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Thread: Plural pronouns for non-binary people: would a neologism be a better option?

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    Plural pronouns for non-binary people: would a neologism be a better option?

    I was wondering- STRICTLY from a grammatical point of view....

    I have noted that many non-binary people are publicly requesting a change of personal pronouns to They/Them. (e.g. the musician sam smith)

    Clearly these words are extremely common, and are plurals. There is a lot of backlash on the nets.

    My feeling is that - no matter what anyone might wish- the structure of the English language is sticky - such that it's going to be very difficult for everyone to use these plurals.

    I would have thought that a neologism would be better... a previously undefined term. "S/He" would work in text but not verbally. I personally think something like Zhe or Zee which is short and rhymes with he or she would be good.

    An alternative would be to request the use of NO PRONOUNS.. e.g. Just call me "Sam". In written text, the only objection is the fashion for NOT repeatedly using a name in each sentence. "Sam was born XX, then sam sudied at XX. Sam went to university of XX, then Sam released his 1st album"... This would be repetitive but easier to parse than plurals.

    Also, 'they' can be the plural of 'it'.. and calling someone 'It' has negative connotations!!

    We do have singular forms of plural nouns.. e.g. Sheep, Deer, Fish.. but we don't have plural forms of singular nouns do we?? (maybe we do?)

    I fear this is going to be like the great esperanto revolution.. that never happened. Can / have we ever changed the rules of a language by effort of will?
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    From a purely grammatical point of view, “they” has been used as a singular pronoun for about the same time as “you”. Somehow people have forgotten that “you” is/was plural but can’t accept the same for “they”.

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    I can see how "You all" or "Y'all" or the Australian slang "Youz" is used as a plural form of You.

    Can you give an example of "They" being used as a singular pronoun?
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    I think it’s quite common when you don’t know the gender.

    -my friend is coming over.

    -when are they coming?
    -what’s their name?

    Some grammar teachers may protest, but I think it’s quite standard at least in the US.


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    Plus, if the queen can say “we”, then what’s wrong with using they for the third plural singular?


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    One doesn't like to use the 'royal' We.

    You are right about the 'they' as unknown/undefined gender....
    What about 'Them?'
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    Sounding very old fashioned is this just so some people can self identify as a third or of no gender? And therefore claim the right to be so named by everybody else? No problem there in most contexts but what becomes the formal position? Citizen? Or is that not important?
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    Quote Originally Posted by plant View Post
    I can see how "You all" or "Y'all" or the Australian slang "Youz" is used as a plural form of You.

    Can you give an example of "They" being used as a singular pronoun?
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    Quote Originally Posted by plant View Post
    You are right about the 'they' as unknown/undefined gender....
    What about 'Them?'
    Equally common:
    "So the doctor said it was just my age."
    "And what did you say to them?"

    Here's the relevant OED entry:
    2. Often used for ‘him or her’, referring to a singular person whose sex is not stated, or to anybody, nobody, somebody, whoever, etc. Cf. THEY 2.


    1742 Richardson Pamela III. 127 Little did I think..to make a..complaint against a Person very dear to you,..but dont let them be so proud..as to make them not care how they affront everybody else. 1853 C. M. Yonge Heir of Redclyffe xliv, Nobody else..has so little to plague them. 1874 G. W. Dasent Half a Life II. 198 Whenever any one was ill, she brewed them a drink.
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    As we all know, I'm a prescriptivist, for the most part. But when one of Simon's godparents announced that they were nonbinary and use "they/them" pronouns, I (slowly, because I've known them as "she" for decades at this point) made the switch. As for neologisms, well, people have tried gender neutral pronouns, and the only one that's stuck has been "they/them." I could list a whole bunch of failed ones--and I have known people who used them, honestly--but in this case, there's an English word that's been used for a thousand years as "single person of unknown gender" that can just as easily be adapted for "single person of nonbinary gender." I've come around.
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    The Germans use the same pronoun for single third person feminine, plural third person and second person polite.

