Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Thursday, July 30, 2009

he, she, they

I’ve come across a number of articles lately — here and here and here, for instance — arguing that it’s perfectly correct to use “they” as a generic singular pronoun. I find these arguments compelling, and indeed have long noticed that the British exercise more freedom in this matter than Americans do. But . . . I can't do it myself. Just can't. I’ve spent too many years thinking it wrong and doing the “he or she” thing to change now.

On the other hand, it’s nice to think that I have one less common error to correct when I’m reading my students’ papers.

6 comments:

  • There's nothing to debate; they and their are plural pronouns. They cannot be used to refer to singular nouns. And it is not and has never been some grand injustice to ask people to use "he or she" or "his or her".

  • I've been keeping up on this debate (see http://askchaka.blogspot.com/2009/07/whats-twitter-good-for.html), but I hadn't read Mark Liberman's posts. Fascinating. Have you looked at Anatoly Liberman's article, though (http://blog.oup.com/2008/10/anatolyliberman-plurals/)? I don't know that any of Mark's examples meet Anatoly's challenge.

  • Michael Straight said...

    Sheesh. Here I thought you were living in the 21st century. I suppose you still have trouble using "you" instead of "thou"?

    Singular they is even older than the shift from thou to you. Check out that quote from the Deuteronomy 17:5 in the KJV. God said it, I believe it, and that settles it.

  • Michael Straight said...

    But seriously, this is the real issue (from the comments at one of the language log sites):

    It's good to know that Austen used the construction a lot, and that it shows up in the KJV, but but what I may want to know is whether it'll bother the reviewers of my grant proposal, and that depends on how often they're used to seeing it in grant proposals. I just saw it in a conference paper I was reading, and it jumped out at me — I really don't think it's established itself as commonplace in that kind of writing.

    Know your audience and speak their language.

  • Michael Straight said...

    Crud. I guess I did the html wrong. I was quoting this:

    It's good to know that Austen used the construction a lot, and that it shows up in the KJV, but but what I may want to know is whether it'll bother the reviewers of my grant proposal, and that depends on how often they're used to seeing it in grant proposals. I just saw it in a conference paper I was reading, and it jumped out at me — I really don't think it's established itself as commonplace in that kind of writing.

  • Alan Jacobs said...

    Sorry about the HTML, Michael, which is limited in the best of circumstances — and the comboxes are still asking for email addresses, aren't they? — though I was told that they wouldn't. I'll get an update when I can, and hope for a quick transfer to a better blogging platform.

    Thanks for the great links, Chaka.

Post a Comment

[Basic HTML tags can be used in this comment field.]