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March 11, 2008


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I face this problem almost every day. There are ways around it almost every time. The idea is to get away from the singular, so the gender specific he/she thing doesn't come up. This is not that a big a challenge.

And if it's absolutely necessary, "he or she" is not dreadful a construction.

We're not talking here about accepting lack of agreement in number between pronoun subjects and verbs; that rule isn't disappearing for the sake of establishing a third-person neutral. We're talking about instituting (only sophists would call it reinstituting; language just used to be more open to individual vagaries--since noone could control it anyway, remember we've only had dictionaries for 160 years--so you can find excellent examples of almost anything) a new word, the singular 'they'.

The real problem is the functional failure of 'one' and 'one's'. Instead, we get not just 'they'--which really only has wide usage in the possessive--but 'you' and 'we'; everybody pitches in. (When a woman tells me "you can't get Light Days at most supermarkets anymore" I don't really think she expects that I've also been looking.)

I've never seen a singular 'they', and I don't think it's that I'm not widely read enough (well, I'm not, just ask my agent, but one knows what I meant). Maybe it's just that I live in Berkeley, but the solution I see most often (and use myself) is 'she/he' and 'he/she' (I like to try to randomly mix them up, but I also consider it appropriate for you--see, isn't that better than 'one'--to to start with your (and better than 'one's?) own gender. If I had my druthers, I'd see a lot more of 's/he', which I use in informal writing. I don't see a singular 'they' prevailing--I think we'll end up with some 'she/he' type solution for subjective, 'her/him' (how 'bout 'herm'?) for objective, with 'their' (both plural and singular, like 'your') for possessive.

The use of "they" with a morphosyntactically singular antecedent has been part of written English for 500 years. I'm skeptical that Dave Blake has never encountered it. Here are many examples:

The rule that pronouns must agree with their antecedents (I assume that's what Dave Blake is referring to) was created in the 18th century as a reaction to "they" used as a common-gender and common-number pronoun. In fact, pronouns do not always agree with their antecedents in number or gender - for instance the French reflexive pronoun "se".

I don't think the question is "when will singular they become part of English." It's "when will the people who don't like it make it unnacceptable."

Our whole pronoun system is a mess. Blow the thing up and start over!

While I am OK with "s/he", it would require Microsoft and others to come up with a "sticky slash" so we don't have lines ending with a slash (or virgule, or whatever you want).

Tim Hicks wrote:
> While I am OK with "s/he", it would require Microsoft and others
> to come up with a "sticky slash".

Geez, and for years I've been writing Quark to get them to give us an alternate slash that WILL break.

I came across this instruction for a list of multiple choice questions in the third edition of " English Grammar in Use" by Raymond Murphy,
Cambridge Press : " Which form of the verb is correct or more natural in these sentences?"
My first reaction was to pump my fist like Tiger Woods sinking an eagle put. Now that's what I call common sense English!
"A voter should be as objective as they can." They, seems to fit nicely. However, it isn't clear if this instruction was also meant for the entire book and if so ,more natural to whom?
Then there is the political side of the coin. I just came out of a training workshop where we were told that we should use , they, so as not to be gender specfic in the same way that we say ,police officer, rather than policewoman or policeman. It makes sense, if your not filling out an SAT ! Nick

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