• @DirkMcCallahan
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    1303 months ago

    My boomer parents will die on the hill that it sounds “wrong” to use “they” to refer to a singular entity. And whenever they bring that up, I always remind them that the word “they” has been used in that way for AGES.

    Example: “Whose umbrella is this? Did they already leave?”

    It doesn’t seem to make a difference.

    • sebinspace
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      563 months ago

      Watched a video that addressed this in good faith, because it is a tad awkward. They brought up and old term (because this isn’t new), “thone”, short for “the one”. And I’mma be real with you, “THE ONE, DIRK MCCALLAHAN” does ring kinda hard.

      • @[email protected]
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        143 months ago

        There’s a few things from history we should start using again, and this is one of them

        • Dojan
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          23 months ago

          Bring back Victorian era slang!! and I always say that!

            • Dojan
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              13 months ago

              Capes are bang up to the elephant!

    • @[email protected]
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      443 months ago

      It doesn’t seem to make a difference.

      Most people arguing about this are coming from an emotional place, so facts and truths don’t really matter. If gender in language is important to your in-group, that’s what matters. Not the history of language. Not the dictionary. The group believes this. If you reject your group, you’ll die alone. Or that’s what the brain would have you believe. We’re all a little susceptible to social influence on belief. Some people are just unwilling or unable to overcome it.

      Belief is social.

      For many people, emotion is the only truth.

      • @daltotron
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        43 months ago

        What’s craziest to me is that people so often adopt beliefs as to belong to some sort of in group, right, but won’t necessarily adopt the set of beliefs that actually immediately benefits them, ingratiates them to their immediate surrounding environment, gives them a more functional outlook. No, it’s way simpler, people just adopt the beliefs of what they perceive in their immediate surroundings. Oftentimes this manifests more as people locking themselves into increasingly insular media environments, rather than, say, having productive conversations with their kids, or allowing themselves to be convinced by their friends, or being able to even really talk on a surface level with their co-workers. Their immediate environment, their “in-group”, can supercede physical reality.

        • @TubularTittyFrog
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          3 months ago

          have you tried having these conversations?

          they don’t go so well IRL than they do in your head. the conservation you want in your head requires two willing and thoughtful parties… often there is only one person with that mindset… or sometimes none.

          I had at trans friend who I did talk about this stuff with a few years ago… but now they are a radicalized nutcase and they are more focused on being ‘pronoun’ police and making every topic about ‘their suffering’ etc. oftentimes sane people become crazy people.

          • @[email protected]
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            63 months ago

            I’m going to ignore the bit about your friend for now.

            I have had the kind of conversation where you try to change someone’s mind. That is, distinct from the more common kind on the Internet where you’re just fighting.

            It takes a lot of time and energy. You need them to see you as a member of one of their in groups, typically.

            I have had a couple friends who would consume a lot of right wing media, but we shared some things in common. One was also working retail, both were video game nerds. I think because we had those things in common, they saw me as a friend, someone in an in-group, and thus listened to me.

            If I had just sent them a YouTube video, they probably would have rejected it. If a stranger did, almost certainly.

            Unfortunately, when I was no longer in their daily life they sort of drifted back to what their dominant groups thought.

      • @TubularTittyFrog
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        -103 months ago

        yep.

        my entire life I got shit form grammar nazis for preferring gender neutral language. now i get shit for not asking everyone their pronoun. and my entire life I have had to put up with people’s shitty assumptions about me based on my physical appearance.

        it never ends. people just want to be angry and feel superior to others who don’t agree with them and browbeat others into submission, all the while being judgemental about how others look vs how they think they should look.

    • @MisterFrog
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      163 months ago

      “He or she” sounds and looks so cumbersome. “They” is the superior pronoun on style/conciseness alone.

        • @MisterFrog
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          Yup, either singular or plural. It’s clear from context because you always refer to them in a previous clause. The user did this, they… The class did this, they…

          The user must do this before first use, if he or she fails to… Ugh

          The user must do this before first use, if they fail to…😘👌

          They has been used like this for a long, long time.

        • @samus12345
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          43 months ago

          And what are all the other definitions? Words can have more than one, like “they” does.

