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Pronouns

The reader can make of it what they want.  This may seem like a perfectly reasonable sentence in English to most people, but it has a serious problem.  If the word “readers” is plural the problem goes away, but it’s singular for a reason.  The subject is the reader, who is referred to later as “they”.  In this case, “they” is not a plural pronoun, but a singular one meaning “he or she”.  It’s a common usage, but it’s wrong.  So what is the problem?

English is becoming more gender-neutral in response to the times.  Not very long ago the sentence above would read, “The reader can make of it what he wants”.  That construction is perfectly fine but not useful in today’s world.  The lack of a gender neutral third person singular pronoun has forced us to borrow the plural pronoun.  The result is confusion.

A review may be in order.  The pronouns (or professional nouns) in English are generally distinct.  Staring with the singular case, they are I, you, and he/she/it in the first, second and third person.  In the plural, they are we, you and they.  The only point of confusion is that you is both singular and plural, something which is solved regionally by using “y’all” or “youse”, among other choices, as the plural.  These grew up organically among people who thought such a word was needed.

English is a very adaptable language which accepts new words easily.  It started out as a peasant language without a lot of strict rules.  It wasn’t until Henry IV that it was the court language of the English Monarchy, slowly becoming a language of substance.  Rules came slowly, and even Shakespeare used his words in many different and conflicting ways.  Class distinctions were always very obvious in this fluid world, showing that language isn’t always about plain communication.  Rules can provide clarity in a language as long as they aren’t too strict.  We still have many different approaches to what we might call “Standard English”.

Other languages handle things differently.  German, for example, had a lot of odd spellings and at least one strange character, the “Esstet” ß.  The solution?  In 1996, a treaty was signed between Germany, Austria and Switzerland with new spellings and characters.  It was adopted by the German Parliament, and a group of writers sued to overturn it.  It all wound up in the Supreme Court, which ruled that from now on ß was out and ss was in.  I’ve never heard what happens to you when you yell “scheiß!” out on the street.

The problem I’ve demonstrated can be solved without all that.  As surely as the word “through” is gradually becoming “thru”, our language is always changing.  It happens one post, one article and one tweet at a time.

I propose that we start re-working our pronouns.  “I” is an interesting word, coming from the German word “ich”, which is never capitalized.  We started capitalizing it about 500 years ago for reasons that are obscure.  Similarly, “U” is beginning to replace “you”, starting in chatrooms and working though the internet.  A gender neutral third person singular pronoun “E”, replacing “he/she”, would round it out nicely.

I propose that we use the pronouns I, U and E for the first person.  The sentence I started with would read, “The reader can make of it what E wants.”  I know it looks a little strange, but it’s better than having subject, objects, and verbs disagree in ways that are hard to read.

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7 thoughts on “Pronouns

  1. I have mixed feelings on the changes especially by users of texting devices. I took a lot of English classes, and while I did not always get the A, I came away with the ability to write a short story, a business letter, and a resume. I think there will always be a place for the more formal rules of the English Language to remain enforce. Another change that has happened is that it is no longer accepted as proper to address a business letter to “Dear Sir” if it is going to a woman. I think we need a feminine equivalent that has no referance to madam which has connections with houses of ill repute. I think we need a feminine pronoun implying distinction and respect that you would give to a woman who is of great accomplishment in her life. I currently solve the problem with “Greetings:” if I do not know the gender of the recipient.

  2. The problem with “the reader” is ambiguity – is the reader a single person or an idealized group (audience) of many who may read a specific text? Similar to “people,” which is unequivocally many (plural), or class (as in the class of ’09). It is stylistically clumsy to state all possibilites, e.g. “the reader(s),” “person or people.”

    Trying to force strict logic rules on language makes little practical sense. Clearly, we are not wired for it. If we were, we wouldn’t require the redundancy of a plural at all. A number in front of a noun would suffice (i.e. two truck) and there would not be such occasional equivocations as “The class is planning a reunion, I hope they all come.”

  3. Bob: Yes, there’s a bigger problem than what I wrote about. Gender issues are always difficult.

    Bruce: Yes, it’s a clumsy construction, but it’s the one that I could come up with quickly which illustrates the problem. Language and logic are often miles apart, but usually that’s not a huge problem. When it starts to affect clarity, we do have a problem. I think you got me in this case! :-)

  4. I’ve enjoyed playing around with other languages and discovering what is built into their grammar and what isn’t. Many languages are completely gender neutral, for example Hungarian, Turkish, Persian and Mongolian all use one word to cover he, she and it. Chinese and Vietnamese do not inflect – the whole plural/conjugation issue is moot. In all the languages I’ve looked at ambiguity can be a problem, but without it, puns would be impossible, too high a price in my book.

  5. Pingback: The Great Vowel Shift « Barataria – the work of Erik Hare

  6. “Pronoun” has nothing to do with “professional” noun. “Pro” is a Latin prefix meaning “for, in place of”.

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