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  1. #1
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    Default They - singular reference

    Hi teachers,


    This one cropped up in a grammar exercise recently. I now have many 10 year olds confused and it's opened a can of worms to be honest!!!!!!!!

    What is the teacher going to do now? (no reference to male or female)

    They are going to teach English.

    Is this ok? Plenty of reference to it in 'Practical English Usage' but usually with specific pronouns such as anybody etc etc.

    Wondered what you all thought.

    Regards


    Mak

  2. #2
    Tdol is offline Editor, UsingEnglish.com
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    Default Re: They - singular reference

    It's fine by me- it's the form I use. Orther people may use he or he or she.

  3. #3
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    Default Re: They - singular reference

    Hi,
    In practice there's no need to clash the subject and the predicate, there are lots of ways to express your ideas grammatically peacefully. I'd say it's a storm in a teacup.

  4. #4
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    Default Re: They - singular reference

    Quote Originally Posted by makaveli View Post
    Hi teachers,


    This one cropped up in a grammar exercise recently. I now have many 10 year olds confused and it's opened a can of worms to be honest!!!!!!!!

    What is the teacher going to do now? (no reference to male or female)

    They are going to teach English.

    Is this ok? Plenty of reference to it in 'Practical English Usage' but usually with specific pronouns such as anybody etc etc.

    Wondered what you all thought.

    Regards


    Mak

    Good question!

    Personally I hate the unisex 'they', except when it follows somebody/anybody.

    I see it as an unacceptable distortion of the language for no better purpose than to avoid using the unisex 'he'. What makes it worse is that, as Humble says, there are better ways to avoid it. The easiest way is by making the whole thing plural so it all matches.

    Using examples from Practical English Usage:

    'When a person gets married, they have to start thinking about their responsibilities'

    Wouldn't that sentence be better if 'a person' were replaced by the plural 'people'?


    'If a student is ill, he or she must send a medical certificate to the college office.'

    'Students who are ill must send a medical certificate to the college office.'


    'A doctor can't do a good job if he doesn't like people'

    'Doctors can't do a good job if they don't like people.'


    If that doesn't work, re-arranging the sentence does.

    'If I ever find the person who did that, I'll kill him'

    'If I ever find who it was, I'll kill the person who did that'


    Your example

    'What is the teacher going to do now?'

    'The teacher is going to teach English.'

    or, as the subject is already known

    'Teach English'

  5. #5
    Tdol is offline Editor, UsingEnglish.com
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    Default Re: They - singular reference

    I see no problem with it at all- I can't see why the politeness principle cannot take precendence over number, just as it does with 'vous' in French and many other languages. Simply counting things will often give the wrong answer- why does 'everybody', which clearly has a plural reference, take a singular verb? It is an issue people get worked up about, but it doesn't trouble me in the slightest.

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    Default Re: They - singular reference

    Quote Originally Posted by Tdol View Post
    I see no problem with it at all- I can't see why the politeness principle cannot take precendence over number, just as it does with 'vous' in French and many other languages. Simply counting things will often give the wrong answer- why does 'everybody', which clearly has a plural reference, take a singular verb? It is an issue people get worked up about, but it doesn't trouble me in the slightest.
    Looks like a point of view thing.

    I don't see it as politeness, more a form of political correctness taken to extremes. Traditionally, in British English at least, 'he', 'him' or 'man' was genderless, because 'mankind' was genderless. A phrase like 'chairman' meant 'chair-human' rather than 'chair-male'.

    Now, in the name of PC, we are urged to talk about 'chairperson' etc. I see the use of a plural pronoun to refer to a single item in the same light.

    If you feel it is polite, what is wrong with going plural all the way, or rephrasing to avoid the pronoun?

  7. #7
    riverkid is offline Banned
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    Default Re: They - singular reference

    Quote Originally Posted by Andrew Whitehead View Post
    Looks like a point of view thing.
    I don't see it as politeness, more a form of political correctness taken to extremes. Traditionally, in British English at least, 'he', 'him' or 'man' was genderless, because 'mankind' was genderless. A phrase like 'chairman' meant 'chair-human' rather than 'chair-male'.

