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Gender neutral third person pronoun

  1. Jun 30, 2008 #1
    The English language needs a gender-neutral third person pronoun that can refer to people. Without one, we need to find out either the name of a person or his/her gender or something about the person in order to refer to him/her in a sentence. This can be very awkward for several reasons. Either you always say both possibilities like "he or she","him or her", or you can violate grammar by saying "they" when referring to a single person or you can try to avoid it by repeatedly saying "this person". If you make a mistake and refer to a "she" as "he" or vice versa, that could probably lose you a job or something.

    There is simply NO reason why the genital attachments of a person should affect how you refer to them in a discussion. By that logic, we should have a different third person pronouns for people who lost an arm or a leg or something. They are missing something usually extended from a place on their body. We sure can't call them "he" or "she".

    In sum, I think this is a disgusting relic of our sexist ancestry and we MUST take action to get rid of this. I propose that we begin by taking action with our posts on PF. This problem is especially prevalent here because usernames may tell us nothing about someones gender.

    There are a lot of related problems like the word "Chairman" or "alumnus" or "policeman" and all of these are an embarrassment of the English language. We need to take action to resolve this problem and we can start on PF.

    Oh yeah, and a very prolific mathematician agrees with me: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spivak_pronoun
     
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  3. Jun 30, 2008 #2

    loseyourname

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    You could always use "one," although that technically isn't a pronoun because it does not refer to a noun previously used.
     
  4. Jun 30, 2008 #3
    I use 'it'.
     
  5. Jun 30, 2008 #4
    Except that doesn't refer to people (or large animals). I mean at least it is kind of rude.
     
  6. Jun 30, 2008 #5

    LowlyPion

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    Surely the language has enough complexity already than to have need to support such non-intuitive and ambiguous convention.

    No sooner do you create gender neutral pronouns than you create offense when in fact it becomes clear what the gender of the person or group may be. Calling a known "He" purposely then an "Ey" becomes an affront to their gender identity.

    I think Spivak should keep to eir own business and not muck about with everyday language.
     
  7. Jun 30, 2008 #6

    Evo

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    Ehrenfest, you do realize that a lot of languages assign gender to inanimate objects, right? So you need to know if a table, pencil, window, etc... are feminine or masculine.
     
  8. Jun 30, 2008 #7

    G01

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    How does "making up" a third pronoun violate grammar more than using the pronoun they to refer to people of arbitrary sex?

    You do know that other languages display gender differences in words even more prominently, right? Spanish, German, and I'm sure many other languages have masculine, feminine, and neuter forms of articles and nouns corresponding to intimate objects. Thus, those languages have a "masculine" the, a feminine "the", and a neuter "the." I don't see why English should be embarrassed by its use of gender forms compared to how other languages use them. Also, a table can be feminine, while a computer can be masculine. This is a property of language, not some hidden sexist agenda.

    Also, I believe that what you are suggesting is only a method to hide from our problems. People should focus on educating the world that people can be equally capable and successful, no matter their sex or race, etc.. We should not be focused on hiding ourselves from our differences. We should embrace our differences and accept that they make our society stronger, and forget about the falsehood that differences make any one individual weaker.

    What you are proposing is a method to have everyone systematically hide from the fact that peolple are individuals with differences. Don't deny that people have differences. Deny that these differences make some people more equal than others.

    On a side note, we don't need to "make up" a neuter third person singular pronoun. We have one. If only I could remember what it was...:rolleyes:
     
  9. Jun 30, 2008 #8

    LowlyPion

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    Good idea Evo. Let Spivak go straighten out the French.
     
  10. Jun 30, 2008 #9

    G01

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    Also, the prospect of removing words from language in order to prevent people from thinking certain things (in this case sexist thoughts) has been thought about before. I'm pretty sure most people aren't found of the idea when you consider where this logically leads us:

    Should we remove the word "black" from our language because it encourages racist slurs? Maybe we should call the color, "anti white" instead? Don't you just love those ole time, anti white and white films?

    Do you see why this is ridiculous? It is not the word, but the thought that one person is not as good as another that is the problem.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Newspeak
     
    Last edited: Jun 30, 2008
  11. Jun 30, 2008 #10
    This is a sociological problem rather than a logical one. People are resistant to a change in their way of thinking, even if it's illogical.
     
  12. Jun 30, 2008 #11

    D H

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    This is not an issue in German or French or Spanish, where every dang object on and under the table, and the table itself, has a gender. We are sensitive to gender in English precisely because it is largely a gender-free language.

    There is simply NO reason to get so overly hyped on gender and political correctness. Use of "he" as an generic form is acceptable English. Think of it this way: the word "guys" no longer pertains only to people with external plumbing.

    If generic "he" bothers you, careful use of "they" is grammatically correct. Tell the pedants to stuff themselves. Either "he" or "they" looks better than the silly constructs he/she, she/he, or s/he.

