General Question

ibstubro's avatar

Do you bemoan the de-personalization of the pronoun in the English language? [Details]?

Asked by ibstubro (18765points) March 12th, 2015

For years, I’ve felt like I was copping out changing the pronouns “he and she” (sometimes it) to the generic “they and their” if the person’s sex is not known to me.

Example:
“I don’t think a judge should base his decision on…”
Whether I know the sex of the judge or not, is it pertinent?

Today, I would retreat to:
“I don’t think a judge should base their decision on…”
Given that ”a” might be a better choice, but, old habits…

Do you see that as evolution or regression?

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38 Answers

josie's avatar

Regression
The more information, the better.
Example: If we blame all Muslims on a cult of international death, then we are not being specific enough to do justice to peace loving Muslims. If we put the cult of death onus on the Muslim Brotherhood, then we are starting to get closer to the source.
The more specific, the more accurate the communication.

ibstubro's avatar

“Muslims” is a pronoun? @josie.

Wow.

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DrasticDreamer's avatar

When people don’t know one way or another whether or not they’re referring to a male or female, it’s definite progression. I’m not even 30 yet, but even when I was growing up, people always referred to lawyers, doctors, scientists, police, etc., as “he”. And, as a young woman, it was something that I picked up on. I think it’s detrimental for young girls to hear that some of the most well-respected people in society are automatically assumed to be males.

Kardamom's avatar

I like they and their much better, if the sex of the person is not known. Using he, and later finding out that he was a she, can cause confusion and embarrassment, not to mention that it’s rather presumptive.

dxs's avatar

I don’t see why the gender matters in most cases, so I actually prefer gender-neutral pronouns like they/their. I wish they were used more often.

DominicY's avatar

I see nothing wrong with “they” as a gender-neutral pronoun. “He” is the usual masculine-default feature of languages, “he or she” is cumbersome and clunky…“they” is the best gender-neutral pronoun option. It’s also not as new as people think—I believe use of “they” as gender-neutral goes back to the 15th century.

Mariah's avatar

I still avoid “they” as a singular pronoun unless I know I’m addressing someone who prefers the “they” pronoun (and in that case I don’t get all hung up about it being plural – jeez).

But, I do think it’s nice to switch it up between “he” and “she” in hypothetical sentences, just to get some even representation going. Then nobody can complain.

Mimishu1995's avatar

So far I’m the only one in my place to use they/their for a single person. Everyone uses “he or she”/“his or her”. What they do makes the sentences long and complicated to me. Not to mention some people even use the defaut gender as male.

ragingloli's avatar

Why not use “its” instead?
At least is it singular, whereas “they” is plural.

hominid's avatar

The English language is broken. “They” and “their” is no more accurate than “he” or “she”. We hear “they” and “their” more often because people have no other choice.

To my ear, however, I prefer to hear singular respected over gender accuracy.

Pachy's avatar

I bemoan the state of the English language in general.

Thanks, email, Twitter, IM, et al.

canidmajor's avatar

From this, “Some people object to the use of plural pronouns in this type of situation on the grounds that it’s ungrammatical. In fact, the use of plural pronouns to refer back to a singular subject isn’t new: it represents a revival of a practice dating from the 16th century. It’s increasingly common in current English and is now widely accepted both in speech and in writing.”

It may seem awkward to use “they” or “their” at first, but considering that the alternative could very likely contribute to the promotion of gender marginalization, I am glad to have an acceptable alternative.

keobooks's avatar

In college, we weren’t allowed to use “they” or “their.” We had to say “his or her” or “him or her.”

I had sentences in my paper like “He or she will select his or her favorite color of paper for his or her project.” It was ridiculous. They and them are much better alternatives.

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Stinley's avatar

It’s not as bad as French or Spanish where the plural is masculine and feminine also. I favour using their when the gender is not specified because I think it is less sexist. I love rules but not when they don’t make sense or aren’t for the greater good.

Languages evolve, as we know, and in English we have lost the singular you (thou) except in rare cases. No-one now says that using you as a singular pronoun is wrong.

dxs's avatar

I’ve always wondered how people who don’t fit into the gender binary refer to themselves in languages that are so heavily filled with gender.

Bill1939's avatar

Gender bias is and should be on the decline. If referring to an individual judge, I would change “I don’t think a judge should base his decision on…” to ”...a judge should base the decision on…” To write “…a judge should base their decision on…” would be incorrect if “a judge” is singular since “their” is plural.

However, if the sentence refers to a class of judges, then “their” or they would be appropriate. I have given up the use of ‘his or her’ and ‘his/her’, replacing this awkward phrasing with their, they and them for the same reason.

janbb's avatar

I use s/he when the gender isn’t known and have for years. I don’t like using they or their because it is wrong. I also don’t care for the neologism “ze” but may come to accept it in time.

gailcalled's avatar

It is cumbersome, but I too use the singular pronoun. I remember when my brother wrote his first book, he decided to alternate between “he” and “she” or “him” or “her.”

For example, “The professor taught her seminars in the following manner.”

For the moment, “they” and “their” still refer to two or more people in conventional careful writing.

Mariah's avatar

One teacher’s suggestion, which I think makes a lot of sense, is to rework the sentence so you can use plural pronouns. E.g. “Judges shouldn’t base their decisions on…” vs. “A judge shouldn’t base his or her decisions on…”

canidmajor's avatar

Although the singular “they” may still not be universally accepted by the grammar absolutists, I have no problem being in the company of the likes of Chaucer, Shakespeare, Austen, Thackery, and Shaw in its usage.
(In the contents, click on “Older usage by respected authors”. Examples are given.

hominid's avatar

@canidmajor – I don’t think opposition to using a plural pronoun to represent a single person is driven by a concern for grammatical integrity. And it isn’t a matter of how new this is (or its use by respected authors). Rather, it’s the plural part trips some people up.

