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The wonderful pronoun "they" revisited

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The New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society decided to make the singular 'they' its word of the year.

I say "YES! It's about time!" for the wonderful number-agnostic gender-agnostic pronoun 'they'.

Take that, grammar pedants in academia!

Colin :icon_geek:

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I totally disagree!

"They" is the subjective form of "them." It is always plural and must be used only to refer to more than one person or thing.

"They" is used by lazy Americans when they should be saying "he or she."

Yes, you hear it on American television by broadcasters who probably slept through their English classes in primary and secondary school.

It is all part of the so called "?dumbing? down of America" conspiracy that includes the mis-pronunciation of 'anti' and 'multi.'

As for the American Dialectic Society... I still will continue to speak the English language.... not the American 'slanguage.' :tongue:

Mike

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I remember several years ago, I had a discussion of 'they' with Colin, taking Mike's narrow-assed view of the word. I'm always a little bit too literal. He convinced me—Colin, not Mike—that it works very well as a singular, and in some place surpasses 'he' or 'she'.

And he was right. Now that Colin had highlighted it for me, I became aware of it, and found it hiding in the open in literature. I realized I'd know all along that it was permissible to use it that way, it was simply thinking about how it was plural and then thinking it had to be used that way to be correct that got me in trouble.

So I can only say, thank you, Colin, and thanks, ADS, for coming around to Colin's enlightenment.

C

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Cole and Colin,

So, is it permissible to use 'between' when placing someone or something in a physical relationship with more than two objects or people? I can only imagine myself between two people or objects. Walking in the forest, how can I be between four trees? As Mr. Orwell reminded us, precision in language can be protective.

Rich

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I get the impression that the singular they is used far more in British English than in American English. At school I was taught that when you were referring to the singular in a none gender specific state you used they. There is a good article on the issue here:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Singular_they

There is also an article that indicates that this usage is somewhat archaic arguing you should use the he or she

http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/words/he-or-she-versus-they

I find this he or she​ usage somewhat cumbersome and prefer the singular they.

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Example of my point: " When a teacher corrects a student, he or she should take into consideration his or her feelings."

A bit cumbersome, but correct.

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Certainly that usage is correct! But so is 'they' in that situation, and I agree with Nigel—it's far less cumbersome. In fact, it seems rather elegant.

" When a teacher corrects a student, they should take into consideration their feelings."

C

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Am I right that this discussion has gained topicality because we are now aware more than in times past that there are people who do not think of themselves as fitting into either of the two binary genders, and who prefer to be referred to as 'they' rather than as he or she.

If I'm right about the above, it seems to me that we should put aside our preconceptions about correct usage, and embrace the singular they on behalf of our non-binary-gendered brethren.... er, sorority? er.... er... siblings?

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This tangentially implicates Mark Twain's admonition that the only people entitled to use the pronoun "we" when referring to themselves were royalty, editors, and people with tapeworm.

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This tangentially implicates Mark Twain's admonition that the only people entitled to use the pronoun "we" when referring to themselves were royalty, editors, and people with tapeworm.

Exactly... or folks with fleas?

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Example of my point: " When a teacher corrects a student, he or she should take into consideration his or her feelings."

A bit cumbersome, but correct.

Actually it begs the question: whose feelings? The teacher's or the student's?

Try: "When correcting a student, the teacher should take into consideration the student's feelings."

Drop the pronouns and reduce the chance for error,

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I have a (bad?) habit of using gender-neutral terminolgy in my writing. Happily, my editor fixes most of them, but there are times when a character wants to be deliberately misleading as to the gender of the person they are talking about. In that case, they'll use "they" rather than one of "he" or "she". They wouldn't use "he or she" because they know who it is and simply don't want to correct the assumption made by the person they are talking to as to the gender of the person to whom they are referring.

Now try to write that paragraph without the singular they... :smile: I suspect it'll be a nightmare to read.

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Actually it begs the question: whose feelings? The teacher's or the student's?

Try: "When correcting a student, the teacher should take into consideration the student's feelings."

Drop the pronouns and reduce the chance for error,

I do a fair amount of editing, and one of the most frequent suggestions I make is to delete the he or she in a sentence and replace it with a name. Writers all too often create sentence with more than one person in them, and the use of a pronoun often becomes entirely ambiguous. I profoundly support the above admonition: Drop the pronouns and the reduce the chance for error,

Although I'd use a period at the end to show I really mean it.

C

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So, is it permissible to use 'between' when placing someone or something in a physical relationship with more than two objects or people? I can only imagine myself between two people or objects. Walking in the forest, how can I be between four trees? As Mr. Orwell reminded us, precision in language can be protective.

