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SHE /HE /THEY and HER/HIS/THEIR - a question of style?
Thread poster: Christian

Christian
Local time: 04:13
English to German
+ ...
Aug 4, 2004

The use of "they/their" in this particular case is considered ungrammatical/wrong by some people, whereas others say it may be used in spoken English. What do you think? Is it really wrong? Or is it even a UK/US thing? Do you prefer "s/he" to "they" here?

Examples with "her/his/their":
------------------------------
(1) Everybody wants to have HIS own car. (What about women?)
(2) Everybody wants to have HIS/HER own car. (too clumsy?)
(3) Everybody wants to have THEIR own car. (ungrammatical?)

Examples with "she/he/they":
----------------------------
(1) Everybody should have what HE thinks best.
(2) Everybody should have what HE OR SHE thinks best.
(3) Everybody should have what HE/SHE thinks best.
(4) Everybody should have what SHE/HE thinks best.
(5) Everybody should have whst S/HE thinks best.
(6) Everybody should have what THEY think best.

Thanks a lot in advance for your answers.


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Stephanie Mitchel  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 22:13
French to English
Social/political aspects Aug 4, 2004

Hi Christian,

A thorny question. "They/their" is ungrammatical in combination with the singular, but it sure is more inclusive, and since we in the US avoid the use of stuffy old "one," it really becomes a tightrope.

I'm in the habit of using "they/them/their" whenever I can by changing the singular to the plural if it's not obstreperous.

I've tried "s/he," "his/him/her" in the past, but clients tend not to like the look of it; "his or her" (and so on) has been more successful. Still, it feels like uncharted territory, and I would love to see some kind of standardization of more inclusive pronouns.

What do others think?

Stephanie


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Peter Linton  Identity Verified
Local time: 03:13
Member (2002)
Swedish to English
+ ...
Standardisation is happening quietly under our noses Aug 4, 2004

I think you are absolutely right and justified these days in using "they/their" in combination with the singular. Grammar should follow usage, not the other way around. If modern gender niceties require a common pronoun for both genders to get round the "him/her" problem, then let us accept "them/their" as a good solution, and standardise on that. Let us simply define "them/their" as being singular as well as plural, and put that into the grammar books. I predict that it will not be long before some book on grammar allows exactly that.

Like you, I also use "them/their" whenever possible or acceptable - you are not alone! And it is becoming more common - the first step to standardisation (or standardization). Incidentally, I think it is a great pity that we have decided (rather arbitrarily) that "one" is stuffy and old-fashioned. Otherwise it would have been an excellent solution.


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Jack Doughty  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 03:13
Member (2000)
Russian to English
+ ...
From an old fogey who prefers to be grammatical Aug 4, 2004

I think this topic arose from an answer I gave to a KudoZ question http://www.proz.com/kudoz/778407 in which Christian asked me if the "they" was permissible, and I said that it was, but I would not use it myself.
In answer to the question, I would say it is a question of style, or preference. I recognise that the "they" form is widely used nowadays, but I prefer personally to stick to the old rule where possible. I don't think it's US/UK thing, is is possible in both forms of the language, but is perhaps a little more common in the USA.
I agree it's a pity that "one" is hardly ever used nowadays. One can understand why; when it is used instead of "I", rather than to mean people in general, it sounds pompous even to me.


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Javier Herrera
Spanish
One more question. Aug 4, 2004

I'm not giving my opinion because I'm not a native speaker, I just want to read what others say.
I've got one more question for those of you who think 'they' is correct meaning singular: do you say themselves or themself? I've seen the latter, not really often, and it's sounds odd to me.
Thanks,
Javier


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Nazim Aziz Gokdemir  Identity Verified
Local time: 22:13
English to Turkish
+ ...
I'm not sure the switch to they/their is inevitable Aug 4, 2004

I'm sure I'm in the minority, but I don't think "his or her" and "one" are cumbersome, whereas "they/their" jumps out at me every time. And not in an "oh, cool" way; it's more like "oh, my, not again." It's on my list along with "speciality," "nucular," "I could care less," "Do either of you...?" "between you and I" and others. It's an admittedly personal and eclectic bunch of peeves.

I don't judge those who use "they/their," especially in casual conversation, but linguistically it seems too awkward to accept as the new standard. This is a useful allergic reaction for me, because the style guides I have to use when I'm editing won't put up with it.

Aziz

[Edited at 2004-08-04 16:22]


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Edward Potter  Identity Verified
Spain
Local time: 04:13
Member (2003)
Spanish to English
+ ...
Thon Aug 4, 2004

Jack,

I always love your posts. You have a great sense of humor.

We have neglected to consider "thon". This pronoun, meaning "that one" for the third person singular, exists but is practically never used, at the moment.

http://www.chiroweb.com/archives/10/17/19.html


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Jack Doughty  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 03:13
Member (2000)
Russian to English
+ ...
Thon? Aug 4, 2004

Thon? Ee, Ah never even 'eard o' yon!

(Yon: Yorkshire dialect, also meaning "that one", sometimes "that one over there". Presumably derived from "yonder".)


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Christian
Local time: 04:13
English to German
+ ...
TOPIC STARTER
Everybody is invited to give his/her/their opinion. :-) Aug 4, 2004

Javier Herrera wrote:

I'm not giving my opinion because I'm not a native speaker, I just want to read what others say.
I've got one more question for those of you who think 'they' is correct meaning singular: do you say themselves or themself? I've seen the latter, not really often, and it's sounds odd to me.
Thanks,
Javier


Hi Javier,

I am not a native speaker of English either. I just wanted to tell you that all opions are much appreciated, no matter whether English is your mother tongue or not. BTW, I do think that "themself" is definitely wrong.