We can recognize that this matters because the efforts made to eliminate singular gender-specific are sparked by the recognition that it matters. “If you go to the doctor and he…” sounds odd because before the word “he”, it’s just as likely that you had an image of a woman. The insertion of “he” into that sentence causes a brief stumble in your comprehension of the sentence. And since language is the tool we use to communicate, intentionally including words into the language that will trip up the recipient of the sentence is counterproductive.

When we have a situation like this – and everyone expresses discomfort with the commonly-used terminology – we strive to find a better tool. “They” and “their” don’t feel like a legitimate substitute because that same stumble that happens when we hear “he” enter the sentence about the doctor re-appears. There is an instant where you wonder if you hadn’t heard the speaker correctly (“Wait – how many doctors are we talking about here?”).

I really do think we need to try to invent a gender-neutral pronoun and really make an effort to teach this. Maybe my kids will be able to communicate more clearly than the rest of us.

dappled_leaves's avatar

I like the alternation of masculine and feminine singular pronouns, rather than a plural pronoun meant as singular. I think it solves the problem that we want to solve when we use the plural form, which is to stop assuming (or promoting the assumption) that the default gender for any person who does something is male. It solves this problem better than the use of the plural does.

I like it, but I still tend to use the plural in casual writing. I’m trying to be more mindful about it.

canidmajor's avatar

Unfortunately, @hominid, in my experience, the opposition has been driven by a concern for grammatical integrity. Very often I have seen the essential message of someone’s words be ignored in favor of someone else correcting them (his/her) to display their (her/his) knowledge of grammar rules. I’m not talking about correcting seriously egregious breaches of grammar protocol, but the “well, actually” attitude of so many these days. Language is fluid, and delightful because of it. We all know that a preposition is not a good thing to end a sentence with. (Yeah, that was deliberate.) However, there are some seriously awkward variations up with which we should not put.

SavoirFaire's avatar

I am a big fan of singular they. And one thing that people often miss is that singular they is traditional (it goes back to at least the 14th century), whereas opposition to it is both a newfangled and dying trend (it goes back only to the late 19th century and lasted for about 80 years before the tide turned against it again).

Ultimately, I like Steven Pinker’s suggestion that singular they and plural they are best understood as homonyms. Thus it is false to say that we are using a plural pronoun as a singular pronoun in the first place. We just happen to have a singular and a plural pronoun that are represented by the same sound and set of letters. Homonyms are a familiar aspect of language, and far less troublesome than contranyms (such as cleave, oversight, or refrain).

DominicY's avatar

@canidmajor Agreed. For me, “singular they” is so automatic that I do not bat an eye when someone uses it and I do not think that people might be referring to more than one doctor in @hominid‘s example. To me, it’s just a dual function of the word. And the examples of how old it is are a response to complaints that is some new thing, some new “degradation” of the language and a sign of our loose morals and declining times.

I agree that it isn’t the perfect solution, but it’s very hard to create a new pronoun. Pronouns change their form, pronouns gain new functions, and we lose pronouns, but creating a new one out of thin air rarely happens and it’s difficult to make it catch on. It would be interesting if it did, though.

morphail's avatar

Common-gender common-number “they” has been part of English since the 1300s. It’s not new.

It is grammatical, here is why: http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=89

keobooks's avatar

The English language is constantly in flux and always has been. For the last few hundred years, there were no really strong needs for gender neutral pronouns to describe people in the language. It was acceptable that “man” could be used to represent either gender. “Mankind” could be used to represent all people. He, him and his were assumed to be the best acceptable gender neutral pronoun. Times are changing. People find it presumptuous of men to be considered the neutral standard of all humankind.

People are naturally switching to “they” “them” and “their” on their own. This is almost always how language evolves. Some expert doesn’t come down from the sky and invents a new word or new definition of an old word. People just make it up as they go along. If enough people follow, sooner or later the older definition of the word will “officially” change and be acceptable—even by academic society.

I welcome the “they” pronound. I can’t wait until the day it’s officially the proper gender neutral way to address an unidentified person or group of people.

People are trying to invent gender neutral pronouns right now, and I think it’s ridiculous. “They” is already in the language. People are using it without thinking. It is easy to remember and feels natural to use. This hideous nightmare of a list is just ridiculous. It’s huge and unwieldy. Most of the words feel artificial and unnatural. They force you to remember a bunch of made up on the spot rules in order to use them correctly.

It also goes against the way the English language develops. Generally, people don’t invent a word and command people to start using it. A new idea or concept with no name comes into existence and people start making up their own words to describe it. After a while, the most popular word or words catch on and the other ones fade away. After the word is established, it may finally one day be put in the dictionary as an “official” acceptable new word or new definition of an old word.

The English language never really had official correct words and correct spelling until someone bothered to write a dictionary. Grammar rules varied widely as well. People don’t learn their first language from reading a dictionary and a grammar book. They learn by what people are saying around them. This is the way it’s always been ever since humans started using language to communicate. In modern times, there are “rights” and “wrongs” in grammar, but those change as the language changes organically.

In short, people switching to “they” is not a terrible crime against the English language. It’s just people changing the language to reflect the changing environment they live in. It’s always been happening and it will continue to happen centuries after nobody gives a second thought about using the “they” pronoun to describe a singular person with indeterminate gender.

Bill1939's avatar

When I was a boy the word ain’t was not accepted. Today, because of common use, is in dictionaries. There are many words in dictionaries now that did not exist a few decades ago.

morphail's avatar

In the 17th and 18th centuries “ain’t” was used by educated speakers.

Bill1939's avatar

@morphail, yet fifty years ago teachers chastised students who used it.

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