    That, in traditional grammar was the argument, but that's simply because the traditional argument was flawed, Andrew. A solution that asks people to avoid natural collocations is not a linguistic solution at all; it is a prescriptive solution meant to cover, again, a badly flawed rule.

    Now, in the name of PC, we are urged to talk about 'chairperson' etc. I see the use of a plural pronoun to refer to a single item in the same light.
    If you feel it is polite, what is wrong with going plural all the way, or rephrasing to avoid the pronoun?
    The mistake being made is that it is not a single item at all. It's clear that the reference being made in situations such as this are, notionally, plural referents. Since meaning is the most important thing for language to convey, insistence on following badly thought out grammar rules serves no good purpose at all.

    These are not bound dependencies like,

    He gave me his pen.

    where the referent is clear. These are unbounded dependencies, a different grammatical animal.


    What is the teacher going to do now? (no reference to male or female)

    They are going to teach English.


    Even without knowing the actual full context here, we can easily envision a situation where this doesn't refer to a specific teacher. It could refer to any teacher who might fill this generic situation.

    No one has any problem with 'you' filling the bill to describe a single person or a generic you to discuss a number of unspecified people. So it is with this distinct form of 'they/them/their'.

    The 'he/him/his' rule was never a satisfactory answer to these situations. It was, like many prescriptions foisted upon students by unthinking teachers. One good test for a grammar rule, if it is a real grammar rule, is that it works. This one has failed that test miserably.

  8. #8
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    Default Re: They - singular reference

    Quote Originally Posted by Andrew Whitehead View Post
    Looks like a point of view thing.
    I don't see it as politeness, more a form of political correctness taken to extremes. Traditionally, in British English at least, 'he', 'him' or 'man' was genderless, because 'mankind' was genderless. A phrase like 'chairman' meant 'chair-human' rather than 'chair-male'.

    Now, in the name of PC, we are urged to talk about 'chairperson' etc. I see the use of a plural pronoun to refer to a single item in the same light.[/quote]

    I agree it is a point of view thing. Unfortunately, we have a bit of a mess as a result, with so many academic and other books having to explain pronoun usage before they start.

    With 'chairman', many women call themselves chairmen, so it does seem that there is an element of genderlessness to many with that word. However, there are others who use 'chairwoman'. 'Chair' is a way of skirting around the problem. As with many things, language is responding to social changes and it can get a bit messy.

    Quote Originally Posted by Andrew Whitehead View Post
    If you feel it is polite, what is wrong with going plural all the way, or rephrasing to avoid the pronoun?
    Rephrasing's fine, though as I instinctively use the plural, I don't notice myself doing it. In fact, when I have taught academic writing to non-native law students, I have found that I have to make a very conscious effort to use 'he', which is still very much the accepted form in that subject.

    I am not sure what you mean about 'going plural all the way'.

    One example of an absurdity I have seen raised was over 'when a woman has their baby', which was criticised for obvious reasons. Even this one, though a little strange, doesn't bother me greatly.

  9. #9
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    Default Re: They - singular reference

    I agree it is a point of view thing. Unfortunately, we have a bit of a mess as a result, with so many academic and other books having to explain pronoun usage before they start.
    Yes, it is a bit of a mess. It irks me particularly because I am very much a traditionalist when it comes to grammar. I refuse to start sentences with conjunctions, and I even avoid ending sentences with prepositions even though modern grammar books insist that both of these are okay.

    I am not sure what you mean about 'going plural all the way'.
    I mean using a plural noun to match the plural pronoun.

    'A doctor can't do a good job if they don't like people'

    'Doctors can't do a good job if they don't like people.'


    that's simply because the traditional argument was flawed, Andrew
    Flawed in what way?


    It's clear that the reference being made in situations such as this are, notionally, plural referents.
    Not at all. "A person getting married" is one person. "If a student is ill" is one student. "A doctor" is one doctor.


    insistence on following badly thought out grammar rules serves no good purpose at all.
    Using a plural pronoun when referring to a singular noun seems to be an extremely badly thought out grammar rule. Where is the logic in it, or even the necessity for it?


