Them and They as Singular

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Them and They as Singular

#1  Postby willhud9 » Oct 16, 2012 1:51 am

So my brother and I when bored tend to have really random discussions. Tonight the discussion broadened into the English language and me using he or she in a sentence. The sentence was "If a person was born without eyes, he or she would be a unfortunate individual." He responded with, "You could just say they." To which the debate began. I argued that technically and formally, they/them/their are plural and therefore the usage of the words as pronouns and possessive must match a plural noun. Kids, balls, groups, etc. He argued that since there is no singular pronoun which was gender neutral and appropriate for people ("it" is ruled out) they/them/their should be accepted as appropriate substitutes. His argument was English is afterall the language of exceptions and not rules. So what does the Ratskep community think? :popcorn:
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Re: Them and They as Singular

#2  Postby Gallstones » Oct 16, 2012 2:59 am

But "'he or she" necessitates either a "he" or a "she" which requires two potential subjects and therefore can be plural. :coffee:








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Re: Them and They as Singular

#4  Postby Nicko » Oct 16, 2012 3:19 am

Gallstones wrote:But "'he or she" necessitates either a "he" or a "she" which requires two potential subjects and therefore can be plural. :coffee:


"He or she" describes one person that could be either male or female. This is why "they" is grammatically incorrect.

The problem is created by not having a gender-neutral pronoun in English that would be appropriate. One solution proposed is the idiotic "ze" instead of "he or she"- "zer" for "his or her" - that infests overly PC environments.

Altering the rules of grammar slightly to permit "they" or "their" to be used as singular pronouns seems a bit better to me.

So yeah Will, you were right and your brother was wrong. IMHO, the rules should be altered to make your brother right.
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Re: Them and They as Singular

#5  Postby Gallstones » Oct 16, 2012 3:39 am

So, the indefinite plural works; and it is commonly used to denote the non-gendered or unknown gender singular.
What does it matter why or how? English speakers understand--communication happens.
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Re: Them and They as Singular

#6  Postby willhud9 » Oct 16, 2012 3:44 am

Gallstones wrote:So, the indefinite plural works; and it is commonly used to denote the non-gendered or unknown gender singular.
What does it matter why or how? English speakers understand--communication happens.


I mean if communication could function in grunts and gutturals, I suppose that would be efficient. The discussion between my brother ended that in informal situations it technically does not matter, but for formal writings and conversation proper grammar is always something to be mindful of.
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Re: Them and They as Singular

#7  Postby Gallstones » Oct 16, 2012 4:49 am

I don't like to read when people write "Those persons that did that thing" when it should be "Those persons who did that thing".
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Re: Them and They as Singular

#8  Postby byofrcs » Oct 16, 2012 5:10 am

Informally I use they for e.g. another member on this forum because it is the only word I can think of that we can use if I don't know or don't care about their sex.

As it is English I can do what I like anyway - how do people think the English language formed ? It is a living language.
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Re: Them and They as Singular

#9  Postby Tursas » Oct 16, 2012 5:29 am

They is perfectly fine. You should start using it.
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Re: Them and They as Singular

#10  Postby CdesignProponentsist » Oct 16, 2012 5:54 am

EDIT: Never mind :dopey:
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Re: Them and They as Singular

#11  Postby NilsGLindgren » Oct 16, 2012 6:53 am

Tursas wrote:They is perfectly fine. You should start using it.

They is? Oh, goody, I shall have such fun. :mrgreen:
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Re: Them and They as Singular

#12  Postby LucidFlight » Oct 16, 2012 7:02 am

Personally, I have no problem with the singular they.
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Re: Them and They as Singular

#13  Postby Zwaarddijk » Oct 16, 2012 11:32 am

willhud9 wrote:So my brother and I when bored tend to have really random discussions. Tonight the discussion broadened into the English language and me using he or she in a sentence. The sentence was "If a person was born without eyes, he or she would be a unfortunate individual." He responded with, "You could just say they." To which the debate began. I argued that technically and formally, they/them/their are plural and therefore the usage of the words as pronouns and possessive must match a plural noun. Kids, balls, groups, etc. He argued that since there is no singular pronoun which was gender neutral and appropriate for people ("it" is ruled out) they/them/their should be accepted as appropriate substitutes. His argument was English is afterall the language of exceptions and not rules. So what does the Ratskep community think? :popcorn:


What do you think the words I bolded there actually mean in this context? By what authority is "they" and "them" plural and what does it mean for it to be plural? Does those words normally referring to plural things exclude them from referring to singulars?
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Re: Them and They as Singular

#14  Postby Zwaarddijk » Oct 16, 2012 11:53 am

willhud9 wrote:
Gallstones wrote:So, the indefinite plural works; and it is commonly used to denote the non-gendered or unknown gender singular.
What does it matter why or how? English speakers understand--communication happens.


I mean if communication could function in grunts and gutturals, I suppose that would be efficient. The discussion between my brother ended that in informal situations it technically does not matter, but for formal writings and conversation proper grammar is always something to be mindful of.