    • @[email protected]
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      It was beaten into me in school that this is incorrect. “They” is to be used as a plural pronoun only. It’s commonly used in the singular, but it’s wrong according to the English teachers I had. In referring to a person, you must choose either he or she under those grammar rules.

      With that said, maybe it’s time for me to move into the future and accept that the meaning of the word has changed. I am confident those English teachers weren’t concerned about actual gender issues. Now, I think those issues are more important than the technical grammatical issues of English.

      I’ve offended people in a social setting by insisting that this is the correct usage, when truly it was just me being autistic and informal rather than political.

        • @[email protected]
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          3 months ago

          Fascinating! I didn’t know there was an article about this.

          This use of singular they had emerged by the 14th century, about a century after the plural they.

          That’s more than official enough for me!

        • lad
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          33 months ago

          Singular they has been criticised since the mid-18th century by prescriptive commentators who consider it an error.

          1. Hey, it’s prescriptivists again, ruining everyone’s day
          2. Look what’s actually recent (if three centuries count as recent, but definitely more recent than seven centuries ago)
        • Dojan
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          3 months ago

          My child dresses itself.

          “Ma, I’m a boy!”

          I adore how callous that sentence sounds.

      • @[email protected]
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        163 months ago

        It used to be correct APA/MLA formatting to use “he/she” when the gender of a subject was unknown. That was changed back in the mid 00’s I think. The preferred format is now “they” over “he/she”.

        That being said, people use singular they/them all the time in casual conversation. We just aren’t used to using it when we know or think we know the gender of the person. But let’s be honest, there have always been people that have been hurt by being misgendered. Hell, it was common for some racists to use they/them with black women in an attempt to dehumanize them. So this idea that the singular they is new is absolutely ridiculous.

        • @[email protected]
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          133 months ago

          Oh yeah, that one is absolutely terrible and I will die on that hill. Figuratively speaking.

          • mbfalzar
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            173 months ago

            “literally” being used to mean “figuratively” dates back to 3 years after the word “literally” began meaning “actually”. If this is a hill to die on, you need to use “literally” exclusively to mean “as written in the texts”. Common usage of “literally” to mean “actually” and “figuratively” both date to the 1590s

        • @candybrie
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          103 months ago

          No one uses literally to mean figuratively. They use it to emphasize regardless of if what they’re emphasizing includes figurative language. Nearly every word that means something similar to “in actual fact” undergoes this semantic drift (actually, really, etc).

          “She literally exploded at me.” is similar in meaning to “She totally exploded at me.” Not so much to “She figuratively exploded at me.”

          • Promethiel
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            43 months ago

            Nearly every word that means something similar to “in actual fact” undergoes this semantic drift (actually, really, etc).

            I looked into this for 3 minutes and found examples in multiple languages.

            Neat.

            New expression-insight remix into the human condition connected; We literally really actually feel the need to be sure we’re understood, no matter the hyperbolic lengths gone to, huh?

        • @disguy_ovahea
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          33 months ago

          Colloquialization. Get enough people using a new word, or existing word in a new way, and it will eventually be added to the dictionary.

          I accepted the inevitable downfall of mankind when “unfriend” was added in 2009.

          • Dojan
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            13 months ago

            But fetch still hasn’t happened. :(

            • @disguy_ovahea
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              23 months ago

              Gretchen, stop trying to make fetch happen. It’s not going to happen.

      • fakeaustinfloyd
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        73 months ago

        I’m curious when and where “singular they” was taught as incorrect. Coming from the Midwest in the 80s (not exactly a liberal or forward thinking place), I was taught in no uncertain terms that singular they was appropriate in many circumstances. And my teacher was old as hell, so her education on the matter probably dated to around WW2.

        • @[email protected]
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          73 months ago

          It must not be specifically gated on time. My instruction was rural East Coast. I’ve learned however just from the article posted in this thread that a singular third person has been in use for centuries, even recognized as such an official contexts.

        • @[email protected]
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          33 months ago

          Someone higher up this thread linked an article that singular they has been in use since the 14th century

      • @surewhynotlem
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        53 months ago

        It’s not correct though, it’s a style choice. Just like it’s not incorrect to avoid the Oxford comma.

        I know a lot of people have a hard on for Strunk & White, myself included, but this is one stylistic choice that is now outdated.

