The Volokh Conspiracy
Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent
Always fun to see hot grammar controversies in the news—especially ones where there seem to be three different errors (or alleged errors), by different participants.
1. The Princeton Review's SAT prep materials say:
GRAMMAR IN REAL LIFE
Pop lyrics are a great source of bad grammar. See if you can find the error in each of the following.
… Taylor Swift: Somebody tells you they love you, you got to believe 'em.
2. A Swift fan who was using the materials noted that this misquoted the lyrics, and Swift agreed:
Not the right lyrics at all pssshhhh
You had one job, test people.
The correct lyrics appear to be, "Somebody tells you they love you, you're gonna believe them." Swift adds, in the tags, "accuse me of anything but do not attack my grammar." Fair enough—the Princeton Review erred in the quote (unless there's some other version out there that they were quoting).
3. But other sources picked this up, and argued that the Princeton Review was faulting Swift for an error that it itself introduced. (See, e.g., Vanity Fair and Hollywood Reporter.) Yet I think this misunderstands the Princeton Review's objection: The quote appeared in the "pronouns" section, so the Review isn't objecting to "you got to"—it's objecting to "they" and "[th]em" being used to refer to "somebody." It's a number agreement deal, folks, not a "got to" issue.
Now the "you can't use 'they' with a singular term such as 'somebody'" objection is, I think, overstated. As I've noted here and here, leading writers have used "they" as a singular pronoun for centuries; you can see it in Jane Austen, W.H. Auden, William Makepeace Thackeray, and William Shakespeare, among others:
… it is too hideous for anyone in their senses to buy
Who makes you their confidant?
A person can't help their birth
There's not a man I meet but doth salute me
As if I were their well-acquainted friend
English teachers can of course rightly teach students that some people still object to the term (I sometimes note this for my students). SAT prep companies can and should teach students about what the SAT graders expect. Calling the "somebody"/"they" match "bad grammar," though, strikes me as mistaken, especially when one is referring to colloquial usage.
Yet despite the Review's error (the misquote) and possible error (labeling this as "bad grammar"), the one error that the Review authors did not make, I think, is faulting Swift for material that they introduced in their own misquote. Their objection, such as it is, applies just as well to Taylor's accurately quoted line. Or am I missing something here?