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  • Some notes on singular they

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martyr@suddenlink.net Sep 15, 2015 8:55 am

My favorite topic!  My own personal justification for "singular" they when the referent is unknown is that, since we do not know the sex of the person, this creates in the mind a "duality" or "pluralness" to which "they" applies just as if the referent were actually plural.  I realize this is just my own idiosyncrasy, but I like it <g>.

Reply to martyr@suddenlink.net at 8:55 am
anderson.virginia9@gmail.com Sep 15, 2015 9:39 am

I shared this post, as well as the earlier post on pronouns, at my blog, www.justcanthelpwriting.wordpress.com. I was interested in "rules" that writers might risk ignoring, and singular "they" was on my list. Lots of reaction, mostly in agreement, though some of us struggle with our purist instincts. The question of how acceptance of singular "they" might play out among gender-fluid communities also came up. I recommend Kimberly Drake's piece in The Writing Instructor as an interesting discussion of that issue, especially at institutions like women's colleges where gender identity has  historically been important. My summary of Drake's article is at my other blog, www.collegecompositionweekly.com, and can be read at http://tinyurl.com/qeovhu3. Thanks for an interesting discussion!

P.S., your site promises I can log in to comment through Facebook or Google, but I always get error messages when I try. I can successfully log in using my gmail account, but I wonder if there is some setting that affects the ability to use the other channels. Thanks!

Reply to anderson.virginia9@gmail.com at 9:39 am
skubenka@email.com Sep 15, 2015 10:59 am

"Commentators have long observed that English lacks a common-gender third-person singular pronoun—of all the personal pronouns, only he and she express gender. It, though ungendered, typically refers to things and animals, rarely to people."

You completely ignore "one." And beside using "one," every one of the example sentaences can be (and should be) rewritten, making the singular "they" or the gender specific unnecessary.

"If a student wants to change major, they should contact an advisor."

or

If a student wants to change major, one should contact an advisor.

better

Wishing to change major, a student should contact an advisor.

------------------------------------------

"Everyone loves their mother."

or

All love their mothers.

or

Mothers are loved by all.

---------------------------

"Carol prefers their burger medium rare."

or

Carol prefers a burger medium rare.

--------------------------------------

It's really quite easy to recontruct a sentence to avoid the use of the singular "they" or the use of gender references.  These shortcuts seem to me invariably lazy.

 

Reply to skubenka@email.com at 10:59 am
trodefer@sbcglobal.net doneck@alum.mit.eduSep 28, 2015 2:46 am

A number of writers use the singular they.

But number is singular, so

A number of writers uses the singular they.

Aargh!

Right! There's a problem with the rule that the subject of a sentence can't be within the prepositional phrase. Unfortunately, there have to be exceptions to make sense in certain circumstances. I forget the sentence that got me here, but it's similar to "A number of students raise their hands." Here, though, "number" is implied to be plural, so the subject isn't in the phrase. "Number" is sort of the equivalent of "bunch." If by "number" the implication isn't two or more, then it has to mean "one." You wouldn't use "number" to indicate one. You'd say "One student raises his hand" (if you knew it was a boy) or "her hand" (if you knew it was a girl). Or even the following choices: "A boy raises his hand." "One boy raises his hand." "A girl raises her hand." "One girl raises her hand." I personally detest the use of "they" for a singular reference, but especially so when the reference is clearly named female or male: "If even one boy raises their hand, the vote is lost." There's no excuse for not using "his hand" here. Laziness from so much use of "their" in indefinite cases results in the usage even when the subject's sex is known. I hear that kind of thing constantly on the radio. And radio audiences use the language they hear from announcers or talk show hosts. It's no wonder this usage gets anchored among English speakers. C'mon, lovers of our language...pledge to make communication exact as possible!!

Reply to trodefer@sbcglobal.net at 2:46 am
hypatia08@gmail.com skubenka@email.comSep 28, 2015 9:25 am

"Commentators have long observed that English lacks a common-gender third-person singular pronoun—of all the personal pronouns, only he and she express gender. It, though ungendered, typically refers to things and animals, rarely to people."

You completely ignore "one." And beside using "one," every one of the example sentaences can be (and should be) rewritten, making the singular "they" or the gender specific unnecessary.

"If a student wants to change major, they should contact an advisor."

or

If a student wants to change major, one should contact an advisor.

better

Wishing to change major, a student should contact an advisor.

------------------------------------------

"Everyone loves their mother."

or

All love their mothers.

or

Mothers are loved by all.

---------------------------

"Carol prefers their burger medium rare."

or

Carol prefers a burger medium rare.

--------------------------------------

It's really quite easy to recontruct a sentence to avoid the use of the singular "they" or the use of gender references.  These shortcuts seem to me invariably lazy.

 

Using the passive to compensate for lack of a neutral 3rd personal singular drags with it all the well-known faults of the passive voice.  This is not the solution.  I'd rather stay with the inadequate "they" than dull my active expression by reverting to passive.

 

Reply to hypatia08@gmail.com at 9:25 am