      • @captainlezbian
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        53 months ago

        I think of that like I think of the anti ain’t and anti Oxford comma stances. They weren’t entirely correct, they were enforcing the style of the time for educated use of English. Today educated use of English still doesn’t include ain’t, but it does use the singular they for people of unknown or nonbinary gender, and it uses the Oxford comma.

        The language keeps evolving and stuff like this is part of that. Hell at one point the singular they was far less controversial than the singular you

        • @assassin_aragorn
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          13 months ago

          The exclusion of the oxford comma is a really good example of grammar that’s a bit outdated. It’s far clearer to use it. Dropping it used to make sense when we used typewriters and ink, but in a digital world it makes no sense.

      • @[email protected]
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        13 months ago

        Yeah I told exactly one friend it wasn’t proper English and they were so offended. They were. So, so offended.

      • @Harbinger01173430
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        03 months ago

        Yeah, if I recall the English classes from my language institute, They is only plural and the X cannot be used to neutralize masculine/feminine nouns.

        • @[email protected]
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          73 months ago

          Right. And at the same time, language is an evolving practice. New words are created all the time. Maybe, this issue was worth it to change the rules.

          • @Harbinger01173430
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            13 months ago

            Madness. If you want to use gendered stuff, use one of the romance languages or German.

          • @Harbinger01173430
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            13 months ago

            It was like, one different teacher per every two months during a total of 16 months. It was the same in British english

      • Twinklebreeze
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        3 months ago

        Grammer rules are rooted in racism or classism pretty much every time. At least when they’re used to exclude someone instead of teach someone how to speak the language.

        • @[email protected]
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          43 months ago

          I’ve never heard this before. Would you have an example? Because if so, I’m about to get a lot less grammatically correct.

          • @surewhynotlem
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            103 months ago

            When someone says “you sure is” instead of “you are”, or wants to “axe” you a question, we are taught to consider them wrong. But they’re not. They’re just speaking a different dialect of English. Just like people from the UK call bathrooms “the loo”, and people from India say “do the needful”. There are loads of different dialect of English, and it’s racist to consider the “black” dialect stupid or incorrect. It’s not wrong, it’s just another dialect.

            It counts as a dialect when a significant number of people use a certain version of the language.

            • @[email protected]
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              53 months ago

              I’m getting the sense that correctness in language is a bit of a fool’s errand. It’s a relative term.

              • @surewhynotlem
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                83 months ago

                Yep. Language is only as good as it’s ability to transfer information. English is a good language (IMHO), not because it has good rules to follow, but because it can be flexible in order to transfer new ideas. Want to steal a word from another language? Want to verb a noun? Want to create a new word by gluing two other words together? Want to add a new definition to an existing word? Yes, yes, yessir, and bet.

          • @candybrie
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            73 months ago

            Well, you can start from the fact that language is a living, changing thing. The only real rules of the language are descriptions of how people are using the language. Even after they put rules to it, those rules have had to evolve as speakers change how they use English. It’s not like we still use Shakespearean English as the standard of correctness anymore.

            So, the set of rules that are written is just a description of how some people are using the language at the time. Can you take a guess which people’s use these rules are based on? You can bet it isn’t going to be the black people. And then these people can use these rules, which are just a description of how they use English, to say black people are wrong.

    • @DeviantOvary
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      It’s funny to me how easy English has it. All you have to do is use “they”, and if people think that’s awkward, they should see how difficult it is to navigate it in a language with complex verb conjugations with gendered nouns and verbs. It’s complicated to the point that non-binary people will still use their assigned-at-birth (if that’s the term?) pronouns, to save everyone - including themselves - a headache. There’s of course a movement to change the language, but it’s difficult.

    • @olutukko
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      63 months ago

      yet the word you literally is about multiple entities

    • @WoahWoah
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      They went with them and then they decided to take off and took them with them, so we met up with some friends and then got together with them even though they didn’t join because they ultimately wanted to go home.

      It’s less precise. That’s just a problem with English though. That said, just using people’s names more often isn’t that big of a deal and using gender neutral pronouns otherwise is, similarly, not hard and not a big deal. Nevertheless, I was referring to seven different distinct individuals in the above.

      He went with her, but then she decided to take off and took him with her, so we met up with some friends and then got together with him though she didn’t want to join because he ultimately wanted to go home.

