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Singular use of the word "they"/"their" in English?
Thread poster: LegalTransform

LegalTransform  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 01:31
Member (2002)
Spanish to English
+ ...
Jul 23, 2008

Many times when translating into English from a language that uses a single pronoun for both the masculine and feminine singular forms (his/her) (him/her), the use of so many pronouns can be quite awkward in English. I just read a wikipedia article about the singular use of the pronoun “they” / "their"

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Singular_they

When translating in English, which option do you employ when you cannot find a more acceptable workaround solution (or perhaps you have a better solution)?

1) (use both his/her, he/she, etc - ) Ask the patient if he/she is feeling any discomfort in his/her legs and ask him/her to write his/her name in his/her diary. (awkward when repeated numerous times)

2) (use the generic “he” or “she”) Ask the patient if he is feeling any discomfort in his legs and ask him to write his name in his diary. (offensive, not politically correct)

3) (change to plural even though source uses singular) Ask patients if they are feeling any discomfort in their legs and ask them to write their name in their diary. (harmless most of the time, but technically inaccurate)

4) (use singular “they”) Ask the patient if they are feeling any discomfort in their legs and ask them to write their name in their diary. (seen as grammatically incorrect by many speakers)

5) mixture of two or more of the above solutions (seen as inconsistent)

As the wikipedia article states, some speakers of English find the singular use of “they” to be perfectly acceptable while others do not.

Excerpt:
"Singular" they: When I tell someone a joke they laugh. When I greet a friend I hug them. When someone does not get a haircut, their hair grows long. If my cell phone dies, a friend I am with lets me borrow theirs. Each child feeds themself/themselves.”

What are your feelings regarding this usage?


[Edited at 2008-07-23 17:34]


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Angela Dickson  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 06:31
French to English
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Like it Jul 23, 2008

I like this solution (the singular 'they'), as it is the least unwieldy of the available options.

HOWEVER, I never use it in translations, and very rarely in other writing, as I know some people assume it's a mark of ignorance or poor writing. I don't want to be tarred with that particular brush.

I tend either to use his/her, he/she when this is unavoidable, or to refashion the sentence so that the issue does not arise.


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Jim Tucker  Identity Verified
United States
Hungarian to English
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This construction had almost always been accepted in English - until the 19th century Jul 23, 2008

...Which of course doesn't solve the problem for translators. Still, you might want to have a look at this:

http://www.crossmyt.com/hc/linghebr/austheir.html#X1x

Singular "they" has been standard usage in English for 700 years or so; a brief summary is contained in the above link.

True, one does seek out workarounds.

One such that does not appear on your list: use "she" in all cases! You see this occasionally in academia, or in more radical publications.

[Edited at 2008-07-23 17:59]

[Edited at 2008-07-23 18:08]


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SilviuM
Romania
Local time: 08:31
Romanian to English
+ ...
Quite interesting... Jul 23, 2008

Interesting point of views... Well, I suppose that you have to find the... middle ground.

[Editat la 2008-07-23 18:05]


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Tina Vonhof  Identity Verified
Canada
Local time: 23:31
Member (2006)
Dutch to English
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Depends Jul 23, 2008

It really depends on the context. Generally if it's used only once or twice, I would say he/she. If more times, I prefer using the plural if possible but that does not always fit in the context. Then I may (reluctantly) resort to either (2) or (4).

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Jessica Noyes  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 01:31
Spanish to English
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Pluralize Jul 23, 2008

[quote]Jeff Whittaker wrote:
(change to plural even though source uses singular) Ask patients if they are feeling any discomfort in their legs and ask them to write their name in their diary. (harmless most of the time, but technically inaccurate)



Hi! Interesting topic and references!-- I avoid the "his" and the "his/her". When I can, I either rephrase the sentence, sometimes leaving out the possessive pronouns if the ownership is obvious, or making the sentence passive. Otherwise I pluralize *everything*, and, above, I would say, "write their names in their diaries".
It is definitely a dilemma for translators. One other solution I've seen is to alternate in the text, using "his" and "him" for a paragraph or two, and "her" throughout the next section.


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Ramon Soto  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 01:31
English to Spanish
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A comparable situation in Spanish Jul 23, 2008

This reminds me of a comparable situation in written Spanish.