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Christian
Local time: 04:13
English to German
+ ...
TOPIC STARTER
I couldn't agree more. Aug 4, 2004

Lars Peter Linton wrote:
Grammar should follow usage, not the other way around.

I agree. Grammarians should definitely follow everyday usage. English is not Latin - it's a language that is constantly changing.


Let us simply define "them/their" as being singular as well as plural, and put that into the grammar books. I predict that it will not be long before some book on grammar allows exactly that.

There are more and more people who use "them/their" in such cases, so I also think (and hope) that grammar books will soon allow this "ungrammatical" usage.


Incidentally, I think it is a great pity that we have decided (rather arbitrarily) that "one" is stuffy and old-fashioned. Otherwise it would have been an excellent solution.

Yes, what a pity that "one" is nowadays regarded as stuffy. I still use it every now and again, because it doesn't hurt to be a bit old-fashioned.


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Nazim Aziz Gokdemir  Identity Verified
Local time: 22:13
English to Turkish
+ ...
Everyfolk Aug 4, 2004

Christian wrote:

Grammarians should definitely follow everyday usage. English is not Latin - it's a language that is constantly changing.


Well, yes and no. Grammarians should not be out of touch, but they shouldn't turn into lemmings, either.

The problem we have is that the word "they" is unalterably plural. The reason it goes well with "everybody" when one's talking is that the latter has a plural connotation even though it's a singular word. Perhaps the solution, along the lines of avoiding "everybody" in favor of plural alternatives (as offered above), is to come up with a standard plural alternative.

Is "everyfolk" plural?...:-)

Aziz


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Christian
Local time: 04:13
English to German
+ ...
TOPIC STARTER
Everyfolk :-) Aug 4, 2004

Nazim Aziz Gokdemir wrote:
Grammarians should not be out of touch, but they shouldn't turn into lemmings, either.

I agree, but it seems to me as if they often stick to rules which are regarded by some (many??) native speakers as old-fashioned (example: so-called split infinitives -> to fully understand a text). The use of prepositions at the end of a sentence is another case in point.


Is "everyfolk" plural?...:-)

You have just coined a useful word. Congratulations!


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Nazim Aziz Gokdemir  Identity Verified
Local time: 22:13
English to Turkish
+ ...
Splitting hairs Aug 4, 2004

Thanks, but I can't claim credit, as everyfolk has been used before.

As for rules against split infinitives and end-of-sentence prepositions:

http://www.wsu.edu:8080/~brians/errors/nonerrors.html

Don't want to start a new argument here, so I'll just provide the URL and step aside...;-)

Aziz


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Sarah Downing  Identity Verified
Local time: 22:13
German to English
+ ...
I think it's (partly) personal preference Aug 4, 2004

I have to say that I agree with Jack - I don't really like to use "they" because it just sounds incorrect to me, so I just use "him or her". S/he kind of looks clumsy to me.

However, a lot of things that are initially considered incorrect pass into common usage and thus become acceptable, which may be the case for "they".

And yes, Christian, I agree too that it's a great pity that "one" is not really used (except by the queen!!:-) In other languages, such as German (man) and French (on) it's perfectly acceptable and rather practical too. Interestingly, whilst "one" in English might sound rather "snobby" these days, it's the other way around in French - "on" is accepted as everyday usage, whereas "nous" (we) is used if you want to sound elegant.

It's a very interesting discussion - English grammar can be such a pain, because there are so many different possibilities - it's just like whether or not to use plural with firms - I'm always wondering about that one, too (I've got the feeling that singular and plural are both OK).

All the best,

Sarah

[Edited at 2004-08-04 21:07]


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Christian
Local time: 04:13
English to German
+ ...
TOPIC STARTER
"Personal preference" is not synonymous with "ungrammatical". Aug 5, 2004


However, a lot of things that are initially considered incorrect pass into common usage and thus become acceptable, which may be the case for "they".


Good point. If you had said or written "Everybody wants to have THEIR own car" a couple of decades ago, everybody would have said that it's wrong to use "their" in such cases. Nowadays, there are more and more people who don't mind using "their" instead of the more or less clumsy "his/her"/"s/he" construction.

Modern books on English style do admit that it's got something to do with personal preference, but they never fail to mention that "some people may regard this usage as 'ungrammatical'". Well, I think this can be seen as a positive development: some 50 years ago -> "they" is ungrammatical/wrong here; today -> only some people think it's ungrammatical to write "they", whether you like it or not depends on personal preference; in ten (?) year's time -> "they" will hopefully* be regarded as perfectly grammatical as "him/his".

* hopefully:
This is another interesting word. It means
(1) "in a hopeful way" -> The little boy looked at her *hopefully* as she handed out the sweets.
(2) "if our hopes succeed" -> Hopefully we'll be there by dinnertime.

According to the "Dictionary of Contemporary English" (DCE) "this second meaning of *hopefully* is now very common, especially in speech, but it is thought by some people to be incorrect."

In ten or twenty year's time, I'm sure this will no longer be regarded as incorrect, because there are more and more people who don't think it's wrong to say "Hopefully grammarians won't ignore modern use of English".


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