Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

The loss of the grammatical number in the third person / Follow-up: Abuse of “they” as a generic singular

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Since publishing an older text on abuse of “they” ([1]), I have come to fear that the problem is far worse: the grammatical number and the feel for number is increasingly lost in the third person (possibly, elsewhere too). I suspect that the PC abuse is compounded by weak thinkers/writers simply ignoring questions of numbers and pronouns. Examples include an almost consistent use of “they” for multi-person and non-biological entities,* incongruencies that give the impression that the writer made decisions based on a coin-flip,** the extension of “they” to entities with a known grammatical gender and biological sex,*** a near consistent use of “they” with e.g. “everyone”, and the replacement of “one’s” with “their” as a companion to “one”.

*E.g. corporations or music groups. In the past, these have very often been referred to by “it”, which is also more logical in many cases. (Apparently, there used to be British vs. American divide here.) Notably, “they” might be defensible when it comes to e.g. a music group or a sports team in reference to a somewhat collective action or a situation where it is clear that we have a grouping of individuals, e.g. “Team X won. They mounted an irresistible offense.”; however, not when we have a more abstract entity or an action that is not the work of a similar grouping, e.g. “IBM increased its market share. It has had a great year.” or “Team [club] X is recruiting player Y to strengthen its defense.”.

**E.g. in that “they” is combined with singular or plural forms in a manner without an underlying logic, be it with regard to grammatical or physical number. The same author might then write “they were” (plural/plural) and “they was” (plural/singular) in two different sentences referencing the same entity or entities.

***E.g. “I met my cousin. They were happy.”. Note that this often happens when there is no sign of “non-binary identification” or similar. Certainly, the sheer number of instances is too large to be explained by such factors; certainly, it cannot explain the common use for animals.

A particular idiocy is the mixture of forms, as when a sentence or paragraph uses both “they” and phrases like “he or she”, e.g. “The white player moves first. He or she could move a pawn or they could move one of the knights.”.* (Also cf. “one” above.)

*While this example is fictional, I have seen at least a dozen similar examples since writing [1], most on Wikipedia. It also exemplifies the many, many instances where “they” is simply unnecessary and could have been avoided with a trivial change, without deviating from “gender-neutral” language, by using “[…] or one of the knights.” or similar.

If current trends continue (let us hope that they do not!), the third person will be reduced to “they” in just a few decades. Note: “the third person”—not “the third-person generic singular”. We will then have a system of “I”/“we”, “you”, and “they” for the first, second, respectively third persons. (Where the current calls for “he”/“she”/“it”/“they” in the third person.)

Where are the emergency brakes for language change?

Written by michaeleriksson

November 13, 2019 at 10:41 pm

One Response

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  1. […] like “one must eat their vegetables” are used over and over again. (See e.g. [1] and [2] for earlier […]


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