According to some purists, you should always use a diacritical accent on demonstrative pronouns in order to distinguish them from demonstrative adjectives (éste/este; ésta/esta, etc).

In reality, this is optional, as there are no more than a few, very rare cases in which one such pronoun might be mistaken for an adjective. Even the R.A.E. has finally caught on, as illustrated by their new rule, pasted below. However, many users of written Spanish, and particularly translators and clients, don't seem to have received the memo. And yet many reputable Spanish grammarians have explained this flexibility for as long as I can remember.

Thus, in order to look professional and attentive to detail, most Spanish translators are reduced to painstakingly following the somewhat archaic rule in every occasion. This, for the benefit of those who haven't actually made the effort of educating themselves and staying up with the times. I daresay that the singular use of the words "they/their/them/theirs" in English is encountering a similar opposition from some, to the point that it may never be widely adopted in spite of its usefulness.

--------------------------

4.6.2. Tilde diacrítica en los demostrativos
Los demostrativos este, ese, aquel, con sus femeninos y plurales, ***pueden*** llevar tilde cuando funcionan como pronombres. Ejemplos:
Ésos son tus regalos, no éstos.
Aquéllas ganaron el campeonato.
Mi casa es ésta.
No llevarán tilde si determinan a un nombre.
Ejemplos:
Las preguntas de aquel examen me parecieron muy interesantes.
El niño este no ha dejado de molestar en toda la tarde.
Solamente cuando se utilicen como pronombres y exista riesgo de ambigüedad se acentuarán obligatoriamente para evitarla. Existiría este riesgo en la siguiente oración:
Dijo que ésta mañana vendrá.
Dijo que esta mañana vendrá.
Con tilde, ésta es el sujeto de la proposición subordinada; sin tilde, esta determina al nombre mañana.
Las formas neutras de los pronombres demostrativos, es decir, esto, eso y aquello, se escribirán siempre sin tilde. Ejemplos:
Esto no me gusta nada.
Nada de aquello era verdad.


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Patricia Rosas  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 22:31
Spanish to English
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Chicago Manual of Style's assessment of this problem ... Jul 23, 2008

As CMS points out, it takes some thought to find a way to smooth out the language, but it is important to make that effort for formal writing (and formal translations into English) because you can so easily lose credibility with readers if you do not.

From CMS 5.204 Gender bias . . . it is unacceptable to a great many reasonable readers to use the generic masculine pronoun (he in reference to no one in particular). On the other hand, it is unacceptable to a great many readers either to resort to nontraditional gimmicks to avoid the generic masculine (by using he/she or s/he, for example) or to use they as a kind of singular pronoun. . . . What is wanted, in short, is a kind of invisible gender neutrality. There are many ways to achieve such language, but it takes thought and often some hard work.


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Terry Richards
France
Local time: 07:31
French to English
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Ah but... Jul 23, 2008

If you follow the CMS guidline when translating, won't all that effort make the translation inaccurate anyway? It's one thing to rewrite original text to get round the problem, it's quite another to do so in a translation.

I'm in favour of the "singular they" as being generally the lesser of the evils.

If it was good enough for Shakespeare...

Terry.


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Astrid Elke Witte  Identity Verified
Germany
Local time: 07:31
Member (2002)
German to English
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Either "he or she" or "it" Jul 23, 2008

There are some contexts where "it" can safely be used. It often does not sound a very friendly option, but that does not matter too much in legal documents. Otherwise I use "he or she", if the case has to be personalised.


Astrid


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Robin Salmon  Identity Verified
Australia
Local time: 15:31
German to English
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Cultural differences apparent in source language Jul 23, 2008

I translate from German, where there is little accommodation of the feminine in the texts I come across. It always seems to be "der Kunde" (the masculine customer), that is used, for example, (although the form "die Kundin" exists, for a female customer).

I lived in UK in the seventies where the Sex Discrimination Act was introduced in 1975. I see it has recently been replace by the Equality Act 2006.

As a teacher combing job advertisements in the UK of the eighties, I found employers were not allowed to specify gender (advertising for "barperson, sales person" etc. "Headmaster" and "headmistress" were replaced by "head teacher"). I have since been highly conscious of using language which discriminates in terms of gender.

