Gender pronouns - the singular 'they'

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Gender pronouns - the singular 'they'

#1  Postby I'm With Stupid » Sep 14, 2019 7:21 pm

Just as an example, here's a recent story about Sam Smith who has chosen to go by the pronoun 'they.'

Sam Smith changes pronouns to they/them

...

Six months ago, Smith said they did not feel male or female, but "I flow somewhere in between".

On Friday, the 27-year-old said they had been "surrounded by people that support me in this decision".

They wrote: "I understand there will be many mistakes and mis-gendering but all I ask is you please please try. I hope you can see me like I see myself now. Thank you."


This has come up a lot recently with some non-binary individuals wanting to be referred to as 'they/them' and people arguing that it's ungrammatical (as if grammar isn't just codified usage). But one thing you often hear as an argument as to why it is grammatical is that singular they has existed for centuries and indeed Shakespeare himself used it. It's basically an argument from history that it's valid because it's not actually a new usage. However, when people give examples, they tend to give examples that are not the same usage. For example:

"Someone crashed their car outside the post office."
"The customer should be told how much they owe."

Both of these pronouns refer to a singular person, but the difference is that they are referring to an unknown or unspecified singular person. Is there actually any evidence that the use of 'they' to refer to a specific known person isn't a brand new usage? Because every example I've seen cited has been in this 'indefinite' usage, to borrow a term from another part of grammar.



And I guess a follow up question, how successful do you think activists will be at getting people to change their language to reflect people's preferences beyond switching from 'he' to 'she' (or vice-versa) for trans people? They have certainly succeeded to some extent with written media. The BBC and Telegraph both covered this story using singular, 'definite' they to refer to Sam Smith, but the Associated Press have an official policy to only ever use it if there's no way to write around it (creating some pretty incoherent and frankly shit paragraphs in their articles). But in the wider public, and particularly with spoken language, I question how much they'll be able to control language. It can work in some limited situations like getting people to stop using a particular word and replace it with a more PC version, but these words are rarely such high-frequency examples that are such an automatic and ingrained part of the language.
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Re: Gender pronouns - the singular 'they'

#2  Postby felltoearth » Sep 14, 2019 7:56 pm

I’ve been doing this for a while. It’s almost hardly noticeable in speech.
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Re: Gender pronouns - the singular 'they'

#3  Postby I'm With Stupid » Sep 14, 2019 8:06 pm

I can't help but think we do need a separate singular and plural though. The reason that "yous" and "y'all" have appeared as two versions of 'you' is exactly because there's an important meaning distinction in some situations. Maybe one day we'll have 'them' and 'thems.'
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Re: Gender pronouns - the singular 'they'

#4  Postby minininja » Sep 14, 2019 8:45 pm

Felltoearth is a specific singular person that I'm referring to, but they haven't included gender details in their profile. I don't know if this is because they chose not to or didn't bother, or if they are trans or gender neutral. Either way it seems grammatically very natural for me to refer to them with the singular 'they' unless I'm given reason to do otherwise. Amongst younger generations in progressive circles it's not uncommon for cis people to let others know their preferred pronouns in solidarity with trans and non-binary people. I expect the habit of needlessly assuming someone's gender will eventually die out. And of course there are plenty of other languages that are, to varying degrees, non-gendered anyway.
[Disclaimer - if this is comes across like I think I know what I'm talking about, I want to make it clear that I don't. I'm just trying to get my thoughts down]
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Re: Gender pronouns - the singular 'they'

#5  Postby Ironclad » Sep 14, 2019 9:42 pm

It's this what Jordan is upset about, being 'forced' to use they/them as a matter of course, but stressing that it willl creep into law? Which I understand it has in Canada.
In polite and respectful company I would expect my friends to comply with my gender neutral wishes, but I could hardly demand this of the casual citizen, even if I did make a public announcement.
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Re: Gender pronouns - the singular 'they'

#6  Postby Svartalf » Sep 14, 2019 9:56 pm

it is against nature and grammar to refer to single individuals in the plural, except in very limited cases.
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Re: Gender pronouns - the singular 'they'

#7  Postby felltoearth » Sep 14, 2019 10:15 pm

Ironclad wrote:It's this what Jordan is upset about, being 'forced' to use they/them as a matter of course, but stressing that it willl creep into law? Which I understand it has in Canada.
In polite and respectful company I would expect my friends to comply with my gender neutral wishes, but I could hardly demand this of the casual citizen, even if I did make a public announcement.

No one is being forced to do anything. No one can “force” JP to not be an asshole.
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Re: Gender pronouns - the singular 'they'

#8  Postby Spearthrower » Sep 14, 2019 10:24 pm

I'm With Stupid wrote:This has come up a lot recently with some non-binary individuals wanting to be referred to as 'they/them' and people arguing that it's ungrammatical (as if grammar isn't just codified usage).


It works for me because in London, this is common usage. It's always seemed to me to be the easiest type of concession imaginable. I mean, we all use it when the gender's unknown anyway, so what's the issue?

I also use 'us' sometimes instead of 'me' but only in a particular form - imperative and with 'give', i.e. give us a biscuit
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Re: Gender pronouns - the singular 'they'

#9  Postby Matt_B » Sep 14, 2019 10:31 pm

I've no problem with they (singular.) There's a gap in the language so you invent a word to fit it. These things happen all the time.

