they in place of he/she

Status
Not open for further replies.

jctgf

Key Member
Joined
Oct 27, 2007
Member Type
Student or Learner
Native Language
Portuguese
Home Country
Tuvalu
Current Location
Tuvalu
"He/she can apply for the position at any time"
"He/she are not allowed to enter if they are not properly dressed"

Hi,
In sentences like this, when I do not know the gender of the subject, I use “he/she" as the subject.
A friend told me that I could use "they" instead of "he/she".
I think it is a little weird because, by doing so, I am changing the subject from singular to plural, right?
I would like to know how correct is this hint and if there are situations where I should use "he/she" instead of "they".
Thanks.

thanks.
 

etmichel

Member
Joined
Mar 15, 2008
Member Type
Other
I'm not a teacher but if you don't know the gender that means you speak about people in general and not one person in particular (in this case you should know if it's a man,woman or guess it). So what's the context of your sentence ? I would personaly use another word, such as "Candidates can apply for the position at any time" or "Guests are not allowed..."

"He/she can apply for the position at any time"
"He/she are not allowed to enter if they are not properly dressed"

Hi,
In sentences like this, when I do not know the gender of the subject, I use “he/she" as the subject.
A friend told me that I could use "they" instead of "he/she".
I think it is a little weird because, by doing so, I am changing the subject from singular to plural, right?
I would like to know how correct is this hint and if there are situations where I should use "he/she" instead of "they".
Thanks.

thanks.
 

riverkid

Banned
Joined
Aug 17, 2006
Member Type
English Teacher
"He/she can apply for the position at any time"
"He/she are not allowed to enter if they are not properly dressed"

Hi,
In sentences like this, when I do not know the gender of the subject, I use “he/she" as the subject.
A friend told me that I could use "they" instead of "he/she".
I think it is a little weird because, by doing so, I am changing the subject from singular to plural, right?
I would like to know how correct is this hint and if there are situations where I should use "he/she" instead of "they".
Thanks.

thanks.

EtMichel is right that these are situations where we mean people in general. English has a number of words that normally fill these types of situations, JC.

"Anyone/People can apply for the position at any time."

"No one is allowed to enter if they are not properly dressed."
 

stuartnz

Senior Member
Joined
Mar 16, 2008
Member Type
Other
Native Language
English
Home Country
New Zealand
Current Location
New Zealand
I'm not a professional teacher of English, but I do have a dilettante's passion for it. The use of "they" as a gender-neutral third person singular pronoun is very well established in English. It has been used in this way for at least the last five hundred years. Nevertheless, there are many people who are strongly opposed to the practice, and they tend to express themselves very forcefully, condemning the practice as "wrong", and often contemning those who do use "they" in this way.

There are many well-written articles about this at Language Log, a blog on linguistics. Here's a list of some of them and here's a summary page.
 

jctgf

Key Member
Joined
Oct 27, 2007
Member Type
Student or Learner
Native Language
Portuguese
Home Country
Tuvalu
Current Location
Tuvalu
I'm not a professional teacher of English, but I do have a dilettante's passion for it. The use of "they" as a gender-neutral third person singular pronoun is very well established in English. It has been used in this way for at least the last five hundred years. Nevertheless, there are many people who are strongly opposed to the practice, and they tend to express themselves very forcefully, condemning the practice as "wrong", and often contemning those who do use "they" in this way.

There are many well-written articles about this at Language Log, a blog on linguistics. Here's a list of some of them and here's a summary page.

hi,
could you provide some examples, please?
thanks a lot.
 

stuartnz

Senior Member
Joined
Mar 16, 2008
Member Type
Other
Native Language
English
Home Country
New Zealand
Current Location
New Zealand
There's not a man I meet but doth salute me / As if I were their well-acquainted friend — Shakespeare, The Comedy of Errors, Act IV, Scene 3 (1594)

[SIZE=-1] And whoso findeth him out of swich blame, They wol come up and offre in Goddes name[/SIZE] - Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales

See also the Wikipedia article.
 

riverkid

Banned
Joined
Aug 17, 2006
Member Type
English Teacher
Nevertheless, there are many people who are strongly opposed to the practice, and they tend to express themselves very forcefully, condemning the practice as "wrong", and often contemning those who do use "they" in this way.

Good day, Stuart.

I've never been much concerned about these people, even ones that express themselves forcefully. Ask them to explain and beyond "It's wrong", they're lost. Why? Because it's perfectly natural English.

Ask them if they use 'you' as both a plural and a singular and they beat a hasty retreat.

I've often wondered why it would ever even be suggested that these prescriptivists should be able to wield any influence at all considering that their arguments consist of nothing more than raising their voices and stamping their feet.

The prescription against singular 'they/their'them' was/is as nonsensical as the split infinitive prescription.

In one of the discussions from the Language Log, Professor Pullum drives this point home;

"And of course singular they will be with us forever, regardless of Supreme Court appeals, and in defiance of a century of prescriptivist blowhards like the Fowler brothers."

Language Log: The next president and their pronoun gender

Here's a discussion on this issue, JC.

Language Log: The next president and their pronoun gender

And another;

Sometimes an alleged grammatical "error" is logical not only in the sense of "rational," but in the sense of respecting distinctions made by the logician. Consider this alleged barbarism: Everyone returned to their seats.

If anyone calls, tell them I can't come to the phone.

No one should have to sell their home to pay for medical care.

