Wednesday, October 29, 2008

A Question to Pronoun Users

Do you really see no difference in these two uses of the word "they"?

a) I would have everybody marry if they can do it properly. -- Jane Austen

b) I waved to the man and they waved back at me.

(Emphasis added for clarity.)

Because all of the people arguing "it was good enough for Jane Austen!" are trying to justify sentences like the latter -- which I expect Miss Austen would loathe, with a quiet, time-appropriate, womanly loathing -- on the basis of sentences like the former.

Do you honestly think that "they" is is in common use as the definite neuter singular third-person pronoun? Are there style guides or dictionary usage notes to support such a thing? (Is it allowed in Chicago or AP style?)

Has no one on the Internet ever heard of the "if it's clumsy, rewrite it" rule? I despair for the world.

16 comments:

Peter Hollo said...

Well then, how about this:

When you get to the airport, go to the person at the Budget desk and ask them to tell you how to get to Glebe.

It's an indeterminate gendered singular person, and I see no clumsiness in using "them". I think it's the most elegant way in fact - usually avoiding "they" but still trying to be gender-neutral makes for more clumsy phrasing in a situation like this.

Obviously in your sentence, where you've already specified it's a man, using "they"/"them" is stupid - not even clumsy, just all-out weird. I'm not sure you'd made it clear enough in the previous post which usages you're objecting to. Do you hate my sentence above?

Kerry said...

I think "they" is a perfectly acceptable *gender neutral* singular pronoun. So, "I looked at the man and they waved back at me," would make no sense because it has a stated gender.

however, "I looked at someone and they looked at me," would work, fine.

I can't believe I'm arguing about grammar. I'm such a GEEK! ;-)

Dustin said...

Please Andrew, your despair for the great unlearned masses has led you to make a facetious example. Once you set aside your overgeneralizations, it becomes an argument about whether you want your grammar books to be descriptive or proscriptive.
I prefer the latter while you clearly prefer to stake your claim on structures rather than use. Could be fun, if linguistic stagnation's your thing.

Anonymous said...

Your b) example suggests you don't really understand what you're arguing against.

Harry

Gwenda said...

Actually, I only see and use it pretty much like the Jane Austen example. I thin anybody would agree the second usage is capital B Bad.

Gwenda said...

Or, possibly: "I waved at the person, and they waved back."

I think that's closer to what people are arguing... when the sex is undetermined, or includes both men and women. At least, that's what I mean!

How do you feel about the serial comma?

:)

Andrew Wheeler said...

Harry: I've seen people use "they" in precisely that way -- sometimes when the writer knows who the person is, but doesn't provide complete details (and so is trying to be enigmatic or inclusive), and sometimes when the person is obvious.

For example (not quoting anyone in particular) -- "I talked to the editor of Asimov's and they said...."

If the antecedent is a specific, defined person, I find "they" utterly clumsy and off-putting.

I don't mind writers who want to keep someone's gender secret, but I would prefer if they weren't tripping over their own sentences to do so.

Andrew Wheeler said...

Peter: I mildly dislike your example, and would rewrite it to something like "...ask at the Budget desk for directions to Glebe."

(This is coming from someone who rewrites even blog comments once or twice, though, so I'm not typical of most writers.)

That's not as bad as some examples I've seen -- I remember James Nicoll refering to a specific bus driver that he sees a lot as "they," which made me wonder if that person was a hive entity.

clindsay said...

I have a client who has a neutral-gendered species in her book, and she'd suggested using "they" as a as both a singular and plural gender-neutral pronoun, but I put my foot down.

I told her to create a new pronoun instead and explain it in the context of the book.

The "they" thing rankles my inner grammar nerd.

Carolyn said...

I heart you. Really. Thanks for this.

Susan de Guardiola said...

As stated by other commenters, the B example isn't a fair one; the gender ("man") is already specified, so there's no reason not to use he as the pronoun. I think everyone posting here agrees on that. Kerry's comment includes a much better example.

Attempting to proscribe they as a gender-neutral singular pronoun means taking something previously considered correct and with a centuries-long usage history and telling people to just stop using it. Good luck with that...

Andrew Wheeler said...

Susan: I did choose my "b" example to cause the most immediate cognitive dissonance, yes. But if "they" is acceptable as a singular third-person pronoun in all situations, then it's acceptable in that sentence as well.

What would you say to my other example, in a previous comment -- "I was talking to the editor of Asimov's, and they said...."? There, it's a clearly defined person whose gender isn't specified in the sentence -- but it's still a known person, not an indefinite one.

I'm saying, in cases like that, "they" is a bad word choice. I'd reserve "they" for an indefinite third-person -- one which can be one person, or many -- and avoid it when referring to a single individual.

Robert Hutchinson said...

Let's try this as another example: "I asked Andrew for Andrew's book." The use of "Andrew's" there (rather than "his") is considered very awkward by most people--but it's not wrong.

What many of us are arguing is that the awkwardness of "I saw a man and talked to them" is not because you're talking about a single person with a specified gender, but that the gender has been specified in that sentence. The examples you're giving just aren't pinging our wrongness radars at all, so there's an impassable divide here.

Andrew Wheeler said...

Robert: So if the sentence is talking about a specified person of known gender -- but the gender isn't specifically mentioned in that sentence -- it would sound fine to your ear?

That's probably where we differ -- I'm not reading one sentence in isolation, and I know what "they" refers to. So there's just as much of a disconnect, for me, as in my original example.

Susan de Guardiola said...

But if "they" is acceptable as a singular third-person pronoun in all situations, then it's acceptable in that sentence as well.

I think this is where we're having a serious philosophical divide: I think universal principles should be leavened by common sense, which permits for universal principles with exceptions. Common sense suggests to me at least that if the gender is known and (especially) specified in the same sentence (paragraph, conversation, etc.), one should use the gendered pronoun rather than using an ungendered one. Inclusiveness to allow for the possibility that a person might be male or female does not need to extend to people for whom there is no "might" about the situation.

The editor-of-Asimov's question is not giving me a problem personally because right off the top of my head I don't know who the editor of Asimov's is. Since you do, I would say you ought to use the relevant pronoun unless you're trying to make some sort of subtle point about sexism. This is still a different situation than, for example Peter's "the person at the Budget desk," who will remain of Schrodinger's gender until the traveler arrives at the desk and finds out.

There's a difference between being gender-neutral, deliberately masking gender, and deliberately playing stupid, and I think for purposes of argument using examples of the latter sort is, ah, unhelpful. The distinction between situations in which you know the gender of the person (ignoring for the sake of simplicity various sorts of gender indeterminacy) and situations in which you do not shouldn't be that hard to make.

While in general I'd say polite people should not eat with their fingers, I acknowledge numerous common-sense exceptions involving foods like hot dogs, corn on the cob, etc. This doesn't invalidate the principle with soup, mashed potatoes, ice cream sundaes, etc.

Robert Hutchinson said...

Andrew: I would say that it's much more likely to sound okay to me, yes. Not necessarily 100% of the time.

Not that it's really come up, but I also suspect that this construction raises fewer hackles when heard rather than read.

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