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  1. #1
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    Default plural reference of the pronoun?

    hello there!

    I can't understand why this sentence is correct...
    are you able to explain the use?

    if anybody calls tell them to phone later...

    or

    the author describes themselves as a poor man...

    thanks in advance

  2. #2
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    Default Re: plural reference of the pronoun?

    I just had an argument about this on another message board.

    The third-person plural pronoun is sometimes used with a singular meaning when you don't know if the antecedent is male or female. (The "antecedent" is the thing the pronoun refers to; in your first sentence it's "anybody", in your second sentence it's "the author".)

    This is one technique used for avoiding the so-called "generic he". In the past, it was common to use "he" or "him" if you didn't know whether the person was male or female, but this is now considered by many to be politically incorrect.

    The problem with using "they" or "them" is that it breaks the rules of grammar. It's not so bad when the antecedent is a word like "anyone" or "someone" or "nobody", so your first sentence sounds OK to many people. However, most people -- including most language experts -- would find your second sentence to be unnatural or even unacceptable. However, since the sentence continues to describe the author as a man, there's no need to avoid the "generic he" -- the author is a man, and we know that.

    This use of they/them has been recorded since the 14th century, and was quite common in the 19th; however, it was replaced by the "generic he". That's why many people will complain about this new, modern use of they/them, even though it's actually very old.

    Other techniques of avoiding the generic he include:

    writing "he or she" (but that sounds clumsy)
    writing "he/she" or "(s)he" (but how do you pronounce it?)
    using the plural instead (but that's not always possible)

    The last technique is the most elegant. Instead of saying, for example, "Every pupil must do his/her/their homework", you can say, "All pupils must do their homework", and everyone is happy. (Except the pupils, of course.)

    But this is not always possible, for example: "We are looking for a new Sales Manager. ?????? must be flexible, hard-working..." This may be one reason so many adverts for jobs are written in the second person: "You are flexible, hard-working..."

  3. #3
    Tdol is offline Editor, UsingEnglish.com
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    Default Re: plural reference of the pronoun?

    It does break the rule of number, but I feel that politeness is more important than simple number- the French, among others, use a plural pronoun to show politeness, so it's a common enough process. Number is not used consistently in English anyway, so I am happy using the plural with a singular reference.

  4. #4
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    Default Re: plural reference of the pronoun?

    I've had this discussion several times, and I think it probably boils down to whether you tend towards the prescriptive or descriptive school of linguistics - whether you a first or third edition Fowler man, perhaps.

    I am very much in the latter camp, and I deliberately use "they/them" as a sex-neutral singular pronoun for that reason. It's generally understood, it's useful and I cannot think of an occasion where it causes ambiguity. Those are powerful arguments. I much prefer it to the new trend in technical writing for deliberately using female pronouns for generic cases as a 'safe option'.

  5. #5
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    Default Re: plural reference of the pronoun?

    I agree with you- replacing the male with the female doesn't seem to do anything to solve the issue.

  6. #6
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    Default Re: plural reference of the pronoun?

    Even worse, I feel, is deliberately alternating between male and female.

  7. #7
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    Default Re: plural reference of the pronoun?

    There was also that ill-fated attempt to create new pronouns like 'shim'.

  8. #8
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    Default Re: plural reference of the pronoun?

    . . . or gender consonantalectomy. :laugh:

    them : 'em : : he, she : 'e

    EX: If anyone calls, tell 'e to phone later.

  9. #9
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    Default Re: plural reference of the pronoun?

    thank you very much!!!!

    your answers give me really a good explanation and now it's all clear for me

    kind regards

    lupita

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