    A silly new word invented by a prissy academician will not catch on. New words tend spring up from the masses.
     
  13. Jun 30, 2008 #12

    mgb_phys

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    In proper english (ie the north) you have 'them' - you also have all those useful 2nd person singular ( thee, thar, thine ) that the southerners dropped around the time of Chaucer because it was too complicated.

    "Don't thee thar me, thee thars them that thars thee"
     
  14. Jun 30, 2008 #13

    D H

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    Do you really think this is such a pressing issue that you have to SHOUT about it?
    So call them graduates if you prefer. Many a person, regardless of their gender, prefers the hoity-toity but sexist term to the boring generic term. It's proof they (or their parents) didn't spend all that money on a college edumacation for naught. If you want to modify alumnus itself, you will need to invent a time machine so you spread your religion in Ceasar's time.
     
  15. Jun 30, 2008 #14

    lisab

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    Ooooo...I like thar! Maybe it'll catch on and we can all talk like pirates!

    But seriously. Ehrenfest, I agree with you about wanting a gender-neutral pronoun. I really like to be grammatically correct, so when I write formally (i.e., not on a forum!) I use "he" or "his" or "him," but it doesn't sound right in my head.

    Language is fluid and living, so it will change to be more gender neutral, I think. For example, more and more people use the term "fisher" instead of "fisherman" and these kinds of changes will become more common.
     
  16. Jul 1, 2008 #15
    As a proud chauvinist, I use "he".
     
  17. Jul 1, 2008 #16

    Chi Meson

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    When the common person uses a gender-neutral third person singular pronoun in conversation, they usually use "they." It sounds natural, and there is no "confusion" in communication. Descriptive linguistics says it is valid.

    It is far more irritating to read the alternating "he" and "she," as you currently see in all school textbooks these days. (Imagine the person with the job where they have to proofread every text to make sure that every other 3rd person is female).

    Similar to "ending a sentence with a preposition," English teachers had decided that a singular "they" it was against the rules. ("Something with up we shall not put.")
     
  18. Jul 1, 2008 #17
    I think "they" has a reasonably large already and appropriate purpose in our language and does not need to be extended. I don't think making up a new word violates grammar when you specify what kind of word it is and then use it according to that definition. Have you ever read "Frindle"?

    Good point. I used to speak French fluently but I totally forgot about that. Otherwise I would have soapboxed about that to in my original post. I think it is a terrible burden on the French language to have a gender attached to everything for two reasons. First, it makes learning French very tedious since the vast majority of the object genders are more or less arbitrary. Why is a car or "voiture" and house or "maison" a women? Why is book or "livre" masculine? Sure there are some rules to this, but there are always exceptions also. Second, it produces an inherent gender bias in the language-speakers. When you grow up in a society where everything is masculine or feminine and you need to memorize which is which in elementary school, it is probably hard to adopt a sex-neutral outlook on life.

    Some of what I was saying was more of a practical matter. I am not saying we hide our differences. I am saying we should only emphasize our differences in places where it matters. I don't think everyday conversations are a place where it matters that someone is male or female yet we are constantly reminded of that fact. I am not saying we eliminate the words "man" and "woman" from our language, but only use them when appropriate.


    Do you really feel comfortable referring to your friend as "it"?
     
  19. Jul 1, 2008 #18
    As I am a native speaker of English, I am a little too close to the problem. So I asked my wife. He or she used to be Chinese, although they is an American now. He or she pointed out that they is very commonly used for singular. For example:

    Grammar should describe language, not prescribe it.
     
  20. Jul 1, 2008 #19

    Moonbear

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    This issue has popped up in discussions of grammar at least as long as I've been learning grammar. It used to be fairly simple. "He" was used. Then along came the feminist movement, and that was no longer acceptable. I have days I agree and days I disagree. There are various ways of addressing it. One that some authors have taken is to switch to "she," which I think is the silliest way of doing it. Same problem, different gender. In a longer book with a lot of examples, it's easy to alternate which is used for examples without gender confusion, so that works pretty well for those situations and keeps things balanced if not completely correct. Some do go all out writing "he or she" every time they use the pronoun, but that gets cumbersome.

    My personal preference is to use s/he. Of course, that doesn't help if I then need to refer to s/he as her or him. But, that's one of those places where I'm comfortable with breaking grammatical rules (if enough of us do it, it will become a new grammatical rule) and using "they" or "them" as a singular pronoun. That's one of those nice things about writing. If you know the rules, and know that none is perfectly suitable for your intended usage, you can break the rules. It's not a grammatical mistake if it's done intentionally. Of course, if it's formal writing, I first search for ways to rephrase the sentence to eliminate the need for the pronouns (or any other sticky phrasing). Sometimes, that just isn't going to provide the clearest way of conveying your message, though, so that's when it's time to just break the rules.
     
  21. Jul 1, 2008 #20
    Here's another example.
     
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