Re: use of he/she/they

Subject: Re: use of he/she/they
From: "Tamminga, Ernie" <et -at- DSC -dot- COM>
Date: Tue, 12 Aug 1997 14:49:02 -0700

I sent the following off-line to Barclay, but since there's so many
instant responses here in the group, I'm re-posting publicly, so that my
two pennies don't fail to fall into the jar...

[In speaking about declaring a "generic singular"], I was being
partially facetious. But seriously, folks...

In a sentence like

"The end-user can obtain help by calling their account

I would personally consider substituting "his" in place of "their" to be
at least as WRONG as letting this disagreement-in-number go by.
(Because I personally think it's more mistaken to think that the male
pronoun "includes everybody" is a more serious language error than the
error of number inconsistency.)

(That sentence could be easily fixed by using "an" or "the" in place of
"their"... but I've often happened across sentences that wouldn't be so
easy to fix. Just can't think of a better example right now, it being

I was once ruminating on actually proposing a formal generic singular,
in which the SPOKEN words would sound exactly like the plural, but in
which the SPELLING would be different:

"theye" as the generic singular personal pronoun
"theire" as the generic singular possessive
"themme" as the generic singular objective

That's what I had in the back of my mind with my semifacetious remark.
With that usage, a sentence like "If the user needs assistance, theye
can call theire account representative" would be the correct usage of
the generic singular. (And it would have the advantage of matching,
"sonically", the way lots of people already talk, especially if they're
trying to avoid the false-generic problem and are willing to slip into
vague use of plurals in order to do so.)

A former teacher of mine, Raimundo Panikkar, often noted that English
(not alone among languages) does not have an "utrum".

That is, we have a "NE - utrum" (i.e., neuter... NOT-either); but we
don't have an "utrum" (i.e., EITHER...a true generic singular).

In actual practice, alas, I conform to the more usual solution of
rewording a sentence so that I don't have to use a personal pronoun when
I'm talking about a generic-person subject. (No problem, obviously, if
one is talking about a SPECIFIC person-subject, who is either male or

Ernie Tamminga
Director, InfoEngineering
Digital Sound Corporation
Opinions expressed are my own, and not necessarily those of Digital
Sound Corporation


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