      It’s still confusing, and the sentence is absurd, but you can get a better sense of how many people are involved with gendered pronouns. But no one talks that way, contextual clues would make it more obvious, and we’d use proper names in many of those instances by habit for clarification. That said, it would be easier if we just used a number-word in place of a pronoun. Thone, thwo, theree, thour, etc or something. Then we could refer to whom we mean with a numbered-pronoun to indicate agents. That would be the clearest way to differentiate agents in a sentence.

      And to be very clear, I have no problem using non-gendered pronouns, but the idea that it isn’t slightly less precise is facile. But, again, only slightly. And who cares if it makes people more comfort and seen?

      • @[email protected]
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        03 months ago

        Unless the people in innane sentence are the same gender and it’s back to the same issue. You exists and it’s not an issue for anyone.

        • @WoahWoah
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          Even then, whether “them” references a group or an individual is left unclear–as I noted. E.g., “you” vs “y’all.” Exclusively using they/them is mildly less precise, but people acting like it’s the end of the English language is silly.

          As I also explicitly stated, acting like it’s not slightly imprecise is facile. It could be worse, at least English doesn’t have gendered nouns like Spanish, Italian, etc. 😁

      • @[email protected]
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        -33 months ago

        You don’t even need a convoluted sentence like that, just now on the news the reporter was talking about a trans woman’s mental health problems and said “Jane’s parents were concerned that they may harm themselves”

        It is a bit of an awkward way of speaking

        • @WoahWoah
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          Yeah, and like in my own example, it’s easily clarified by simply saying Jane’s parents were concerned that Jane may harm theirself.

          Over and beyond gendered pronouns, the overwhelming amount of confusing sentences I read aren’t confusing because of genderless pronouns. They’re confusing because they’re poorly written.

    • @[email protected]
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      When my brain interpreted ‘they’ singular to refer to a unspecified so-far unnamed person or an already mentioned group, it was definitely confusing to have it suddenly used to refer to someone who had just been referred to by name. This was definitely a novel use of ‘they’ for me at the time and I don’t understand why no-one else ever seems to have this kind of confusion. I did get used to it but I don’t think it’s as universal as some of y’all realise.

      Edit: I just learnt the term ‘indeterminate antecedent’ from the Wikipedia article someone else linked. Thanks to them, I just got a little bit smarter. ;-)

    • @[email protected]
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      Since nobody has mentioned the actual reason for this phenomenon yet, the difference here is usually one of known vs. unknown gender/referent. (At least for practically all older speakers of English. Some younger speakers do seem to be able to use “they” grammatically to refer to known people. Changes in progress, woo!)

      Your example is a perfect one: in a question like “whose umbrella is this?” we have no idea what gender the owner is, and so “they” is grammatical for the vast majority of English speakers.

      Once the gender/referent is known, however, for many/most speakers of English (myself included), “they” becomes ungrammatical and the speaker must switch to “he” or “she”:

      “Whose umbrella is this? Did they already leave?”

      “That’s John’s.”

      *“Oh, they need to come get it then.” (The asterisk here is the common linguistic notation for ungrammaticality. This also assumes that both speakers are familiar with who John is. You can still get grammatical “they” after responses that refer to unknown people, especially with common gender-ambiguous names like Pat.)

      So, for anyone wondering why many speakers, probably including themselves (if they’re honest enough to admit it), seem to find known-gender singular “they” to be awkward/ungrammatical when supposedly “it’s been grammatical for a thousand years”, that’s why!

      • Cethin
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        63 months ago

        Alright, I made this comment in another thread but I’m copying it here. No, it has been used to refer to people of a known gender for centuries:

        https://www.englishgratis.com/1/wikibooks/english/singularthey.htm

        There’s not a man I meet but doth salute me / As if I were their well-acquainted friend — Shakespeare, The Comedy of Errors, Act IV, Scene 3, 1594

        'Tis meet that some more audience than a mother, since nature makes them partial, should o’erhear the speech. — Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act III, Scene 3, 1600–1602

        So lyke wyse shall my hevenly father do vnto you except ye forgeve with youre hertes eache one to his brother their treaspases. — Tyndale’s Bible, 1526

        • @[email protected]
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          I already mentioned that we can get grammatical “they” with non-definite/unknown referents (your first and third examples), and in the second example Shakespeare is clearly referring to all mothers with “them”, so none of these are counterexamples to my generalization above. I think you’ll be hard pressed to find many examples with a specific, definite antecedent (though it is possible, of course - grammaticality is a spectrum, after all).

