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Which pronoun do you use to refer to people in general?
Thread poster: Rosina Peixoto

Rosina Peixoto  Identity Verified
Uruguay
Local time: 13:37
English to Spanish
+ ...
May 27, 2008

As English does not have a neutral third person singular pronoun, we have to find other ways of referring to an unknown or theoretical third person.

We use "you" to refer to people in general or to any person in a hypothetical situation.
"If you don´t want to fail, "you" must persevere".

As "he" used as a neutral pronoun is old-fashioned and considered sexist by some people, what can we say?

Do you consider incorrect the use of "they" as a neutral singular pronoun?
" What do you say to a student when "they" walk into the classroom?"

And what about the use of "one"?
" It is unpleasant when "one" hears someone slurping the soup".

Many thanks in advance for your suggestions.


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Steven Capsuto  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 12:37
Spanish to English
+ ...
Tricky May 27, 2008

"One" sounds a little too formal for most modern contexts. And "he" is, indeed, sexist.


Rosina Peixoto wrote:
We use "you" to refer to people in general or to any person in a hypothetical situation.
"If you don´t want to fail, "you" must persevere".


Yes, that's a fine solution. It sounds perfectly natural. You could also recast the sentence to avoid the problem: "It takes perseverance to avoid failing."


Do you consider incorrect the use of "they" as a neutral singular pronoun?
" What do you say to a student when "they" walk into the classroom?"


Some style guides (but not all) accept the shift from singular to plural in these contexts. In formal writing, I find it jarring. There are lots of ways to get around it.

My usual approach is either to put the whole sentence in the plural or else restructure it to avoid the pronoun:


"What do you say to students when they walk into the classroom?"

or

"What do you say when a student walks into the classroom?"

or perhaps even

"What do you say to a student who's just arrived in class?"


I think the first option -- putting it all in the plural -- works best for this sentence.

[Edited at 2008-05-27 11:20]


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Henry Hinds  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 10:37
English to Spanish
+ ...
My answer May 27, 2008

This is my answer (maybe not everyone's):

We use "you" to refer to people in general or to any person in a hypothetical situation.
"If you don´t want to fail, "you" must persevere".

YES. IT IS AN IMPERSONAL 'YOU'.

As "he" used as a neutral pronoun is old-fashioned and considered sexist by some people, what can we say?

IT CAN BE USED, BUT I PREFER "THEY". AS FAR AS CONSENSUS GOES, I HAVE NO IDEA.

Do you consider incorrect the use of "they" as a neutral singular pronoun?
" What do you say to a student when "they" walk into the classroom?"

NO, I USE IT LIKE THAT IN THE SINGULAR; NOT INCORRECT.

And what about the use of "one"?
" It is unpleasant when "one" hears someone slurping the soup".

NO, IT IS NOT INCORRECT, BUT I DON'T LIKE IT.

Such are my opinions with no academic input whatsoever.


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Giles Watson  Identity Verified
Italy
Local time: 18:37
Italian to English
"We" as a general pronoun irritates me May 27, 2008

Rosina Peixoto wrote:

We use "you" to refer to people in general or to any person in a hypothetical situation.
"If you don´t want to fail, "you" must persevere".



No offence, Rosina but I find the general "we" in your sentence to be slightly irritating.

Nothing personal, of course, because "we" has long been used in this way, particularly in formal academic speech, but it is inherently ambiguous in its perlocutionary intention. The problem is that "we" can include those addressed, in which case it tends to sound patronising, or exclude them, which is just plain rude.

English has a long history of importing useful words from other languages so perhaps there's a case for borrrowing a couple of pronouns from Quechua: ñuqánchij (inclusive “we”) and ñukayku (exclusive “we”).

"You", of course, suffers from its own ambiguity because in modern English it is singular as well as plural.

To answer your question, though, I have no personal preference. When I'm translating and thinking about these things, I choose the most appropriate pronoun for the context, register, syntax and prosody of the specific phrase. Otherwise, "you" tends to be the safest option.