    Even without knowing the actual full context here, we can easily envision a situation where this doesn't refer to a specific teacher.
    "The teacher" is clearly one, specific teacher.


    No one has any problem with 'you' filling the bill to describe a single person or a generic you to discuss a number of unspecified people. So it is with this distinct form of 'they/them/their'.
    You is second person, those people are present when you speak and know whether they are alone or a crowd. There is no need to differentiate between single or plural.

    'They' is third person, 'they' are not present when you speak, so the listener/reader needs to be told whether there there is one person/item (he, she, it) or several.

    Using 'they' as a one-size-fits-all answer needlessly reduces this clarity without offering any compensatory benefits.


    The 'he/him/his' rule was never a satisfactory answer to these situations.
    Why not?


    One good test for a grammar rule, if it is a real grammar rule, is that it works. This one has failed that test miserably.
    It worked well enough for around 400 years, until political correctness became fashionable.

  10. #10
    riverkid is offline Banned
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    Default Re: They - singular reference

    Quote Originally Posted by Andrew Whitehead View Post

    Flawed in what way?
    Flawed in the way that all other prescriptive rules, like the ones you mentioned, are flawed. They didn't represent the manner in which English works when they were written and they don't today. They are simply repeated by teachers without giving any thought to how English actually works.

    Andrew Whitehead
    Not at all. "A person getting married" is one person. "If a student is ill" is one student. "A doctor" is one doctor.

    Using a plural pronoun when referring to a singular noun seems to be an extremely badly thought out grammar rule. Where is the logic in it, or even the necessity for it?


    "The teacher" is clearly one, specific teacher.
    If you think about this for a moment, you'll realize that this is not true. "A person getting married" is a generic reference to any person getting married.

    "A person getting married must have a blood test. He can take his blood test at ..."

    Note how silly this sounds when we use the purported generic 'he'. It sounds silly because the referent does not envision one single male getting married but a host of people, at least half of which would be female.


    Andrew Whitehead
    You is second person, those people are present when you speak and know whether they are alone or a crowd. There is no need to differentiate between single or plural.

    'They' is third person, 'they' are not present when you speak, so the listener/reader needs to be told whether there there is one person/item (he, she, it) or several.

    Using 'they' as a one-size-fits-all answer needlessly reduces this clarity without offering any compensatory benefits.
    We often speak of the plural/generic 'you' when they're not around and there's no confusion. The confusion argument is bogus, Andrew. That's never been raised because there's never any misunderstanding. The prescriptive complaint has always been that a supposedly plural pronoun is being matched with a supposedly singular referent.


    riverkid:
    The 'he/him/his' rule was never a satisfactory answer to these situations.
    Andrew Whitehead
    Why not?
    Because, as I showed above, it is an inaccurate usage, concocted by folks who failed to look closely enough at language.

    "Everyone brought his towel. He carried them to the showers."

    Here's a prime example of how following this silly rule produces nothing but confusion. Even in the first sentence, we don't know if all these people together carried one towel or their own. Did 'he' participate in the carry; it's hard to tell. It sounds like he wasn't involved or he got involved at the "carrying them to the shower" stage.

    If generic 'he' was the fine answer that it's claimed to be, then it'd work well in the second sentence but as you see, it creates a bigger schmozzle.

    When we use the proper pronouns, everything is crystal clear.

    "Everyone brought their towel. They carried them to the showers."


    riverkid:
    One good test for a grammar rule, if it is a real grammar rule, is that it works. This one has failed that test miserably.
    Andrew Whitehead
    It worked well enough for around 400 years, until political correctness became fashionable.
    It never worked well. It, like all the other prescriptions, has been and is routinely ignored by users of the language. It actually isn't a matter of political correctness, Andrew. It's simply that the powers that were, the ones who concocted the "rule", were linguistically naive.

    Here's a link that may help you see the actual picture;

    Singular "their" in Jane Austen and elsewhere: Anti-pedantry page
    Last edited by riverkid; 02-Mar-2007 at 22:34.

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