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You put forth I have netted birds in the field ... ambiguities will be rare correspondingly as that form is rare?

I admit, it took a bit of thinking to come up with something that might be ambiguous. And in the end, I don't think it's particularly convincing as an ambiguity. "I have netted birds in the field behind my house"?

That, I suspect, is only because the topic of netting birds seems obscure. I am sure, even without being able to recall specific examples, that I have often encountered examples of that form of ambiguity in reading. They are rarely if ever fatal, and usually not of much consequence at all, but they certainly exist, and in an ideal world would not. I have many times said that I am very poor at conjuring examples, but let me see if even I can generate some specimens:
I have earned income ample to my needs.
He has grown tomato plants in his garden.
She has notched sticks to keep count.
They have printed rules covering such situations.
I reckon those are sufficiently indicative of the commonness of the potentially ambiguous form.
I daresay anyone with half a brain could come up with an equally "ambiguous" statement for just about any feature of English or of any other language with which they might be familiar.

Oh, probably; but that misses the thrust here, which is that the form in question is peculiarly liable to such ambiguity, and that examples of it in action are rather common, and are not the product of a clever and special contrivance.
Such statements are ambiguous only in isolation, normal context would make the meaning clear. . . .

Sometimes not always. Nor can we ever know, when "context" makes the meaning clear, the degree to which the writer felt impelled to add that context for just that purpose, thus even if triflingly padding the prose in a way that ideally would be needless.
Singular "they" is as far from being an artificial introduction to English as it could possibly be. It is a ... the one field in which it might, formal writing. Its use in normal daily speech has not been much affected.

Two points: one, historical argument, when the trend is not continuous and still vivid, is meaningless(1). There were many uses that a century or some centuries ago were common that will re-surface in our times but that our tongue is now out of sympathy with. In competent writing and speech, a singular "they", for at least a century back (and, I suspect, longer) was scarcely to be found. To seek to justify the sudden spate of such usages by historical reference is close kin to trying to justify "I don't got none" on the ground that Shakespeare on occasion used double negatives.
Two: whose daily speech?
It takes the same effort and isolation to come up with an "ambiguous" example of singular "they" as it does with auxiliary "have".

Nonsense. If I, with my poverty of ability to conjure examples, can easily find many, they are trivially easy to find. Here's one:
After the captain's lecture on the need to put the ship's endangered mission ahead of petty personal
considerations, the crew returned to quarters, each one considering their problems.
Was the captain's lecture a success or a failure? We do not, and cannot, know without further prompting, which prompting ought not to be necessary and which might well spoil an effect (that paragraph might make a reasonably effective end to a chapter in a novel if we are able to rely on the writer's grammar being sound and not trendy else it becomes, not by auctorial intent, a cliffhanger).
And if such an ambiguity does occur in the normal course of writing or speech, there's a simple expedient. Expand and clarify. Make one's meaning clear with further exposition.

Um, beg pardon, but isn't that remedy better proposed for the case in which a singular "they" might be used in the first place? The places where "he or she" (or analogous forms) are, in The New Dispensation, to be replaced by "they" are not so many, and usually easily avoided by an instant's consideration. That is the whole point, and why the thing is an abomination: it is not that it is useless, but that the gain is trifling, while the loss is not. A fuller exposition is at

http://owlcroft.com/english/they.html
(1) And sometimes even when it is. The form exemplified by "Hand me them pliers" is over six centuries old in English, and is still regarded by every sane writer as a solecism.

Cordially,
Eric Walker
My opinions on English are available at
http://owlcroft.com/english /
Singular "they" is as far from being an artificial introduction ... use in normal daily speech has not been much affected.

Two points: one, historical argument, when the trend is not continuous and still vivid, is meaningless(1). There were many uses ... and speech, a singular "they", for at least a century back (and, I suspect, longer) was scarcely to be found.

"Competent writing"? Yes, it is just faintly possible that singular "they" may at some time have been frowned upon as a part of the speech of "common" people, and therefore writers may not have put it into literary offerings as often as it appeared in everyday speech, but that hardly means it had fallen out of currency, just that posh snobs frowned on it. That Jane Austen, most certainly a competent writer, didn't use any even indirect epithets describing parts of the human body doesn't mean that such words weren't used, just that she didn't mention such things in her writings.
Two: whose daily speech?

Mine for at least two, and probably 60,000,000 more on this side of the pond.

