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Syntax Training | Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

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February 21, 2018


Virginia Sowell

It's a shame we can't devise a gender-neutral pronoun. "They" still seems clunky to me when used in this way.

Bart Rosenberg

Why are we worried about not offending gender-nonconforming individuals or addressing them politically correctly? I use he/she as the person appears physically. If wrong, they will correct me. It's not in my remit to be cognizant of their nonconformity.

George Raymond

I live in a country and work in a field where you can still go to a presentation with 20 people and see no women. One advantage of "he or she" was that it reminded readers that "he" could be a "she". But "they" is an elegant solution.

German lets you call a child "it". The feminine nouns "la personne" (French) and "die Person" (German) can refer to someone of either gender, and saying "she" in this context does not mean the person is female.

The world isn't yet ready for people who do not wish to be classed as either male nor female. Today, institutions and people everywhere expect everyone to be one or the other. Perhaps someday this distinction will go the way of "Miss" and "Mrs.", but we're talking about decades, not years.

Daniel Rawcliffe

The use of "they/their" seems fine to me.

Lorraine Green

Sometimes "they" and "their" make sense, other times not so much. In the case of Opponent it works, but why not use "its hand" or "its deck"? Also, one of the definitions of "he" at is "anyone (without reference to gender)" as in "He who hesitates is lost." It would appear that "he" can be used for anything non-gender specific. Using "they" and "their" for gender-nonconforming individuals seems awkward to me. I'm with Bart Rosenberg, use he/she as the person appears physically.

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Thanks for your input, Virginia, Bart, George, Daniel, and Lorraine. Yes, it's complicated, and English doesn't seem to have the perfect solution yet.

Virginia, I agree about the clunkiness of "they," particularly since it requires a plural verb. Had the title of the post been "They Pulls Ahead" (without quotation marks around "they"), everyone would have stumbled over my grammatical mistake.

Bart, my goal in communication--especially in writing--is never to offend when I can help it. The other day in Staples I referred to an employee, saying "He's getting it for me." The coworker responded, "She's getting it for you." A gender-neutral pronoun would be perfect in situations like that--no awkwardness, no error.

George, I like your point about "he or she" reminding the audience of the possibilities. Yes, the change will come slowly.

Daniel, thanks for weighing in. It's wonderful that some people are easier to please than others.

Lorraine, thanks for your thoughts. Unfortunately, English hasn't accepted "it" to refer to people. We even argue about using it for animals. But apparently, as George mentioned above, German lets us call a child "it." Regarding "he" used for everyone, that approach was the standard and the solution when I was growing up. These days it's considered sexist and inappropriate. Perhaps someday we will have a word that everyone agrees on as a singular gender-neutral pronoun.


Alfredo Deambrosi

There is a precedent in the history of the language for widespread acceptance of "they" as singular when we look at the second person.

"You" used to be only plural just a few hundred years ago (and only objective case, for that matter). But today, when using "you," nobody corrects you, telling you to use "thou" or "thee." The word "you" can be used for both singular and plural without any objection.

The same will happen eventually with "they." Until then, fighting to limit "they" to plural uses is a losing battle, just as fighting to limit "you" to only plural would have been a losing battle in the 1600's.

I have switched from teaching writing in a university to writing marketing content for a California tech company. To answer a question in the last paragraph in your post, I use "they" for singular instances regularly.

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Alfredo, thanks for sharing your experience. I appreciate your providing a historical comparison, and I agree with your conclusion.

I had not realized that you were now working for a tech company. Congratulations!



> German lets us call a child "it.

There may be some confusion. German does not let you call child "it". In German (and in Russian) unlike English every noun has gender - male, female or neuter. It means when you speak/write then every noun must be used according to its gender. So in German you *must* call a child "it". Also, you must a girl "it". Boy is "he".

Look at articles before nouns - "die" means female gender (also plural), "der" means male gender, "das" means neuter gender.





Better organized version of what I wrote previously

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Alex, thank you for taking the time to share this helpful information.


Jackie Tall

Alas, "they" when used to refer to a singular person of either gender will always grate on my nerves. To my internal ear, it's neither smart nor elegant in that context. Assuming "he or she" isn't an option, my preference is either "it" (which to my ear is more pleasing though nontraditional) or "they" in the plural sense.

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Hi Jackie,

To each their own! (Smile.)


Josh Roberts

Language can be as complicated as Math, the only difference I see is that Language can be offensive. hehe ;) Thanks for sharing!

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