1. adampjr
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    adampjr Member

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    "They" as a generic 3rd person personal pronoun

    Discussion in 'Word Mechanics' started by adampjr, Jul 21, 2012.

    I often hear the word "they" used when referring to a 3rd person whose gender is unidentified or to refer to a hypothetical person (that could be either gender). My inclination is that this is incorrect. Anyone know better? Anyone know a better way to say it. I'd think maybe you could just use "he," but I'm sure feminists wouldn't like that...
     
  2. mammamaia
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    mammamaia nit-picker-in-chief Contributor

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    using 'he' for a person whose gender is unknown is more an issue of clarity, than feminism, imo... and i'm a woman...

    it can mislead the reader, so should be avoided for that reason alone, imo...

    as for 'they' i've never been entirely comfortable with that, either, as it can lead to number confusion... this is just one of the many problems inherent in the cobbled-together english language that makes it one of the hardest of all languages to learn...

    you can use 'the person' but more than a couple of those would probably be annoying to the reader...
     
  3. marktx
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    marktx Contributing Member

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    Technically incorrect but in very common usage.

    In fiction, depending on the voice of the narrator or character, probably not a problem to use.

    In non-fiction, you'll need to come up with a solution. "He/She" is horribly awkward, so I would avoid that. Some writers go the traditional route "he," while others alternate (i.e., they us "he" for one hypothetical example and then use "she" for the next one, and so on). Either way you go, you'll probably need to explain your choice in the intro (for non-fiction), which seems to be almost a standard part of many non-fiction introductions.
     
  4. chicagoliz
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    chicagoliz Contributing Member Contributor

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    You are correct in deducing that the improper use of the word "they" when referring to a non-specified singular person of unknown gender stems from a sensitivity to assuming the person is male. Originally, people didn't care about insulting women or intentionally ignoring half the population, so "he" was almost always used. When people noticed this was undesirable, many switched to the other choice, which is the mismatching use of the plural for a singular subject. It came down to which choice was less problematic. The pendulum is swinging back toward use of he or she. Some people use s/he or "she or he" but this really slows down the flow of the sentence and is somewhat awkward.
     
  5. adampjr
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    adampjr Member

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    Yea. In fiction, I don't mind characters using colloquial or incorrect speech, but I'd like the narration to be correct.
     
  6. simina
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    simina Senior Member

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    I usually avoid this problem, especially in academic writing, by making my hypothetical example "people" instead of "person."

    i.e., "many people would go out of their way to buy a coffee from their favorite coffee shop."

    instead of

    "a person would go out of their way to buy a coffee from their favorite coffee shop."
     
  7. minstrel
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    minstrel Leader of the Insquirrelgency Staff Supporter Contributor

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    I grew up using "he." It doesn't bother me to have that word used for both male and unknown-gender persons. I recognize that many women object to it, feeling that it's somehow offensive and demeaning, but I don't see it that way. For something to be offensive, there has to be someone doing the offending, and generally there isn't. If someone uses "he", he isn't trying to demean women; he's just using what the English language provides, and the English language is anything but perfect and politically correct.

    "They," being plural, doesn't work. Alternating between "he" and "she" is confusing, and makes the writer seem self-conscious and apologetic for his language (having to write as though I am apologizing for me language is almost enough to make me give up writing altogether). And constructions like "s/he" are unpronounceable and, frankly, hideous.

    Obviously, the English language changes over time for a variety of reasons. But forcing a sudden change on the language for political reasons isn't a solution - heck, for many people, there isn't really a problem.

    So I use "he." Not the ideal word, but the English language doesn't provide an ideal word, and actually can't be forced to.
     
  8. bsbvermont
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    bsbvermont Active Member

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    Oh the lucky French who can just get away with the neutral "on". But alas, I just try to avoid it like the plague whenever possible or if I can really generalize informally I use "most folks" or some folks".
     
  9. Lightman
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    Lightman Active Member

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    The idea isn't that it's offensive, but rather male-normative; i.e. it assumes that males and maleness are the baseline of humanity, sidelining women. Here's a satirical essay that shows what I'm talking about: http://www.cs.virginia.edu/~evans/cs655/readings/purity.html

    Beyond that, "they" has a long history of being used in the singular, dating back several centuries. Shakespeare used it, Shaw used it, etc. Prescriptivism be damned.
     
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  10. Mckk
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    Mckk Moderator Staff Supporter Contributor

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    My male friend who is a feminist would probably prefer "somebody" :D

    Unless there's a reason why their gender cannot be identified, you could just well, identify their gender.

    Or how about just write in first person narrative?
     
  11. Lightman
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    Lightman Active Member

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    Why would writing in the first-person mean you never have to use the generic third person? :confused:
     
  12. minstrel
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    minstrel Leader of the Insquirrelgency Staff Supporter Contributor

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    That's not a solution. It's just giving up.

    "Doctor, it hurts when I do this."
    "Then don't do that."
     
  13. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    But if alternating is confusing, why isn't using "he" confusing? If the gender of the subject doesn't matter when we use "he", why does it suddenly matter when we use "she"?