          This distinction, as well as the fact that modern speakers are showing various innovative uses of “they”, has been well known for decades in the linguistic literature.

          It kinda grinds my gears when people intentionally (or maybe just ignorantly in this case) misconstrue linguistic data to support their political positions, and that includes all of the boneheads acting like singular “they” isn’t a thing at all for their own nefarious purposes as well.

          It doesn’t matter that English hasn’t had specific singular “they” until Gen Z. That’s just a fact of history and language, and has (or at least should have) nothing to do with the rights of non-binary people.

          Stop using bullshit linguistic data to try to justify your political positions! All of you! This is how we get Hindu nationalists justifying their oppression of Muslims with ridiculous claims that Sanskrit is the original human language. Language is just language!

          Edit: I just went and read your other thread, and it does appear that you’re just being disingenuous at this point, or at least doubling down after being proved incorrect. Your own source pointed out that Shakespeare would not have used “they” with specific individuals. Thymos is completely (and demonstrably) correct.

          • Cethin
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            23 months ago

            I already mentioned that we can get grammatical “they” with non-definite/unknown referents (your first and third examples)

            The gender is known though. What a weird distinction to make that it’s talking about an abstract gendered person rather than concrete. I don’t know why the grammar would make that distinction (nor do I think it does).

            in the second example Shakespeare is clearly referring to all mothers with “them”

            Sure, but it’s in the singular. It’s “a mother” as the subject, not mothers.

            none of these are counterexamples to my generalization above. I think you’ll be hard pressed to find many examples with a specific, definite antecedent (though it is possible, of course - grammaticality is a spectrum, after all).

            The argument that is almost always made is that “they can’t be singular.” That argument is clearly bogus. Sure, maybe it historically hasn’t been used for a particular subject, but that’s a fairly minor grammatical shift. If we’re going to argue that’s wrong because it isn’t historically accepted then we probably need to speak a totally different version of English than we do because it has made much larger shifts than that in the past.

            • @[email protected]
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              03 months ago

              What a weird distinction to make that it’s talking about an abstract gendered person rather than concrete. I don’t know why the grammar would make that distinction (nor do I think it does).

              Then you’re gonna be absolutely gobsmacked by the other grammatical distinctions that exist across the world’s languages.

              It doesn’t matter if you know why the grammar would make that distinction or not - the distinction exists, and is widely accepted in the linguistic literature (as cited above) whether you think it does or not.

              The argument that is almost always made is that “they can’t be singular.”

              I’m not sure what that has to do with our conversation, since I’ve never made that claim (and neither did Thymos). If that’s what you’re basing your argument on here, then that’s a pretty egregious strawman of my position.

              Sure, maybe it historically hasn’t been used for a particular subject, but that’s a fairly minor grammatical shift.

              And yet it exists nonetheless, rendering your “correction” of my original comment (and your “correction” of Thymos’s comments in the other thread, for that matter) inaccurate and misleading.

              If we’re going to argue that’s wrong because it isn’t historically accepted then we probably need to speak a totally different version of English than we do because it has made much larger shifts than that in the past.

              I haven’t argued that anything is “wrong” other than your description of the historical use of English pronouns. Linguistics is descriptive, not normative, which means that the historical facts of English have no bearing whatsoever on what we “probably need” to do.

      • Dojan
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        23 months ago

        Once the gender/referent is known, however, for many/most speakers of English (myself included), “they” becomes ungrammatical and the speaker must switch to “he” or “she”:

        I must be one of these “younger” people because I don’t get this. I have no problem referring to people as “they.” Sometimes I do so because the gender is irrelevant, sometimes to obfuscate who I’m talking about, and sometimes because they might not identify within the s/he binary.

        What I don’t get is, how can knowing the gender suddenly make it difficult to use a neutral term, if it worked before?

        • @[email protected]
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          Sometimes I do so because the gender is irrelevant

          This seems to be part of the pathway of change that has led to the widespread adoption of specific singular “they” among younger speakers, and there’s some empirical evidence supporting this.