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Sentences like "Everybody is required to show THEIR ID when THEY cross the gate." or "Anyone who calls will have THEIR number registered." are grammatically absurd.

Only if you think you understand the grammar, but you actually don't.
There is nothing wrong with that usage. It is quite normal and grammatical.
Rethink your notions.
\\P. Schultz
Since Jane Austen has been cited, with some understatement, as a competent writer, it should be noted that she quite often uses singular 'they' both as narrator and in dialogue. Years ago Henry Churchyard gave us the statistics: unfortunately the link to his more extended treatment of this topic no longer works, but his posting can be found by Googling in the a.e.u. archive for "jane austen singular they".
Alan Jones
Since Jane Austen has been cited, with some understatement, as a competent writer, it should be noted that she quite ... no longer works, but his posting can be found by Googling in the a.e.u. archive for "jane austen singular they".

You can find appropriate comment at
http://owlcroft.com/english/prescrip.html
under the heading "Jane Austen Did It: The Historical Fallacy".

Cordially,
Eric Walker
My opinions on English are available at
http://owlcroft.com/english /
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... let me see if even I can generate some specimens: I have earned income ample to my needs.

(etc.) .. and even "I have painted ladies in the library" which might turn out to be part of a collection of butterflies.

She sat on a chair with Queen Anne legs.
She sits amongst the cabbages and peas.
Yaddah yaddah yaddah

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Since Jane Austen has been cited, with some understatement, as ... Googling in the a.e.u. archive for "jane austen singular they".

You can find appropriate comment at http://owlcroft.com/english/prescrip.html under the heading "Jane Austen Did It: The Historical Fallacy".

And elsewhere in this long, tedious, questionably meaningful and utterly boring screed is the following:-
" ... what has evolved, in lazy minds, is the habit of using they/them/their. Lazy minds being the dominant kind, one hears and sees the error so often now that it requires scrupulous care not to fall into it a fine example of what I mean by the "corrosive effect" I discussed earlier. But, says the descriptionist, so many people routinely employ that usage now that resistance is futile: the battle is over. (Descriptionists do seem to love phrasing triumphs of folly as battles won.) Well, what is the problem? Doesn't the use answer a real need? Yes, but at a disproportionate price, the loss of clarity when what was uniquely a plural now becomes indeterminate."
Which is just as pointless and silly a series of comments as the original post that started this thread.

Dave OSOS#24 (Email Removed) Remove my gerbil for email replies

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Since Jane Austen has been cited, with some understatement, as ... Googling in the a.e.u. archive for "jane austen singular they".

You can find appropriate comment at http://owlcroft.com/english/prescrip.html under the heading "Jane Austen Did It: The Historical Fallacy".

Thank you for the reference. You suggest that Jane Austen might have avoided such errors if she had understood grammar better. How can you tell? No one, I believe, has written more consistently elegant and exact prose, the brilliance of which the years have dimmed not at all. If she had re-cast sentences containing "singular they", who is to say that the required circumlocutions would not have reduced crispness to stolidity? Perhaps you would try an experiment for us by correcting Jane Austen's grammatical faults in, say, three sample sentences and inviting our comments on your improvements.
Alan Jones
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You can find appropriate comment at http://owlcroft.com/english/prescrip.html under the heading "Jane Austen Did It: The Historical Fallacy".

Thank you for the reference. You suggest that Jane Austen might have avoided such errors if she had understood grammar ... believe, has written more consistently elegant and exact prose, the brilliance of which the years have dimmed not at all.

Austen is a fine author, but that statement is excessive; Herbert Read, who himself knew a thing or two about English prose, and English authors, briefly but succinctly discussed Austen's style in his book English Prose Style , and the interested might want to look up his comments.
If she had re-cast sentences containing "singular they", who is to say that the required circumlocutions would not have reduced crispness to stolidity?

You are: surely one who could produce "consistently elegant and exact prose, the brilliance of which the years have dimmed not at all" could handle such a trifling matter with ease.
Perhaps you would try an experiment for us by correcting Jane Austen's grammatical faults in, say, three sample sentences and inviting our comments on your improvements.

Did I feel myself her equal as a writer, I might; but, as I do not and have, I hope, never suggested else I reckon the proposed experiment pointless.
Lookit: You can't have it coming and going: she wrote well, and so could presumably handle correcting a simple grammatical error with grace; or she could not repair a simple grammatical error with grace, in which case she did not write well. You pick.

Cordially,
Eric Walker
My opinions on English are available at
http://owlcroft.com/english /
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