    If the Germans can do that, we can use third person plural as a gender non-specific singular pronoun.

    John McWhorter said anyway that the modern you was originally actually just for plural accusative so I see no issue with adaption.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Gillianren View Post
    As we all know, I'm a prescriptivist, for the most part. But when one of Simon's godparents announced that they were nonbinary and use "they/them" pronouns, I (slowly, because I've known them as "she" for decades at this point) made the switch. As for neologisms, well, people have tried gender neutral pronouns, and the only one that's stuck has been "they/them." I could list a whole bunch of failed ones--and I have known people who used them, honestly--but in this case, there's an English word that's been used for a thousand years as "single person of unknown gender" that can just as easily be adapted for "single person of nonbinary gender." I've come around.
    I love the idea of a singular nongender pronoun, and I don't particularly like they/them (I share the OP's feeling that it is at least traditionally plural), but I also recognize that the tide is against me, and I don't feel strongly about it.

    I'm reminded of a similar situation back in the 1960s. My mother was office manager of a now extinct typoe of business called a "letter shop". They did things like mass and targeted mailings before the invention of things like Kincos. In those days, women were addressed (literally, as in addressing an envelope) as either Miss or Mrs. But sometimes you didn't know the marriage status of a women, and so these kinds of businesses used "Ms.", because it would have been improper to send a letter to "Jane Smith, 16 Main Street". At some point "Ms." came into wider usage as a non-marriage status form of address for women.

    I wish someone would come up with something similar here (the one I recall is Ze and Zir), but none have been widely adapted.
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    I’ve been in favor of singular “they” ever since I read this column in The NY Times ten years ago. I caught a bit of flack for it in High School, but in college and grad school I never had any comments about using it in my writing.

    My example sentence is usually “If someone wants to get from Union Square to the Empire State Building, they should take the 6 train.”
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    I wonder if there is LGBTQI grammar consensus meeting....???
    I would like to 'do the right thing' and use pronouns people choose but i really don't think it's going to catch on... for the plural reason.
    Examples of simple sentences as presented above parse well, but not in a longer format with multiple people being referred to. When you hit a they or them- you might be referring to the one singular non-binary person, or people as plural.
    I suppose if they/them was regarded universally as singular (and plural) for non-binary
    - the culture might change.
    If everybody can choose their OWN pronouns with some rejecting THEY/THEM .. i just don't think this will ever work.
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    Quote Originally Posted by Glom View Post
    The Germans use the same pronoun for single third person feminine, plural third person and second person polite.

    If the Germans can do that, we can use third person plural as a gender non-specific singular pronoun.

    John McWhorter said anyway that the modern you was originally actually just for plural accusative so I see no issue with adaption.
    I imagine different languages have different structures and perhaps easier to transition to these pronouns.
    I wonder if it is even more diffciult for gendered languages - e.g. german, french, spanish vs swedish, english.
    How did Indo-European languages 'evolve'.. from gendered to non-gendered? Doesn't make sense to me why any language is Gendered for inanimate objects. Who gets to decied when a new 'thing' is invented? Teapot, Wheel, Internet, Hard-drive etc?

