Submitted by billedwards on March 28, 2006

The “he or she” problem

I find educated speakers saying the following:

“Everyone must do their duty.” or “The next player must move their piece if the move is possible.”

This is caused because people do not think ahead when speaking. To avoid this, they could start with the plural, such as:

“All of us must do our duty.” or “Players must move their piece if the move is possible”.

What will future grammar books say about the time honored rule that pronouns must agree in gender, number, and case? They must agree in gender, number, and case with the exception that in order to avoid using “he or she” or “his or hers”, the plural may be used as an exception.

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There is no "solution" required. As some people here have said and others have ignored, "they" is used as a singular pronoun.

Shakespeare
http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/arch...

English Bibles
http://englishbibles.blogspot.com/2006/09/singu...

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Looks like a good joke, which gone too far...
Let's introduce more words:
Cshemistry
Shero
tshe
shere
...

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One solution that has been borrowed from other languages is for the speaker or writer to always use his own gender as the gender-neutral pronoun or adjective. Perhaps the problem is that English has too FEW cases where a noun or pronoun can be either gender-specific or gender-neutral. There are many other cases of gender-specific words used as generics. Do you object to the term "alumni" being applied to former students of both genders? Female canines are called "bitches"; male canines are called "dogs". Is it sexist to use the masculine term as a generic? Most people would probably refer to a bovine of undetermined gender as a "cow" even though it might well be a bull. Matronizing vocabulary?
In most of the Romance languages, every single noun and pronoun has a grammatical gender, so you simply can't afford to construe grammatical gender as having something to do with biological gender. In Spanish, for example, the word for "children" (offspring) is "hijos", which is the word for "sons".
One thing that the lessons from parallel languages brings is the understanding that just as surely as we CHOOSE how we decide to encode language, we also CHOOSE how we decide to decode it. Those who want to hear words that CAN BE gender-specific as inherently gender-specific -- regardless of context -- have a decoding deficit. Changing the conventions for encoding language won't fix it.

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Angels on heads of pins.
The indefinite pronoun is masculine. It means NOTHING about gender superiority. It is a matter of convenience, grasped by the simplest of minds and used by even better ones to great effect. The shame is that the ridiculous battle has gone this far.'

Knowing that calumy will descend I retreat from the field so that the blowsy assaults will fall on no-man's land. Have fun!

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Many of you are pointing out the argument that because we broke the rules at one point and changed you to be singular and plural, why not do it again with their? What I hear is inexcusable. I personally find (being a Latin and French scholar) that the lack of precision with the language as it is is hard enough and having another word that is number indefinate would increase the imprecision further. The best option would probably to introduce a new word, and i think that a variation on "se" would be a good idea, considering it isn't variating too much from what we already have and it has derivations that are just right.

Another thing I have been frustrated with recently, which probably deserves a mention here, is the fact that there is no easy way to say we, excluding you. I find that often there is misunderstandings when roles are being given out and someone says "we are going to do this thing," when se is referring to se, and me but not someone else in the group. This is especially difficult when you are including some people and not others and the issue of number agreement comes into play. Thus I think another word needs to be used for we, excluding you.

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No one will be able to dictate the outcome of this. I myself feel confident that 'they' as the generic, neutral 3rd person pronoun will prevail, but whatever the case, it will be settled by the democratic vote of every speaker of English.

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"They" was used as a singular by Dickens, George Eliot, Jan Austen, Swift, Defoe, Shelley, Kipling, Shakespeare -- need I go on? You can't say that the singular they is a mark of uneducated use of the English language, then.
Besides, do we really want to see sentences like, "After each person picks up his or her pencil, he or she needs to go back to his or her desk and open his or her book?"

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Vis-a-vis Porsche's observations, I would like to point out that several gender-neutral pronouns have been proposed, including "hesh," "E," and the unpronounceable "xhe." None of these have, to my knowledge, made any ground whatsoever. They were proposed in the spirit of early third-wave feminism and I don't think that the mainstream language ideology has or ever will accept them.

As for the feminization of babies, I find Porsche's comment to be particularly interesting. I will point out that the hebrew word for baby is "tinoq" if it's a boy and "tinoqet" if it's a girl, but both terms are grammatically feminine. I can't think of similar examples in other languages, but perhaps this feminization of babies is an artifact of grammatical gender in English? Or maybe it's just a sexist association of babies (being small, emotional, and helpless) with women? I don't know. Interesting intersection

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Hm...I respectfully disagree that "they" connotes a single subject in reference to human beings. True, the word is genderless and it does refer to a particular group, but the group consists of more than one person, which can also be considered more than one subject (pun repugnant but necessary). The problem lies in our Western heritage of individuation and objectification; the change from the marker "he" stems from multiple sources, but two discourses, Feminism and Semiotics, played seminal roles. Using "they" seems to defeat the purpose of both individuation and the affirmation of self.