So there you are.

Cheers,

Giles

[Edited at 2008-05-27 14:01]


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Samuel Murray  Identity Verified
Netherlands
Local time: 18:37
Member (2006)
English to Afrikaans
+ ...
Depends on the text May 27, 2008

Rosina Peixoto wrote:
Do you consider incorrect the use of "they" as a neutral singular pronoun?
"What do you say to a student when they walk into the classroom?"


I do encounter the "they" in some spoken contexts, but (as a second-language English speaker) I still regard it as non-standard when referring to a single person. In speech it may sound natural, but on paper it still looks too much like an attempt to avoid saying "he/she" or similar.

And what about the use of "one"?
"It is unpleasant when one hears someone slurping the soup".


"One" can easily sound very formal, and so one must be careful when using it. Still, it really depends on the text whether "one" might be acceptable. I tend to use it a lot, but only if I can structure my sentences in a way that makes "one" sound neutral and not formal.

Don't also forget about "it". One can't use "it" for humans, but it is sometimes possible to dehumanify people, eg "The students, they" x "The student body, it".


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Marie-Hélène Hayles  Identity Verified
Local time: 18:37
Italian to English
+ ...
I pluralise where possible May 27, 2008

so I refer to patients rather than the/a patient. Where this isn't possible, I sometimes use he/she and sometimes switch from one to the other from one section to another (only where the style is very informal and this can be done naturally).

In speech I'll happily use "they" for the third person singular but I try to avoid it in writing, not because it irritates me - on the contrary! - but because I don't think its use has become generally accepted yet. I'm looking forward to the day it does, it'll make my life a whole lot easier.


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Jim Tucker  Identity Verified
United States
Hungarian to English
+ ...
Singular "they" was good enough for Shakespeare and several hundred other major authors May 27, 2008

These files contain a list of over 75 occurrences of the words "they"/"their"/"them"/"themselves" referring to a singular antecedent with indefinite or generic meaning in Jane Austen's writings (mainly in her six novels), as well as further examples of singular "their" etc. from the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) and elsewhere. While your high-school English teacher may have told you not to use this construction, it actually dates back to at least the 14th century, and was used by the following authors (among others) in addition to Jane Austen: Geoffrey Chaucer, Edmund Spenser, William Shakespeare, the King James Bible, The Spectator, Jonathan Swift, Daniel Defoe, Frances Sheridan, Oliver Goldsmith, Henry Fielding, Maria Edgeworth, Percy Shelley, Lord Byron, William Makepeace Thackeray, Sir Walter Scott, George Eliot [Mary Anne Evans], Charles Dickens, Mrs. Gaskell, Anthony Trollope, John Ruskin, Robert Louis Stevenson, Walt Whitman, George Bernard Shaw, Lewis Carroll, Oscar Wilde, Rudyard Kipling, H. G. Wells, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Edith Wharton, W. H. Auden, Lord Dunsany, George Orwell, and C. S. Lewis.

http://www.crossmyt.com/hc/linghebr/austheir.html


I'm just sayin...


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Jim Tucker  Identity Verified
United States
Hungarian to English
+ ...
Not "yet"! May 27, 2008

Marie-Hélène Hayles wrote:
because I don't think its use has become generally accepted yet. I'm looking forward to the day it does, it'll make my life a whole lot easier.


Not a matter of "yet" - it's not standard *any more* - used to be quite common.

(Do I repeat myself? Very well then, I repeat myself.)


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Steven Capsuto  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 12:37
Spanish to English
+ ...
Literature versus formal writing May 27, 2008

The past literary greats who used "they" with singular subjects were mainly people whose writing imitated speech or other informal English (in the case of dialog or first-person fiction), or made highly creative use of language (poets, etc.), and is no barometer of what was considered formal writing in any given century.

The "singular they" is fine for dialog, and I use it in my own everyday speech. In formal writing it is problematic because some clients will consider it ungrammatical. Since there are workarounds that sound natural and follow traditional rules of grammar, I tend to avoid the singular/plural shift when translating formal language unless the client specifically requests or approves it.