Of course, singular they is attested as early as in Shakespeare's writings. All other alternatives seem cumbersome, and pretty much everyone that gets hung up on it seems to object to it on the grounds that it is an innovation - which it is not. Formal grammar adapts as well, and this is an adaptation that not only is useful, it is already accepted by most native speakers as an entirely acceptable use.
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Re: Them and They as Singular

#15  Postby Dudely » Oct 16, 2012 12:06 pm

Despite some objections we've been using "they" and "their" to refer to single nouns for over 500 years (though it was also common to assume the masculine and just say "he/his").

I'd say it's pretty formal by now. I've done a bit of writing and no one has ever corrected me.
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Re: Them and They as Singular

#16  Postby Zwaarddijk » Oct 16, 2012 12:07 pm

Nicko wrote:
Gallstones wrote:But "'he or she" necessitates either a "he" or a "she" which requires two potential subjects and therefore can be plural. :coffee:


"He or she" describes one person that could be either male or female. This is why "they" is grammatically incorrect.

The problem is created by not having a gender-neutral pronoun in English that would be appropriate. One solution proposed is the idiotic "ze" instead of "he or she"- "zer" for "his or her" - that infests overly PC environments.

Altering the rules of grammar slightly to permit "they" or "their" to be used as singular pronouns seems a bit better to me.

So yeah Will, you were right and your brother was wrong. IMHO, the rules should be altered to make your brother right.


Rules of English don't exist in the manner you think they do.
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Re: Them and They as Singular

#17  Postby katja z » Oct 16, 2012 2:29 pm

Zwaarddijk wrote:
Nicko wrote:
Gallstones wrote:But "'he or she" necessitates either a "he" or a "she" which requires two potential subjects and therefore can be plural. :coffee:


"He or she" describes one person that could be either male or female. This is why "they" is grammatically incorrect.

The problem is created by not having a gender-neutral pronoun in English that would be appropriate. One solution proposed is the idiotic "ze" instead of "he or she"- "zer" for "his or her" - that infests overly PC environments.

Altering the rules of grammar slightly to permit "they" or "their" to be used as singular pronouns seems a bit better to me.

So yeah Will, you were right and your brother was wrong. IMHO, the rules should be altered to make your brother right.


Rules of English don't exist in the manner you think they do.


To clarify what Zwaarddijk is saying, rules in grammar just describe patterns in language use at a certain point in time, hence they are simply guidelines to what is considered "good usage" at that particular point in time (and yes you could argue ad nauseam about who gets to say what good usage is :tongue:). Obviously, in any living language, those pattern change. Understandably, formal description tends to lag behind language use (partly because there always seems to have been a tendency to reify it as some kind of eternal standard for language x).
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Re: Them and They as Singular

#18  Postby kiore » Oct 16, 2012 2:50 pm

I was pulled up for this when living in France.. Using them and they as a singular..English (or a form of it :whistle: ) is my 'language spoken at home' as the surveys tend to put it, I do understand that this gives me no special privilege in deciding what is right or wrong in this language, and do understand why the French speakers were aghast at my usage.. However it is the obvious way to deal with using non gender specific words like he or she and much more 'natural' than inventing some words to deal with this. This is not just political correctness, not knowing the gender of the subject and having to decide on he or she is awkward. I was taught to use the masculine as the default, but this then requires another change if that default turns out to be incorrect. The plural singular seems the lazy answer and frequently in language the lazy answer wins.
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Re: Them and They as Singular

#19  Postby The_Metatron » Oct 16, 2012 3:50 pm

Zwaarddijk wrote:Rules of English don't exist in the manner you think they do.

Well, that's just great.

I spent years learning the fucking things.
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Re: Them and They as Singular

#20  Postby Zwaarddijk » Oct 16, 2012 4:53 pm

The_Metatron wrote:
Zwaarddijk wrote:Rules of English don't exist in the manner you think they do.

Well, that's just great.

I spent years learning the fucking things.


I am really kind of trying to make a point about things like

Altering the rules of grammar slightly to permit "they" or "their" to be used as singular pronouns seems a bit better to me.

So yeah Will, you were right and your brother was wrong. IMHO, the rules should be altered to make your brother right.


This assumes someone has that authority, this assumes there's somehow, ethically, some body of people that are entitled to decide for everyone else what is right or wrong.

This is not the case, and whoever claim such authority only have that authority as long as people genuinely think of them as having that authority, and only as long as people actually obey that authority. There is not really any body that can declare singular they ok, all it takes is that those speakers of English that accept it keep accepting it and not taking shit from people that think of themselves as authorities on things. However, oftentimes, people that preach the authoritarian view do not themselves properly understand the rules, and so impart misunderstood interpretations of rules onto people, or alternatively fail to explain them the way they want to convey.

The entire "it's not 'you and me' but 'you and I'" debacle is one example of that.

The rules do exist, but not in a way that can be changed by fiat by some authorities, and their existence is not normative and unchanging. They don't exist on the walls of a platonic cave, but as abstract weighted averages of the rules of all speakers of English (even non-natives) taken together.

Some people who think it's weird to believe that there's a God who cares where people put their penises still seem to think that there is a [undefined absolute] that cares about how people speak. I find both notions quite bewildering, but the latter even more so, as many who adopt that stance of rather absolute ethics (about linguistic matters) are smart enough to understand that no such god-like being exists. Yet they act as though such a god-like thing exists for some matters, which is inconsistent. And this is why I attack that notion preemptively, to make sure every proper rational skeptic realizes that such a position is inconsistent.
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