    https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/List...atical_genders
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    Quote Originally Posted by Gillianren View Post
    As for neologisms, well, people have tried gender neutral pronouns, and the only one that's stuck has been "they/them." I could list a whole bunch of failed ones--and I have known people who used them, honestly--but in this case, there's an English word that's been used for a thousand years as "single person of unknown gender" that can just as easily be adapted for "single person of nonbinary gender." I've come around.
    Yes, I agree. I'd add also that there are situations in English when we want to refer to a person in the third person without specifying the gender (such as when we don't know or are referring to an average person), so that we use either "they/them" or "one" or even "you," such as "you never know" meaning "one never knows" or "a person of whatever gender never knows." So clearly there is a "demand" for such a word. And in the situation where we kind of don't know their gender because they are not clear about which it is, then I can't see a problem with adapting the one that we already use when we don't know the gender.
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    Quote Originally Posted by plant View Post
    I would like to 'do the right thing' and use pronouns people choose but i really don't think it's going to catch on... for the plural reason.
    Examples of simple sentences as presented above parse well, but not in a longer format with multiple people being referred to. When you hit a they or them- you might be referring to the one singular non-binary person, or people as plural.
    I don't know, having the distinction might be helpful, but it's not necessary. We have similar problems if you have a bunch of people of the same gender, or if you are talking to people in the second person, where we can't distinguish between singular and plural. I think usually it's clear from the context or we revert to not using pronouns. So when you are talking about football, you never said, "Peter, Paul, and Philip were playing soccer. He kicked to him, and then he kicked to him, and then he scored a goal," because it would not be clear who is meant by the pronouns. So I think that having "they" for either "he" or "she" would mean that we would use pronouns less.
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    Quote Originally Posted by plant View Post
    I imagine different languages have different structures and perhaps easier to transition to these pronouns.
    Actually, there are languages, called pro-drop, where you don't even need to have pronouns, so it's even easier. In Japanese, for example, to say, "did you eat?" "I did," the conversation can be like this (literally translated):

    Ate?
    Ate.

    So you never really have to refer to a person by a pronouns.

    Quote Originally Posted by plant View Post
    I wonder if it is even more difficult for gendered languages - e.g. german, french, spanish vs swedish, english.
    How did Indo-European languages 'evolve'.. from gendered to non-gendered? Doesn't make sense to me why any language is Gendered for inanimate objects. Who gets to decied when a new 'thing' is invented? Teapot, Wheel, Internet, Hard-drive etc?

    https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/List...atical_genders
    I think it is more difficult, but I'll let somebody who is a native speaker of a Romance language address it. In French there is the term "on," which can mean "one" or "we," and in certain situations the third person. But it's hard to use as a substitute for "he/she" because of the meaning "us."
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    Yes, on seems to be more used than nous. It is strictly a third person as its verbs all inflect in the way of the third person. It is the usual way of specifying gender unspecified subject.

    Taking an earlier example, if someone wants to visit the Louvre, they can take the Metro. Si quelqu'un veut visiter le Louvre, on peut prendre le métro.

    Dutch seems to have lost gender differentiation between masculine and feminine, but still retains a distinct neuter. So there is gendered and neuter in Dutch. Fortunately, it doesn't affect much other than the definite article (de for gendered and het for neuter). Dutch is actually not very inflected. It is quite close to English in that regard.

    The really bizarre thing about both German and Dutch is the way a girl is neuter. Het meisje or das Mädchen. Maybe they thought feminising an innocent girl was squicky.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Glom View Post
    The really bizarre thing about both German and Dutch is the way a girl is neuter. Het meisje or das Mädchen. Maybe they thought feminising an innocent girl was squicky.
    I don't know about Dutch, but in German it's because all diminutives in -chen are neuter. Das Mädchen is a diminuitive of die Maid, which is appropriately feminine. There's a neuter male equivalent for a boy - das Jungchen, the neuter diminutive of der Junge (masculine). And of course lots of other neuter -chen diminutives of lots of other non-biological things.

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    Quote Originally Posted by plant View Post
    I would like to 'do the right thing' and use pronouns people choose but i really don't think it's going to catch on... for the plural reason.
    This has rarely been a significant problem in the many centuries of using singular they and singular you. If a sentence becomes confusingly ambiguous, it is time to restructure the sentence, not worry about the choice of pronoun.

    Examples of simple sentences as presented above parse well, but not in a longer format with multiple people being referred to. When you hit a they or them- you might be referring to the one singular non-binary person, or people as plural.
    Exactly the same problem exists with "you" and even with singular pronouns: "I met John and Dave having an argument. He said he hit him."
    Last edited by Strange; 2019-Sep-20 at 12:11 PM.

