RE: pronouns and portfolios--bringing it back tech writing

Subject: RE: pronouns and portfolios--bringing it back tech writing
From: "Brian Hoskins" <bhoskins -at- oz -dot- quest -dot- com>
To: "TECHWR-L" <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com>
Date: Tue, 10 Apr 2001 12:46:39 +1000

<<I like using "they" even with a singular verb. The only thing stopping me
is that its usage distracts the grammatically attuned. Occasionally I'll
use it, but I choose the audience carefully.>>

While I am quite happy to use "they" and it's derivatives, I fail to see the
need for the singular verb following it. When the English language dumped
the second person, singular pronoun ("Thou"), we dumped the singular "est"
ending. In other words, we say "You go" and not "You goest" when referring
to one person. The use of the singular "They" with its standard plural verb
would then lead eventually to the dumping of that stupid "s" inflection for
the third person singular, present tense, that has persisted in English even
though all other inflections have been lost.

The "they" form of the pronoun comes from Old Norse as Anglo-Saxon barely
differentiated between the singular and plural pronouns. Perhaps the
Anglo-Saxons were right.

The loss of inflections in English has been attributed to the merging of Old
Norse with Anglo-Saxon. Both languages had similar vocabularies but somewhat
different inflexional systems. When Norse met Saxon, they could understand
each other but there was a natural reluctance to stress the inflection, in
case they got it wrong. The one exception would be the sibilant since it is
so intrusive. (You only have to listen to the average amateur choir to
realize just how intrusive it is.) Hence, most of the inflections that have
persisted in English are those using "s". We modified our plurals to use the
Norse "s" rather than the "en" of Saxon, we use the genitive "es" (or as it
now appears "'s") and we retained the midlands dialectical "s" for the third
person, singular. (Note the AV Bible retains the southern "eth", in all
The plural is necessary, the possessive is useful but what is the need for
the third person, singular?

One other point. With the second person pronoun, we not only lost the
singular form but we also lost the case distinction. We say "You go" and not
"Ye go". This causes no problem in understanding so why should there be a
need to worry about singular "They" where case distinction is retained. The
reason for these losses is again probably caused by the reluctance of people
to make mistakes. The forms are "Thou" > "Ye" and "Thee" > "You". Remember
also that "Thou" would rhyme with "You" and "Ye" with "Thee". There would be
considerable confusion as to the right form no doubt which together with the
development of using a polite form in "Ye/you" as singular along with
"Thou/thee" caused an increasing sense of panic in peoples minds. This
resulted in opting for the safe "You" form. Now we have a similar confusion
over "He/she/they" so naturally there is a tendency to play for safety and
the lot appears to be falling on "they"



Brian Hoskins
Senior Technical Writer
Quest Software http: //
2/293 Camberwell Rd, Camberwell 3124
Phone: +61 3 9811 8061 Fax: +61 3 9811 8099




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