The mavens [prescriptive grammarians] explain: [everyone] means [every one], a singular subject, which may not serve as the antecedent of a plural pronoun like [them] later in the sentence. "Everyone returned to [his] seat," they insist. "If anyone calls, tell [him] I can't come to the phone."

If you were the target of these lessons, you might be getting a bit uncomfortable. [Everyone returned to his seat] makes it sound like Bruce Springsteen was discovered during intermission to be in the audience, and everyone rushed back and converged on his seat to await an autograph. If there is a good chance that a caller may be female, it is odd to ask one's roommate to tell [him] anything (even if you are not among the people who get upset about "sexist language").

Such feelings of disquiet -- a red flag to any serious linguist -- are well-founded. The logical point that everyone but the language mavens intuitively grasps is that [everyone] and [they] are not an antecedent and a pronoun referring to the same person in the world, which would force them to agree in number. They are a "quantifier" and a "bound variable," a different logical relationship.

[CONTINUED AT:]

http://pinker.wjh.harvard.edu/articles/media/1994_01_24_thenewrepublic.html

Use Crtl F to locate this discussion within the larger article.
 

stuartnz

Senior Member
Joined
Mar 16, 2008
Member Type
Other
Native Language
English
Home Country
New Zealand
Current Location
New Zealand
Riverkid, I'm not concerned about the sort of people who get antsy about "they" as a singular epicene pronoun either, nor am I concerned about them when they rant about splitting infinitives or ending sentences with prepositions, etc. I simply mention the existence of such prescriptivists as a warning to those just starting to learn English that they can expect some people to tell them that these perfectly normal usages are wrong. I think of it as a public service, akin to saying "don't worry about the grumpy lady next door who yells at you to stay off your own lawn".
 
Last edited:

riverkid

Banned
Joined
Aug 17, 2006
Member Type
English Teacher
Riverkid, I'm not concerned about the sort of people who get antsy about "they" as a singular epicene pronoun either, nor am I concerned about them when they rant about splitting infinitives or ending sentences with prepositions, etc. I simply mention the existence of such prescriptivists as a warning to those just starting to learn English that they can expect some people to tell them that these perfectly normal usages are wrong. I think of it as a public service, akin to saying "don't worry about the grumpy lady next door who yells at you to stay off your own lawn".

You're just the kind of people that this site, and language in general, needs, Stuart. :)

[Probably won't be readily accepted all that soon.]

Oh, thanks for the great links!
 

jctgf

Key Member
Joined
Oct 27, 2007
Member Type
Student or Learner
Native Language
Portuguese
Home Country
Tuvalu
Current Location
Tuvalu
hi,
My concern is about sentences like "No one should have to sell their home to pay for medical care".
How to write this kind of sentence without using the "singular they"? As a student, I have already been advised about the excessive usage of "he/she"...
Besides, isn't this a less elegant solution?
thanks,
jc
 

riverkid

Banned
Joined
Aug 17, 2006
Member Type
English Teacher
hi,
My concern is about sentences like "No one should have to sell their home to pay for medical care".
How to write this kind of sentence without using the "singular they"? As a student, I have already been advised about the excessive usage of "he/she"...
Besides, isn't this a less elegant solution?
thanks,
jc

You shouldn't have to sell your home to pay for medical care.

Is this any different, JC? Is it less elegant? Are 'you/your' singular or plural?

Sometimes, in language we want to discuss general situations where we're not referring to one person in particular but to any number of people who fall into the parameters of the discussion.

Just because words like 'everyone' takes a singular verb form doesn't mean that they are actually singular in nature.

What is inelegant was the prescription demanding the use of 'he/him/his'.

In contrast, the choice among he, she, it and they is part of a natural order, developed spontaneously by millions of speakers, hearers, writers and readers. Languages with no writing system also develop systems of this kind -- and with or without writing, no experts are needed in order to create the set of shared assumptions that foster communication.

Language Log: "Singular they" mailbag
 

stuartnz

Senior Member
Joined
Mar 16, 2008
Member Type
Other
Native Language
English
Home Country
New Zealand
Current Location
New Zealand
hi,
My concern is about sentences like "No one should have to sell their home to pay for medical care".
How to write this kind of sentence without using the "singular they"? As a student, I have already been advised about the excessive usage of "he/she"...
Besides, isn't this a less elegant solution?
thanks,
jc

"Elegant" is a subjective term, but if you measure elegance by economy of phrasing and clarity of meaning, then using "they/their" in this sort of sentence would definitely be more elegant that "he/she" or "his or her". As riverkid mentioned, and the articles referred to expand on, there is no valid objection to "they" as a singular epicene pronoun. Not only is there nothing wrong with it, its use is growing, and the howls of outrage against its use are diminishing. Even though teaching English is something I do only part-time for minimal reimbursement, I do work in a field that requires clear and unambiguous language use, and in such settings, "they" wins hands down. If somebody tells you otherwise, tell them that they are mistaken. :)
 

jctgf

Key Member
Joined
Oct 27, 2007
Member Type
Student or Learner
Native Language
Portuguese
Home Country
Tuvalu
Current Location
Tuvalu
hi,
I think I was misunderstood: if I had to vote for one of the candidates, I would for the "singular they".
thanks.
 

NearThere

Member
Joined
Feb 22, 2008
Member Type
Student or Learner
Native Language
Chinese
Home Country
Taiwan
Current Location
United States
Thanks for the fantastic thread, I've learned something new today. :up:
 
Status
Not open for further replies.
Top