count on the rock stars of linguistics to make my day

Recently, I pointed out a grammatical error, but missed another. Oops. It so happens that the guys at Language Log have been discussing a similar kind of “error” recently, and Mark Liberman has a new post up that is very interesting. In this post, Liberman presents a possible “rule” suggested by a reader, and then picks holes in it.

What can I say of the house now that the house

is over—what can I sing of the bridge

now that my family is on the other side,

where the birds finally tune the shadows

with their songs, and the lights need only

brighten for a moment, for there is no darkness

in their house, only light, the causes of

light, the moment of memory when the

past pronounces the future, “so long,” the leaves

wave, the sea waits for someone and someone

else …

Burkard, Michael, 1947-: The Moment of Memory [from Fictions from the Self (1988), Norton]

Again, changing is to are after family would be at best unidiomatic, while writing “there is no darkness/in its house” would be bizarrely dehumanizing.

[Emphasis added by Liberman.]

That “bizarrely dehumanizing” bit occurred to me as I was reading, too. Somehow, there is more humanity in the pronoun they than there is in it–probably because it can be used for people in the plural (and also, arguably, for a singular, speculative person). So maybe the reason “they” sounds good to us in certain cases that seem superficially ungrammatical is because it connotates a person. (Even when we’re not talking about a person, “they” feels more familiar and comfortable. “It” is very standoffish, as if the speaker has no connection whatsoever to the subject.)