          What I don’t get is, how can knowing the gender suddenly make it difficult to use a neutral term, if it worked before?

          This is just one of those arbitrary rules that often exist in language, like how in many languages neuter/inanimate nouns can’t act as the subject of a sentence due to what’s called an “animacy restriction”.

          For this specific phenomenon (the “older” ungrammaticality of definite singular they vs. the “younger” grammaticality of it), this recent paper argues that this is due to a difference in obligatoriness of morphosyntactic gender features. The paper is a bit technical if you don’t have a linguistic background, but the basic argument is that in older varieties of English, gender features must be obligatorily expressed in the morphosyntactic derivation if they are known, while in younger varieties, this expression seems to be optional, and therefore free variation between he/they and she/they is allowed by the grammar.

          So, “It’s John’s. They need to come get it” is ungrammatical for older speakers for not obligatorily expressing the gender feature once it’s known, while it’s perfectly fine for younger speakers for whom expressing that feature seems to be optional in the grammar.

          Maybe this analogy will help: Let’s say you meet someone, and you ask them “Do you have a cat?”. Note that you’ve used the singular here, though it’s acting number-neutral in this context. If they respond “I have two”, then it will immediately become ungrammatical for you to continue to use the number-neutral singular and ask “Does your cat like fish?”

          Once you have access to the information that there’s more than one cat, then the arbitrary rules of English grammar require that knowledge to immediately be reflected in the morphosyntactic structure of your sentences from then on. And this makes no independent, logical sense, because there are tons of languages out there that don’t have plurality distinctions. But, English does, and so to speak grammatical English (for now), you have to use plural morphology to refer to more than one entity.

          It’s the same for “older” speakers of English - just like it’s ungrammatical for you to continue to use the number-neutral singular once you know that there’s a “plural number feature” in the linguistic context, for older speakers of English it’s ungrammatical for them to continue to use the gender-neutral “they” once they know that there’s a “masculine gender feature” in the linguistic context.

          Also, it’s important to note that this term “ungrammatical” is descriptive, not prescriptive - it’s not saying that it’s not “proper” or “correct” according to some arbitrary standard that someone decided on in the 1800s, but rather that’s literally not how those speakers’ mental grammars work. While it may seem illogical (and even regressive from a modern political perspective), every natural human language is composed of arbitrary rules that often seem illogical. Like how the past tense of “go” is the completely unrelated past tense of the older English verb “to wend”, “went”. Or how the past tense of the verb “can” isn’t “could” anymore – that’s reserved for modal usage now in most English dialects – it’s the completely awkward phrase “was able to”.

          That doesn’t mean that we can’t, or shouldn’t, try to accommodate non-binary people of course, as is unfortunately often argued, but it does mean that, contrary to what I commonly see people say on the internet, doing so for these speakers does require a constant, concerted effort to consciously override their mental grammars.

          • Dojan
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            23 months ago

            Maybe this analogy will help: Let’s say you meet someone, and you ask them “Do you have a cat?”. Note that you’ve used the singular here, though it’s acting number-neutral in this context. If they respond “I have two”, then it will immediately become ungrammatical for you to continue to use the number-neutral singular and ask “Does your cat like fish?”

            This helped a lot. It is true that I do not feel this way about “they”, but it does put things into perspective. Thank you.

            That doesn’t mean that we can’t, or shouldn’t, try to accommodate non-binary people of course, as is unfortunately often argued, but it does mean that, contrary to what I commonly see people say on the internet, doing so for these speakers does require a constant, concerted effort to consciously override their mental grammars.

            This is true also when someone you’ve known for a while transitions, or changes their name (like in the case of marriage, or just a regular name-change). Most people are okay with you tripping up, it’s expected even. It’s just when it’s done in bad faith that it becomes an issue.

      • @[email protected]
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        23 months ago

        “They” also refers to plurality. In the case of an individual having either both or neither and you aren’t trying to be disrespectful with “it” then it’s not confusing at all because it’s accurate.

        • @[email protected]
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          3 months ago

          That’s not relevant to our conversation here - we’re not talking about how language should be used (which linguistics, as an empirical/rationalist science, has nothing to say about), we’re talking about how it is used.