Rich

It has always bothered me intensely when I read (more and more, it seems) that particular misapplied usage for ‘between’ to collections larger than two. You can be caught between a rock and a hard place, but it is always reassuring to be among friends.

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It has always bothered me intensely when I read (more and more, it seems) that particular misapplied usage for ‘between’ to collections larger than two. You can be caught between a rock and a hard place, but it is always reassuring to be among friends.

I'm more forgiving if the word is used in conversation because it is not that uncommon in modern speech:

"Let's be sure we keep it between us," said Billy as he made eye contact with his three friends.

The implication is that Billy's eye contact established an individual agreement with EACH of his friends.

If, however, the author tells us about it, it's definitely better to say,

The three boys each nodded to Billy that the secret would be kept among the foursome.

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It grates on my nerves when FB sends a notification that "Mary Smith changed their profile picture."

R

As Facebook knows the gender of Mary Smith they should know better.

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Cole and Colin,

So, is it permissible to use 'between' when placing someone or something in a physical relationship with more than two objects or people? I can only imagine myself between two people or objects. Walking in the forest, how can I be between four trees? As Mr. Orwell reminded us, precision in language can be protective.

Rich

Absolutely not! That's because English has a single plural word, "among," that serves the purpose you describe. But there is no such single word substitute for the singular "they". There have been attempts to invent "single" word replacements like he/she or heshe (ugh!), but they don't allow for gender identities that are not he or she.

There are indefinite pronouns that are both singular and plural: all, any, more, most, none, some are examples.

The singular "they" is appearing in common use. We are watching something change in the English language. English, unlike Latin, is a living language. That means a change in the language occurs over the years first within a dialect, then the way people speak across dialects, then it can become the standard way the write and read.

Find a copy of How English Works - A Linguistic Introduction by Anne Curzan and Michael Adams and borrow this book (probably from a local college library). This is a textbook that I decided to keep after taking a Linguistics class in college. It was worth it; the used paperback copy was expensive enough (~$91.00) that when I bought it I thought that after the class was over I'd sell it back to the bookstore and make a few bucks. But I didn't sell it, I kept it. It's fascinating to read about the many ways that the English language has changed and is changing; particularly the American dialects and the Standard American English (SAE) variety of the language which many think is or should be truly standard and unchanging. This includes the creation of new words, the meaning, pronunciation, and spelling of words, and grammar and punctuation. I've often used this book as a reference and fodder for discussion (ask Cole about that!). Highly recommended!

Colin :icon_geek:

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As Facebook knows the gender of Mary Smith they should know better.

Hmmm… if there can be a Boy Named Sue then it seems there can be a boy named Mary.

It wouldn't be my inclination to name a boy "Mary" but different strokes, ya know?

Colin :icon_geek:

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We are watching something change in the English language.

Colin :icon_geek:

It can't really be all that difficult. Texans long ago came up with a contraction for "She" and "It"!

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Hmmm… if there can be a Boy Named Sue then it seems there can be a boy named Mary.

It wouldn't be my inclination to name a boy "Mary" but different strokes, ya know?

Colin :icon_geek:

Good point but in your Facebook profile you set you gender so it is known to Facebook.

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I have a (bad?) habit of using gender-neutral terminolgy in my writing. Happily, my editor fixes most of them, but there are times when a character wants to be deliberately misleading as to the gender of the person they are talking about. In that case, they'll use "they" rather than one of "he" or "she". They wouldn't use "he or she" because they know who it is and simply don't want to correct the assumption made by the person they are talking to as to the gender of the person to whom they are referring.

Now try to write that paragraph without the singular they... :smile: I suspect it'll be a nightmare to read.

I have employed this strategy in real life many times, especially when concealing the gender of a person I was falling for when conversing with my sister prior to coming out. It must have worked, as she told me she was surprised when I came out.

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I think they is not right.

The New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society decided to make the singular 'they' its word of the year.

I say "YES! It's about time!" for the wonderful number-agnostic gender-agnostic pronoun 'they'.

Take that, grammar pedants in academia!

Colin :icon_geek:

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Example of my point: " When a teacher corrects a student, he or she should take into consideration his or her feelings."

A teacher correcting students should take their feelings into consideration.

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An excellent example of writing around a problem. Changing a sentence to avoid an awkward agglomeration of words is something I do all the time and recommend when editing. Why write something that teases the readers' mind when we want to keep the pace steady and the story uninterrupted by questions of a sentence's legitimacy? We want them thinking about what is happening, not the words on the page.

C

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