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    Quote Originally Posted by KaiYeves View Post
    I’ve been in favor of singular “they” ever since I read this column in The NY Times ten years ago. I caught a bit of flack for it in High School, but in college and grad school I never had any comments about using it in my writing.

    My example sentence is usually “If someone wants to get from Union Square to the Empire State Building, they should take the 6 train.”
    I think the problem is that a lot of people who would be fine with that (where the "someone" is unidentified), don't like sentences such as:

    “If Sam wants to get from Union Square to the Empire State Building, they should take the 6 train.”

    But that usage has an equally long history as any other use of singular they.

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    And, because this is a science forum (and some people may be thinking, "why does it matter"):

    Evidence from 3 survey experiments traces the effects of gender-neutral pronoun use on mass judgments of gender equality and tolerance toward lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) communities. The results establish that individual use of gender-neutral pronouns reduces the mental salience of males. This shift is associated with people expressing less bias in favor of traditional gender roles and categories, as manifested in more positive attitudes toward women and LGBT individuals in public affairs.
    https://www.pnas.org/content/116/34/16781

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    Quote Originally Posted by plant View Post
    How did Indo-European languages 'evolve'.. from gendered to non-gendered? Doesn't make sense to me why any language is Gendered for inanimate objects.
    It's a shame it ever got called "gender", since there are many languages in which noun gender has nothing to do with biological sex - including, apparently, early Proto Indo European, in which there were two genders, animate and inanimate (with a dividing line a little farther into the "inanimate" than we'd now feel was intuitive). The linguistic advantage to having gender is really in terms of agreement - we can keep track of which pronouns refer to which nouns more easily, for instance.
    In later PIE a suffix developed that designated abstract or mass nouns, and that evolved into what we now think of as the feminine gender. Different Indo European languages have then done different things with the three resulting genders, but you can see that we didn't actually start off classifying inanimate objects as male or female - we produced gendered nouns according to various criteria that had nothing to do with biological sex, and it so happens that one gender ended up associated with male animals, and another with female animals.

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    I try to write sentences that avoid the deprecated pronouns. However, while the "he/she" construction may be awkward, I might try to use it maybe once per composition just to indicate that I'm aware that the discussion is open to everyone.

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    Quote Originally Posted by grant hutchison View Post
    I don't know about Dutch, but in German it's because all diminutives in -chen are neuter. Das Mädchen is a diminuitive of die Maid, which is appropriately feminine. There's a neuter male equivalent for a boy - das Jungchen, the neuter diminutive of der Junge (masculine). And of course lots of other neuter -chen diminutives of lots of other non-biological things.

    Grant Hutchison
    That makes sense.

    Dutch has a dimunitive construction too, which is always neuter and meisje falls right into that. I guess at some point there was a word de meis? The Dutch use the dimunitive quite wide. A friend of mine who is lives in the Netherlands recommended it as a way to get around not knowing the gender of the basic word.

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    Quote Originally Posted by DonM435 View Post
    I try to write sentences that avoid the deprecated pronouns. However, while the "he/she" construction may be awkward, I might try to use it maybe once per composition just to indicate that I'm aware that the discussion is open to everyone.
    Not only is it awkward, it doesn't address the issue of people who do not want t be identified as "he" or "she" (or even "he/she").

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    Quote Originally Posted by Strange View Post
    Not only is it awkward, it doesn't address the issue of people who do not want t be identified as "he" or "she" (or even "he/she").
    We could always follow Yivo's rule and use shklee.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Strange View Post
    I think the problem is that a lot of people who would be fine with that (where the "someone" is unidentified), don't like sentences such as:

    “If Sam wants to get from Union Square to the Empire State Building, they should take the 6 train.”
    I think it’s interesting that:

    People are resistant to changes in language.

    All languages change over time.

    I’ve sometimes thought that we might get used to “it” as a universal third person pronoun, but probably “they” is more palatable.


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    Quote Originally Posted by Jens View Post
    People are resistant to changes in language.
    I don't think people are resistant to changes in language, in general, so much as they're resistant to dictated changes...
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