01 December 2016

"They" as a replacement for "he or she"


That's how today's headline in The Telegraph was phrased.  I know there are several copyeditors who follow this blog.  I'd appreciate your comments.

27 comments:

  1. The singular "they". Its all the rage these days, and was someones word of the year last year. or something.

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  2. I'm only a part-time copy editor, but I'm a full-time English professor, and I teach a university-level class on English grammar. Using they with a singular antecedent is standard English. Not only is it standard English now, but it has been standard English since the time of Chaucer.

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  3. Not a copy editor at all, but delagar is right.

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  4. I'm a full-time copy editor and I say yes to the singular they. It serves a needed purpose in our ever-evolving language.

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  5. Reminds me of a Far Side cartoon:
    "YOU, Bernie Horowitz?... So YOU'RE the 'they' in 'that's what they say'?"

    cs

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  6. I'm not a copy editor either. "Using they with a singular antecedent is standard English" may be standard but I grew up, and was taught, THEY was plural - tho I have to admit I have used it as a singular antecedent on occasion. My concern is using the same word in both a singular and plural context can only lead to confusion. I've seen other gender neutral options, personally I prefer "xe". Simpler, aligns with he/she better and less chance for confusion.

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    Replies
    1. Using the plural 'you' as a singular pronoun doesn't seem to cause confusion.

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  7. I'm a part-time copy editor, and I have come to accept the split infinitive as well as the "singular" they, which makes sense in today's world. He/she is clumsy and a bit sexist. What I still do not accept is the almost-universal use of "lay" when it should be "lie".

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  8. When I edit copy (for college textbooks), I aim to avoid using "they" as singular.

    From CMS:

    "Q. I would swear that I saw a reference in your manual that approved of the use of 'their' instead of a gender-biased singular pronoun. For example, 'If the user has completed installing the program, they should put the CD-ROM back in the package,' instead of 'If the user has completed installing the program, s/he should put the CD-ROM back in the package,' but on your Q&A, you dance around the answer to the question and suggest that you do NOT approve of the singular 'their.' Can you tell us what is acceptable?

    "A. Yes, you saw it at 2.98 (note 9) in the fourteenth edition, but there was some regret at having written it, and we decided to abandon the idea for the fifteenth and sixteenth editions. Though some writers are comfortable with the occasional use of they as a singular pronoun, some are not, and it is better to do the necessary work to recast a sentence or, other options having been exhausted, use he or she. For a fuller discussion of this issue, see paragraph 5.223 in CMOS 16 and the entry for 'he or she' under the 'Glossary of Problematic Words and Phrases' at paragraph 5.220."

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  9. The problem, for me, a writer and teacher, is that so often we have to use "he or she" otherwise. For instance: "If a child misbehaves in class, then he or she will be disciplined." Yes, there are better ways to write this ("children," for instance), but if it is CLEAR that "they" means a single person...well, it's clear. And a key point of language is clear communication.

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  10. Who *are* the highest paid musician*s* of 2016 - And how much did they earn?

    or

    Who is the highest paid musician of 2016 - And how much did she earn?

    There I fixed if for ye. Oh, and English is my second language.

    You do not have to say "he or she" when you know which one it is. IMHO it is thinly-veiled sexism to protest against using "she" as being more revealing than the 75 previous years when it was a "he". Shake it off, folks, shake it off.

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    1. The image used for that link isn't necessarily the highest-paid person. It could be one the writers used to generate clicks if a less clickbait-y person was, in fact, the highest paid. Using they here indicates the unknown the reader is expected to feel before reading the article.

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  11. Well, unless the photograph is deliberately deceitful, why wouldn't they (!) just write 'she'?

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  12. Nothing wrong with singular 'they'. Why do people feel the need to use two gendered pronouns when a single neuter one will do? Residual linguistic sexism.

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  13. How is this resolved in languages that have genders associated with words?

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    1. It is not in Latvian at least.
      In Latvian not only does noun belong to one of two genders for both alive and inanimate, but in plural "they" are actually two words "they masculine" - viņi, "they feminine" - viņas, there is no "they both boys and girls". Usually masculine is used when talking about things in general and feminine is used when definitely the talk is about "young mothers" etc. Sometimes I've seen feminine used in contrast to masculine to emphasize that in a particular profession or group most part are women.

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  14. I'm a copy editor and this use of the they is wrong. I'm also a copy editor who has mutilated concise prose thousands of times in order to make wording like this "correct." And whether it's wrong or correct, the meaning is entirely clear.