And so I have a dilemma. Do I use "s/he" to refer to a customer, when translating from German (as I feel I am otherwise possibly excluding women), or do I translate what I see and translate "er" as "he"?


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Steven Capsuto  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 01:31
Spanish to English
+ ...
Pick the best approach for each sentence Jul 24, 2008

I avoid the "singular they" in formal writing.

The ban on it may be a 19th-century rule, but it's one of the few 19th-century rules that makes sense. Also, while the singular they has a long literary history, much of its use in literature was in dialog, where I think it's fine. (Though as someone pointed out in a previous thread, dialog was not its only literary context.)

Below are the solutions I like:


Ask the patient if he/she is feeling any discomfort in his/her legs and ask him/her to write his/her name in his/her diary.


Here I'd go with the plural since it would cause no confusion.

Ask patients if they are feeling any discomfort in their legs, and ask them to write their name in their diary.

When I tell someone a joke they laugh. When I greet a friend I hug them. When someone does not get a haircut, their hair grows long. If my cell phone dies, a friend I am with lets me borrow theirs. Each child feeds themself/themselves.”



When I tell a joke, people laugh.
I hug my friends with I greet them.
People who don't get haircuts wind up with long hair / Not getting a haircut means your hair will grow long (etc.)
If my cell phone dies, I borrow one from a friend who's with me.
The children all feed themselves.

[Edited at 2008-07-24 01:33]


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Suzette Martin-Johnson
Canada
Member (2007)
French to English
+ ...
Thanks Jul 24, 2008

Thanks for all these posts, everyone - particularly Jim's link. This is always something I've used in speech but somehow I didn't know the background. I remember a friend who uses iffy grammar in general making fun of the use of the "single they" and wanting to contradict her but not knowing why....Now I've read all this info, I wonder if my fondness for it is somehow linked to my pre-teen and teen obsession with 19th century literature..... Charles Dickens and Jane Austen come to mind...

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LegalTransform  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 01:31
Member (2002)
Spanish to English
+ ...
TOPIC STARTER
Singular use of the word "they" / "their" in English Jul 24, 2008

Thanks for the interesting comments.


Steven Capsuto wrote:

Here I'd go with the plural since it would cause no confusion.

Ask patients if they are feeling any discomfort in their legs, and ask them to write their name in their diary.


This is what I usually do, but the problem I had today was this was a back-translation and the use of the plural here would have confused the monolingual reviewer who would have questioned whether there was an error in the translation.


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Rosina Peixoto  Identity Verified
Uruguay
Local time: 02:31
English to Spanish
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Which pronoun do you use to refer to people in general? Jul 24, 2008

Hi Jeff!

On May 27 I started a thread on the topic "Which pronoun do you use to refer to people in general?". All the contributions are well worth reading.

Here I am quoting Sidney Greenbaum and Randolph Quirk:

"The pronoun "they" is commonly used as a 3rd person singular pronoun that is neutral between masculine and feminine. It is a convenient means of avoiding the dilemma of whether to use the "he" or the "she" form. At one time restricted to informal usage, it is now increasingly accepted even in formal usage, especially in AmE.

Rather than use "he" in the unmarked sense or the clumsy "he" or "she", many people prefer to seek gender impartiality by using a plural form where possible in reference to the indefinite pronouns: everyone, everybody, someone, somebody, anyone, anybody, no one, nobody.

Everyone thinks they have the answer.
Has anybody brought their camera?

A similar use of the plural occurs with coordinate subjects referring to both sexes, as in:" Either he or she is going to have to change their attitude."
And with a singular noun phrase subject having a personal pronoun of indeterminate gender as:
"Every student has to hand in their paper today."

In formal English, the tendency has been to use "he" as the unmarked form when the gender is not determined: "Everyone thinks he has the answer."

A more cumbersome alternative is the conjoining of both masculine and feminine pronouns: "Every student has to hand in his or her paper today."

The indefinite pronoun "one" is followed in formal usage by the same pronoun for subsequent references:
"One should choose one´s friends carefully."
But AmE may also use the masculine pronoun:
"One should choose his friends carefully."

One way of circumventing the gender problem is to make the subject plural:
"All students have to hand in their paper today."


Hope it helps.
Regards,


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