[Edited at 2008-05-27 11:39]


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Marie-Hélène Hayles  Identity Verified
Local time: 18:37
Italian to English
+ ...
whether "yet" or "any more", it's still not currently standard! May 27, 2008

Jim Tucker wrote:

Marie-Hélène Hayles wrote:
because I don't think its use has become generally accepted yet. I'm looking forward to the day it does, it'll make my life a whole lot easier.


Not a matter of "yet" - it's not standard *any more* - used to be quite common.

(Do I repeat myself? Very well then, I repeat myself.)


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Reed James
Chile
Local time: 13:37
Member (2005)
Spanish to English
What about repeating the subject? May 27, 2008

It may sound redundant at times, but I offer:

What do you say to the student when the student walks into the classroom?

This could be handy when the context doesn't tell you if it's a male or female student and the target language will automatically specify if it's a male or female student.

I frequently repeat the subject in contracts where pronouns or phrases like "el mismo" are used to replace it in Spanish and I think it will sound vague if I do the same in English.


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Jim Tucker  Identity Verified
United States
Hungarian to English
+ ...
Yes and no May 27, 2008

Steven Capsuto wrote:

The past literary greats who used "they" with singular subjects were mainly people whose writing imitated speech or other informal English (in the case of dialog or first-person fiction), or made highly creative use of language (poets, etc.), and is no barometer of what was considered formal writing in any given century.


I take your point that singular "they" is not standard written English today; I would, however, counter your argument quoted above: there is ample evidence for singular "they" in pre 20th century contexts that are neither colloquial nor poetic.

Examples here:

http://www.crossmyt.com/hc/linghebr/sgtheirl.html


(just a few here, for a taste:

1771 GOLDSM. Hist. Eng. III. 241 Every person... now recovered their liberty.
a 1845 SYD. SMITH Wks. (1850) 175 Every human being must do something with their existence.
1848 THACKERAY Van. Fair xli, A person can't help their birth.
1858 BAGEHOT Lit. Studies (1879) II. 206 Nobody in their senses would describe Gray's `Elegy' as [etc.].
1755 WHARBURTON in W. & Hurd Lett. (1809) 201 Nobody has yet written against me, but at their own expence.
1831 WHEWELL in Todhunter Life II. 112 Nobody will know the origin of pliocene, &c., till you tell them.
1856 F. E. PAGET Owlet of Owlst. 9 Nobody likes to be turned out of quarters where they have lived snugly and comfortably for scores of years.
1874 L. STEPHEN Hours in Library III. 333 Nobody ever put so much of themselves into their work.)


[Edited at 2008-05-27 15:00]


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Madeleine MacRae Klintebo  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 17:37
Swedish to English
+ ...
How about inventing a singular pronoun? May 27, 2008

Should be some combination of she/he/it.

But I'm not sure if my contraction using the first and last two letters is appropriate.


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Sheila Wilson  Identity Verified
Spain
Local time: 17:37
Member (2007)
English
+ ...
"you" or "they" (even for singular use) but rarely "one" nowadays May 27, 2008

Rosina Peixoto wrote:
And what about the use of "one"?
" It is unpleasant when "one" hears someone slurping the soup".


I really don't find "one" useful, even in a formal register. It always sounds stilted, pompous and old-fashioned, unless it's used by a non-native speaker when it sounds quaint. The Royal Family might make extensive use of it but I wouldn't. One wasn't born with a silver spoon in one's mouth, after all.

So: It is unpleasant when you hear someone slurping the/their soup


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Rosina Peixoto  Identity Verified
Uruguay
Local time: 13:37
English to Spanish
+ ...
TOPIC STARTER
"We" use "we" most of the times in our country. May 28, 2008

I´m not bilingual. Spanish is my mother tongue and I cannot perceive such subtleness. In our language "we" use "we" most of the times. It´s a way of getting rid of the self-centredness that the first person singular conveys. It also suggests a kind of collective project.

Cheers!


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