    So at the end of the day, if you're the type that's going to want grammar to adhere to rules every time, I would mark this copy to read "he or she." If you're the type that wants easy-reading, I'd leave it as is. There's a lot more gray area in editing than most people would like to admit, and unless it's a newspaper with a strict style book, it doesn't generally matter.

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  15. It seems that most people accept this as de facto English, but why isn't it taught like this? Arbitrary rule that just causes fights.

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  16. I'd read an artcle about this a while back...
    https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2016/01/08/donald-trump-may-win-this-years-word-of-the-year/?utm_term=.5872508b3d2a

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  17. Oh, and while I have all you copy editors attention, maybe you can help my nephew Dave Mows Grass out on this pre-election paragraph, which first informed me of the huge "singular they" dilemma. Dave's dilemma goes deeper than just the singular they.
    "Clinton is showing a little dead-cat bounce in fivethirtyeight's simulations, but I'm sure everyone who cares what world their kids and grandkids are going to be living in already knows that because they've been refreshing the site every half hour for the last week. Did you notice I used singular they twice in the previous sentence? I've succumbed to the illiterate mob but it has brought me no relief. In my past life, my problem with that sentence was choosing between he, she, or he or she. Now, in that particular sentence, my problem is choosing between know and knows. If singular they is really singular, then it should be knows, which is what I used. I don't like it, though."

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    1. it's all wildly confusing as written as to what the problem is that your nephew is having...however if it is the duplication of the word "they" a) it didn't happen and b)the plural vs singular use is easily resolved through better writing. "...I'm sure everyone who cares what world their kids...already knows that because fivethirtyeight has been refreshing the site" And there's no debate over the "knows vs know". With 'everyone', you use 'knows'. That is the word to which "knows" is associated, since the word "their" is part of a phrase. What your nephew needs is more literacy.

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    2. Thank you. That's a great answer and we will pass it along. They at Dave Mows Grass will likely be very pleased -- no, EXTREMELY pleased -- that what they've written was found to be wildly confusing. That's generally what we and they shoot for. Literacy is fun, doncha think?

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    3. I got a bite, buletholes! I know I have a long way to go before I'll get outright hate mail, but this is a small step. At least I'm on the right path. If I start composing understandable sentences all the time, no one will buy my white, semi-educated factory worker shtick. I'll just be a regular literate person who no one reads. Thank you, Dawn, you've made my day!

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    4. Misspelling Bulletholes was unintentional, further evidence of my lack of literacy. I apologize, my friend!

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    5. Further confused by the sense of sarcasm in the responses, and the implication this was bordering on hate? The grammar in the initial quote is incorrect, which made for the confusion between the two pronouns (they and their) as used. Understanding the noun phrase makes the choice between "know" and "knows" disappear, and using a different phrasing avoids the use of the pronouns in a confusing way. It really has little to do with the singular use of "they" and everything to do with how the sentence was written. No hate, just grammar.

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  18. The use of the they with a singular antecedent is neither wrong nor illiterate. Chaucer used it, Shakespeare used it, Milton used it. Many of you who believe it is wrong (or illiterate) believe that because you were taught this incorrect rule by teachers who had, in their turn, been badly taught by their teachers.

    Grammar teachers who know the language and have been properly taught will in fact teach this as standard English (to answer Mark's question above at 10.16 a.m.).

    How did the notion that they with a singular antecedent was wrong enter the language?

    Like so much else, we can trace this nonsense to the grammarians of the 17th century. They were entirely ignorant of how grammar actually functioned, and thus applied logic to language. It's not logical that a plural pronoun should have a singular antecedent (never mind that it does); so therefore it must be an error.

    Similarly, these grammarians decided it wasn't logical that we use double negatives. (Never mind that almost every Indo-European language, including English at the time, does indeed use double and triple negatives.)

    They also decided that, since we couldn't split an infinitive in Latin (because in Latin the infinitive is one word) we shouldn't split it in English either.

    They also said that because the *word* preposition means pre-position (that is, it put in front of something) we should never put a preposition after its object. And thus, for the next two hundred some years, we have had English writers constructing horribly tortured sentences, all in an effort to avoid ending a sentence with a preposition.

    All terrible rules -- most of these we've managed to scrub from the language. But a few Zombie rules refuse to die.

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  19. Here's Language Log on the singular they, for those who want to know more:

    http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/index.php?s=singular+they

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