Jordan Peterson, on the other hand, is just a self-promoting reactionary who doesn't understand how the law works.
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Re: Gender pronouns - the singular 'they'

#10  Postby Macdoc » Sep 14, 2019 11:09 pm

Seeing this more

Xe, Xir, Xem, Xeir
Xe and its variations are gender neutral pronouns that can be used to refer to people who are non-binary, genderfluid, genderqueer, trans, and/or don't identify with the gender binary


especially in sci-fi
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Re: Gender pronouns - the singular 'they'

#11  Postby scott1328 » Sep 14, 2019 11:36 pm

Svartalf wrote:it is against nature and grammar to refer to single individuals in the plural, except in very limited cases.

I don’t know if YOU are being ironic in with this statement or not. But I just wanted to let YOU know that the prounoun YOU is the the plural form of the pronoun THOU. In virtually all conversations YOU have, YOU address single individuals in the plural.
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Re: Gender pronouns - the singular 'they'

#12  Postby Spearthrower » Sep 15, 2019 12:36 am

scott1328 wrote:
Svartalf wrote:it is against nature and grammar to refer to single individuals in the plural, except in very limited cases.


I don’t know if YOU are being ironic in with this statement or not.



No, he's being French! :lol:

Tu et vous.

When you conjugate verbs according to singular or plural nouns and subjects, then the entire edifice of that language is founded upon that division.
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Re: Gender pronouns - the singular 'they'

#13  Postby Ironclad » Sep 15, 2019 5:54 am

Ye think so?
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Re: Gender pronouns - the singular 'they'

#14  Postby kiore » Sep 15, 2019 6:31 am

The singular 'they' has a very long history and is not a modern politically correct invention at all.
Good article on this from the OED:
https://public.oed.com/blog/a-brief-his ... ular-they/
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Re: Gender pronouns - the singular 'they'

#15  Postby I'm With Stupid » Sep 15, 2019 6:54 am

kiore wrote:The singular 'they' has a very long history and is not a modern politically correct invention at all.
Good article on this from the OED:
https://public.oed.com/blog/a-brief-his ... ular-they/

Yeah I've read that, but that's not actually the same usage at all. That's using 'they' to refer to an unspecified singular person, not a specified one. It seems to me that people are using one historical usage to claim that a completely different usage isn't new. So that's why I'm interested to know if anyone has an example of it that goes back further than the fairly recent usage.
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Re: Gender pronouns - the singular 'they'

#16  Postby Thomas Eshuis » Sep 15, 2019 6:57 am

I'm With Stupid wrote:
kiore wrote:The singular 'they' has a very long history and is not a modern politically correct invention at all.
Good article on this from the OED:
https://public.oed.com/blog/a-brief-his ... ular-they/

Yeah I've read that, but that's not actually the same usage at all. That's using 'they' to refer to an unspecified singular person, not a specified one. It seems to me that people are using one historical usage to claim that a completely different usage isn't new. So that's why I'm interested to know if anyone has an example of it that goes back further than the fairly recent usage.

How is it fundamentally different? It's the same principle: using they for a singular person. What does it matter if that person is identified or not?
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Re: Gender pronouns - the singular 'they'

#17  Postby I'm With Stupid » Sep 15, 2019 7:06 am

Thomas Eshuis wrote:
I'm With Stupid wrote:
kiore wrote:The singular 'they' has a very long history and is not a modern politically correct invention at all.
Good article on this from the OED:
https://public.oed.com/blog/a-brief-his ... ular-they/

Yeah I've read that, but that's not actually the same usage at all. That's using 'they' to refer to an unspecified singular person, not a specified one. It seems to me that people are using one historical usage to claim that a completely different usage isn't new. So that's why I'm interested to know if anyone has an example of it that goes back further than the fairly recent usage.

How is it fundamentally different? It's the same principle: using they for a singular person. What does it matter if that person is identified or not?

It matters in the same way that "a chair" is different from "the chair." It's a linguistically distinct usage.
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Re: Gender pronouns - the singular 'they'

#18  Postby laklak » Sep 15, 2019 7:14 am

I'm With Stupid wrote:I can't help but think we do need a separate singular and plural though. The reason that "yous" and "y'all" have appeared as two versions of 'you' is exactly because there's an important meaning distinction in some situations. Maybe one day we'll have 'them' and 'thems.'


In some Southern dialects y'all can be singular, the plural is "all y'all". I've also heard "them all".

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Re: Gender pronouns - the singular 'they'

#19  Postby Pebble » Sep 15, 2019 7:23 am

kiore wrote:The singular 'they' has a very long history and is not a modern politically correct invention at all.
Good article on this from the OED:
https://public.oed.com/blog/a-brief-his ... ular-they/


The only example given for early usage is "‘Each man hurried . . . till they drew near . . . where William and his darling were lying together.’"

Not sure this works. While 'each man hurried" it is clear there was more than one man at the time of drawing near!
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Re: Gender pronouns - the singular 'they'

#20  Postby Rachel Bronwyn » Sep 15, 2019 8:34 am

I've always used "they" to refer to individuals so it's interesting to me that other people find it awkward.

I still get in trouble for it occasionally from woke blokes who insist I'm committing a microaggression through neutrality. I don't give a shit anymore. We don't own pronouns. They're given to us based on others' perceptions of us. With people I don't know, I keep my perception to myself and go with the neutral "they". If they react negatively to it, oh well.

Of all the immensely stupid shit Jordan Peterson says, his aversion to compelled speech wasn't. He wasn't opposed to using students' preferred pronouns. He took issue with it being a legal requirement or something one would face disciplinary action for getting wrong. I can't wrap my head around why that, of all the ridiculous nonsense Peterson spouts, is the thing people cite the most frequently as an example of something heinous he's done.

But, no, there is no legal requirement to use preferred or neutral pronouns in Canada. We don't own words. Whether by accident of through dickishness, we can even use pronouns people reject to refer to them. Jordan will be just fine.
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