"they" and a bit of hyperbole?

Subject: "they" and a bit of hyperbole?
From: Matt Hicks <matt -at- UNIDATA -dot- UCAR -dot- EDU>
Date: Wed, 1 Jun 1994 16:19:11 -0600

I wrote:

>>Oh, and I find "they/their" to be the best substitute for he/she/his/her.
>>As was noted in a previous post, this usage has been common for
>>centuries, and therefore, it is readily understood (readers readily
>>understand it?).

And then Sue Stewart wrote:

% I did an informal poll of users and found that the use of
%"they/them/their" as a singular pronoun was profoundly disturbing and
% caused them to doubt the quality of the documentation due to the
% obvious grammatical incorrectness. Now, I may have an extremely educated
% group of users here, but I agree with them. The use of "they" as a
% singular makes my skin crawl!

Now I write:

"...profoundly disturbing..."? Your users were losing sleep over it,
then? Come now, I doubt that anyone read a manual and said, "I liked it
for the most part, but I found the use of "they" in the singular to be
profoundly disturbing." Perhaps you asked them to fill out a survey:

Choose the response that best describes your opinion of the use of
"they" as a singular pronoun:

_____I love it _____I don't mind it ____I find it profoundly

I don't doubt that some people, particularly rigid grammarians, swoon
when they sight what they have been taught is an inappropriate use, but I
_do_ doubt that most people would even notice the "lack of agreement" if
one were to use "they" judiciously in their writing. Bear in mind that
when it comes to reading, writers and editors do not fall into the pool
of "most people". Your users may be "extremely educated"; they have at
least had an antiquated, arbitrary grammar "rule" drilled into their
skulls. How many users did you poll? How many mentioned
"they/their/them"? How were they asked? That is, did you ask a leading
question about "they/etc." or did you present them with a document that
used this construction and (without pointing out the use) ask them to
comment on the document? If the former, I don't think your findings carry
much weight.

This is an issue that we need to come to terms with. When users approach our
docs, most of them will bring some sort of social/cultural baggage: they
will be wrapped up in political correctness, they will be feminists, they
will be socially and culturally "aware"--call it what you will, it will color
the way they view what we write. Therefore we need to find a satisfactory
substitute for gender-specific pronouns. As I argued before, I find all the
combination substitutes (s/he, he or she, (s)he) ugly and distracting--
speedbumps on the information avenue. As I see it, these are our choices:

* we can use these awkward constructions (I'd like to see some data on
how users interpret, or even read, these mutations);

* we can coin a gender-neutral pronoun (with which we then have to
acquaint the readers of the world);

* we can write around it (eliminating the third person entirely--let's
just keep this between you and me--or only allowing users to do things in
groups like joggers in Central Park);

* we can make sure that only One or the User (documentation superheroes
who fight for TrueType, justification, and the Garamond way) ever does
anything with our products;

* or we can reacquaint users with the usage once common in their native
tongue, a construction that they probably use several times a day in
speech anyway.

The main benefit to using "they/them/their" is that, as mentioned (and as
even many detractors agree), this construction is regularly used in speech
and therefore relatively easy for readers to acclimate to. How many people
do you know who say "ess slash he", and how long do they have to hide in
their cubicles until the snickering dies down? Hell, we've got users who
accept that "transition" is a verb and that "functionality" is a word,
how hard could it be to get them used to a written construction that they
hear and use all the time in speech? Perhaps we will be releasing the
English-speaking people of the world from a horrible burden of guilt
associated with using "they" as a singular pronoun in speech. They will
begin to see that there is nothing unnatural about this construction,
that they are all right, they are normal. Yes, I can see it now! The
streets will be filled with people coming out of their grammatical closets
and joining together for a they-pride parade. But I digress (to say the
least). :-)

Perhaps unbelievably, I could go on. But I'll try to bring this to a
close. Sue P. Stewart (perhaps a distant cousin of Soupy Sales? ;-)
closed by saying:

% Shall we begin using "ain't"? It's been used for centuries and is
% readily understood, too! ;-) suepstewrt -at- aol -dot- com

I'll add:

Ah, but unlike "they/them/their", "ain't" has _never_ seen accepted use
in educated writing (except where it is used to indicate dialectical
speech), and its accepted forms (aren't and isn't) serve their
intended purpose without attendant controversy. Neither has "ain't" the
historical roots of "they/etc.", being first noted (according to my
sources) only in the late 1700s--centuries, yes, but just barely.

Word o'the day: (discovered while researching "ain't") ankyloglossia:
(ang-kuh-low-gloss-ee-a) a noun meaning "tongue tie". Ex.: When Matt met
supermodel Claudia Schiffer, for the first time in his life he found
himself suffering an acute case of ankyloglossia.

Matt Hicks, Tech. Writer, Unidata * I may not agree with what you
Boulder, CO, (303)497-8676, ******* say, but I'll defend to the
matt -at- unidata -dot- ucar -dot- edu ************* death my right to mock you.

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