    And as Lightman points out, the use of "they" is not a sudden forced change; it's a well-established and quite old usage. There are far, far worse things that are nudging their way into standard use. I don't see any reason to fight this one so hard.

    Edited to add: It's my perception that "he sometimes means he or she" is becoming something that must be _actively_ taught in an academic setting; it is no longer part of natural speech. To keep it, we'd have to actively enforce it. And I don't see the need to actively enforce a usage that implies that being female is an odd and nonstandard state.
     
  14. simina
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    simina Senior Member

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    I completely agree with you, and that essay was a fantastic read. Thank you. :)
     
  15. minstrel
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    minstrel Leader of the Insquirrelgency Staff Supporter Contributor

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    First, it swaps one inadequacy for another. That's not progress. Second, there's a vast body of work already written and published in English that uses "he", so I don't think "he" is confusing in this sense. I was actually referring to alternating between "he" and "she" in the same work, which I guess is rare, but I have seen. In such cases, the pronouns can refer to the same gender-unidentified person, but it looks like they might not. I find that confusing.

    I didn't really fight this one very hard - at least, I didn't mean to. It's probably the best of a bad lot of options, and the one I would personally find easiest to adjust to.

    I don't share that perception, but it's been a long time since I was in school. I'm an old fart (about to turn 51!). I have no desire to enforce any usage that implies being female is nonstandard, either, but I also don't want to have to keep explaining to kids that in all those old books, "he" really means "he or she." From there, it's one step from an easy discussion of a point of English usage to a complicated discussion of political correctness, social mores, and how quickly the world changes these days. :)
     
  16. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    I think I misinterpreted you as being far more vehement than you were. :)

    I'm only a fraction younger than you, but that fraction may have seen substantially different educational practices--plus, I went to a school that was regularly swarming with teachers-in-training from Peabody, so I suspect that we got the newest changes right away.

    I suspect, however, that that discussion is going to happen a lot.
     
  17. digitig
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    digitig Contributing Member Contributor

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    It has been used like that by fine writers for pretty much as long as English has been English, but some people don't like it and deem it "wrong" on grounds of logic (as if English has ever been logical!) It's one of those areas where there is dispute over whether it's an error or not, and as there's no legislative body for English that's an impossible thing to decide. If you're writing for a more formal, perhaps more pedantic audience then it might be better to avoid that usage. If you're writing for a less formal audience then it shouldn't be a problem.

    How is that even possible in English? What defines "correct" if not common usage?
     
  18. Thumpalumpacus
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    Thumpalumpacus Contributing Member

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    Academia?
     
  19. digitig
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    digitig Contributing Member Contributor

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    You expect a consensus from academia? They have to disagree among themselves so they can get more papers published and more citations.
     
  20. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    This is beyond cynical, and really uncalled for.
     
  21. adampjr
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    adampjr Member

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    There are certainly things in common use that are not correct. So that can't be the definition.
     
  22. digitig
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    digitig Contributing Member Contributor

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    Who says they're not correct?
     
  23. digitig
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    digitig Contributing Member Contributor

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    Ah, maybe things are better in the humanities. I can only speak from real experience of the sciences. I had a dissertation rejected on the sole grounds that it resolved the question asked of it. My examiner agreed that I had unequivocally resolved the question, but that was unacceptable because it left no opportunity for further work on the subject, so I was forced to rework the dissertation so that it did not fully resolve the question. "Beyond cynical" or "experienced"?
     
  24. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    There is a formal grammar for English. It is not complete, and also there are grammar rules that change over time, but it does cover a good percentage of English usage.

    For ths majority, it is possible to distinguish grammatically correct from grammatically incorrect sentences. There is also a subset of language that is grammatically incorrect but still considered acceptable through common usage. This subset is context dependent, and is larger for conversational English and fiction than for, say, college essays.

    There are also sentences that do not fit the formal grammar, but don't violate any formal grammar rules either, As I said earlier, the formal grammar for English is incomplete, and always will be. This is partly due to the fact that English, like other spoken languages, is a context-sensitive grammar, which means the parse cannot be determined uniquely for all sentential forms.

    This much language theory is well beyond the scope of discussion of a writing forum, and yet falls far short of the more advanced theories behind linguistics. I'm not a linguistics expert, although I do know a fair amount about the mathematics discipline of formal language theory.

    So if you don't fully understand what defines correct vs incorrect English, don't feel bad. It's theoretically impossible in the general case, and can be fuzzy even to the experts for some specific constructs.
     
  25. Warde
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    Warde Member

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    Well, we could always go the way of the French and have an official language regulating body (L'Académie Française).

    More seriously, its a difficult balance. There is much to be said for languages regulated by common usage as, after all, if a grammatical format is used and understood then it is serving its purpose. On the other hand, languages regulated solely by common usage have a tendency to split into moderately distinct dialects and there is also something to be said for maintaining an official "correct" version as this helps with ease of communication across a broader spectrum of speakers.
     

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