I agree that what's needed is a new word to designate "he or she."

Often, I just write s/he, but how would one pronounce this orally? Then there's he-she, but we already use this term to connote a transgendered person. As a possible candidate, the term "it" might work, but it might cause discomfort for those who prefer not to be objectified.

In my mind, the word that means he or she should have a melodic sound while remaining unbiased. If it were too masculine-sounding, we'd most likely be right where we started at the shift from he to he or she. If it were too feminine-sounding...well, you know how we Westerners are when it comes to the distinction between male and female (dare I say homophobic?).

While I firmly believe that eventually, "their" and "they" will assume position, coining a new word, a really great one, may just find a following. Maybe we could redefine an obsolete word, like thee or ken; or. if desired, a whole new word might work, something easily typed due to keyboard proximity, like lok or das, fer or poj, min or yui...(tee hee).

But I'm serious in my word play: maybe I don't have THE word, but ...?

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If Shakespeare can say "God send every one their heart's desire", then so can I.

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I've never heard of gender describing personality before...

gen·der
n.
Grammar.
A grammatical category used in the classification of nouns, pronouns, adjectives, and, in some languages, verbs that may be arbitrary or based on characteristics such as sex or animacy and that determines agreement with or selection of modifiers, referents, or grammatical forms.

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"It should be noted that while singular they is semantically singular, it is syntactically plural. Thus singular they takes third-person plural verb forms. This is parallel to the use of you, which was originally a plural pronoun, but which today takes the plural form of the verb whether referring to one person or several."

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Singular_they

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To make a comment on a side issue to the main question asked, regarding the contributor's use of the word "gender" when it comes to 'he' or 'she', what you mean is in fact 'sex'. The term 'gender' describes one's personality, i.e. masculine or feminine. 'Sex' applies to a person's physical self. In other words, a woman (her sex) cana have a masculine (her gender) personality, and vice versa. 'He' and 'she' reflect a person's physical self, therefore their sex, not gender. Everyone, 'gender' is NOT a "smart" word for sex, ok? Good, we all get it now.

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I have seen plural pronouns taking singular verbs in Old English. It seems to be an organic and proper English construction. It appears to have been pronounced illegitimate by the Latin grammarians. Molding English to fit Latin rules produces bad English, by definition, so to say.

It is difficult to type with the cat asleep across one's dominant arm.

--Sean

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"You" as a singular was once mismatched in number, too, wasn't it? We've made it into a singular, though. If we did it with the second person, why is this not possible with the third?

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Several years ago I systematically searched the quotations within the OED for instances of singular subject with "their" in the subject. I hope no one will be shocked that there were many many examples going back hundreds of years. Such a construction seems superior in some ways to the suggested alternatives:

"Players must move their piece..." seems to imply that some number of players have joint possession of a piece.

"Players must move their pieces..." might be seen as implying players jointly possessing multiple pieces.

"Each player most move their piece..." violates a formal rule but conforms to historical (if not very recent) usage and indicates each player has possesion of a piece.

I see I am agreeing with and (I hope) reinforcing the point of "Genesius."

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Don't mean to be impertinant, but the first example and the last example use the same construction - plural antecedant and singular object of a plural possessive. Do you get irritated at yourself about this?

Where their meaning is understood, it is just fine for someone to do that. Methinks some folks just like to get himself feeling speciously superior to other folks that communicate more better.

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You know, this is a real problem. The language is evolving, but not quickly enough. After hundreds of years in modern english, the use of "he", etc. as a general genderless pronoun has been abolished as politically incorrect, but still, to this day, there is no comfortable generally agreed upon alternate. "He or she" is usually a mouthful, especially in informal speech, or when repeated frequently. "They" still is a mismatched case. We don't use "it" to describe people. "... do one's duty" works, but "one" really doesn't work as an object by itself. Remember when Ms. was invented to overcome the Miss/Mrs. inequity? I think a new word needs to be invented to solve this problem.
PS - I have recently read a lot of parenting books (I am a new father) and have noticed a fair number of them refer to the child consistently as "she". What do you all think of that?

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"They" in this sense connotes a genderless singular subject as the antecedent, and in light of this, the phrase in question is perfectly acceptable. To simplify, the phrase does not confuse a singluar antecedent with a plural possessive. It rather observes that, in a group of many individuals, it may not be accurate to refer to each of them as male, though, as the default gender, it is certainly acceptable. One might also say, "One must do their duty" instead of, "one must do his duty."

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I forsee the accepted use of "There are less people in the room now" as well. Throughout the media, the correct use of "fewer" to describe countable nouns has become extinct.

Edward

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I like clinging to my share of conservative grammar conventions, but to me, this trespass is perfectly acceptable in informal speech. It wouldn't surprise me if in a few hundred years, it really *does* become the rule.

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