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« Bush on intelligent design | Main | A couple of links for Sunday »

August 06, 2005


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Patrick O'Neill


The use of singular "they" as singular third person pronoun for referents of indeterminate gender enjoys two advantages over other proposed alternatives to "he" for same. Firstly, it's organic (cf. Spivak), and parallels similar shifts in pronoun usage in a number of other natural language. I can't think of any human language whose speakers unselfconsciously employ a construction signifying {he|she} for the third person. Secondly, it's already produced spontaneously by native speaker-hearers.

The second argument, I think, is the most telling. If we accept that the course of language change may be influenced by liminal social and political forces (e.g. history of Italian pronouns), we might conclude that the problem of gender specific pronouns is one that has corrected itself in the first few generations of native speakers born into a climate of increasing social equality. For a point of anecdotal data, as a resident of a mid-Atlantic state born in 1986, gender-indeterminate "he" sounds absolutely bizarre, and the notion that, in the recent past, whether "he" actually meant "he" or "he or she" was context-dependent strains my imagination. I also remember that the English class prescription about "he" was met with some resistance among my classmates; any rule of English grammar that isn't absorbed by neurologically healthy native speakers is probably not a rule at all.


I clearly don't spend enough time on these posts. Of course, the use of the plural as generic has a long and respectable history, and I often use that approach as well.

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