Jach's personal blog

(Largely containing a mind-dump to myselves: past, present, and future)
Current favorite quote: "Supposedly smart people are weirdly ignorant of Bayes' Rule." William B Vogt, 2010

Use of the gender-neutral singular pronoun "they"

I like using "they" to designate some gender-neutral singular person, and instead of listening to the old farts who claim that one should never use it, I say use it more, or use a different language. It just doesn't make sense to use "it" when talking about a person, or "he" (or the politically correct "he or she" or "she or he" or "s/he") in English, where our nouns don't have genders. In languages like French where nouns do have genders, it makes sense to only use "he" or "she". "One" is for generalities, not specifics, in the same sense that one might use "we" in a general sense. (I would support a completely different word to designate a gender-neutral singular pronoun person, by the way, but I haven't seen one that sounds nice enough.)

In French, each noun is either masculine or feminine, thus when you use a pronoun, it too must be masculine or feminine to match that which it replaces. They don't have an "it", and you use different pronouns depending on whether you're talking about an object or a person. You use different ones depending on if the noun is singular or plural.

So if English had gendered nouns, I'd buy the argument that we should use "he" or "she"when talking about a pronoun that's a person, but not a very specific one, such as "student". You could argue that using "they" muddies the language because then you're using "they" for both singular gender-neutral and for plural anything, but that's like saying that sloshing some sewage from the animals into a human outhouse's pit muddies the pit. English is already so dirty that a little more won't hurt anything.

Of course in very formal writing one should avoid such things like "they" and "you" and the passive voice, because in formal writing you're attempting to conform to some form, and the prominent grammar-universities tell us what those forms are (and you can bet that they're never "casual", "modern" looking or sounding, though sometimes they have good arguments). If English had more of a natural form to it, as French seems to, then I would write more formally more often. This is one of the reasons French sounds nice: their rules come from the strict Latin, then altered a bit to make it sound nicer. Formal and pleasing to the ear? What a deal!

Posted on 2009-06-12 by Jach

Tags: grammar


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Jach February 06, 2011 02:42:07 AM I get worried my comment system isn't working all the time. Test.
Jach February 07, 2011 11:24:49 AM What the. Another test.
Test again February 07, 2011 11:25:25 AM Blaaaah.
Anonymous February 07, 2011 11:26:28 AM Oh! It doesn't send me an alert email if -I- posted. I remember coding that now.
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